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Filson – Brand History, Philosophy, and Iconic Products

While a renewed interest in heritage brands really took hold five to ten years ago (right around the time people in Brooklyn started dressing like lumberjacks while eating fancy pickles), Filson has been quietly setting the standard for rugged clothes and gear (often imitated, never duplicated) for 120 years.

Filson’s History and Philosophy

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Founder C.C. Filson. Image via Filson.

Born in 1850, C.C. Filson moved to Seattle, Washington in the 1890s, and his timing was perfect–not only was his Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers poised to sell all manner of goods to prospectors stocking in supplies as they headed North to Gold Rush territory, but this was a beatific time in the Pacific Northwest before coffee was taken too seriously. From Filson’s 1914 catalog:

To our customers: if a man is going North, he should come to us for his outfit, because we have obtained our ideas of what is best to wear in that country from the experience of the man from the North — not merely one — but hundreds of them. Our materials are the very best obtainable, for we know that the best is none too good and that quality is of vital importance. You can depend absolutely upon our goods both as to material and workmanship.

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Vintage Filson Ads. Image via Duct Tape Marketing.

Iconic Products

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Filson’s Mackinaw Cruiser. Image via Filson.

There’s simply no denying that, 1) Filson makes many of the Holy Grail objects in the Heddels universe, and 2), is renowned for manufacturing goods of the highest quality, standing behind every purchase forever, and doing all of it in the good ol’ U.S. of A., and 3), number two probably has a lot to do with number one.

Made In The U.S.A doesn’t always mean superior quality (regardless of brewing provenance, Bud Light is poison), but it does usually guarantee that goods and the employees who make them are treated with dignity and fairly compensated.

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Filson’s Tin Packer Coat. Image via Filson

Does that somehow imbue their timeless offerings like the Tin Packer Coat, Mackinaw Cruiser, and Original 256 Briefcase with something akin to a…soul? I for one say yes, and believe that’s why legit outdoor enthusiasts and the more casual workwear-as-fashion types alike continue to embrace Filson and champion their old favorites and new releases with equal passion.

Filson Today

However, make no mistake–Filson is so not a mom-and-pop indie outfit holding on to its roots. At least not since 1970, when the Filson family sold to a former distributor who held fast to company traditions (eschewing use of that new-fangled Velcro all the kids were talking about), and expanded Filson’s product line from 35 to 250 items, designing everything himself (with a little help from the company archives).

Flash forward to 2005 when private equity group Brentwood Associates (could a name be any more dead-eyed?) and a former Ralph Lauren exec bought the brand, only to sell it once again in 2012 to Bedrock Manufacturing, owners of Shinola and Fossil, two brands that, in my opinion, have helped turned the word brand into a dirty word. (A quartz watch by any other name…)

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The Filson Jeep – Why not tape 40 grand to the hood of a Wrangler? Image via Jalopnik.

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The Chelan Snack Table. Image via Filson.

And while Filson today is far more a “lifestyle” company than North Country Outfitter, with their own signature model Jeep and something called the Chelan Snack Table (could there be a less rugged word than “snack?”), Filson has shown uncommon taste and restraint in expanding their offerings. (Remember when Ambercrombie & Fitch sold “excursion goods” before becoming the brick and mortar embodiment of a Seventeen Magazine perfume ad?)

Characteristics of Filson Products

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Filson’s Original 256 Briefcase – Before

Filson goods can largely be characterized by a few key ingredients like rugged cotton twill, hefty bridle leather, and dense virgin wool, managing to create a multitude of beautifully utilitarian products largely inspired by that limited palette. (So I can certainly forgive them the occasional Snack Table, though if said table patinas as enviably well as bags like their Original Briefcase, I would be only too happy to eat Triscuits and sliced Velveeta while seated at it.)

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Filson’s Original 258 Briefcase – Way, Way, Way After

Speaking of that briefcase, I had the chance to schlep my stuff around in one back when I lived in New York City (the stuff-schlepping capital of the world), and I can tell you, no matter what I put in or did to it, it defied breaking in…almost taunted me to be more careless and even rest it on the subway floor (oh, the humanity)…it resented aging more than a Real Housewife. I’d seen pictures online of beautifully battered examples (bags, not Real Housewives), specimens worthy of display on a high shelf in a Double RL store. Mine was a long, long, long way from that.

It did soften ever so slightly, I’m guessing out of pure courtesy, and the East Coast friend I trusted to its care (packing for cross-country travel will cause a man to make difficult choices) assures me it remains in-use, unmarred, and seems to prefer Hudson County to the Upper West Side (though who could blame it?). This durability is a Filson hallmark, so it’s no surprise that Filson duds and goods are usually more expensive on the “secondary market” (eBay, Etsy, etc.) than they were brand new.

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The Filson Restoration Department

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A FRD “Original”

As a company, Filson has embraced that legacy by selling it back to you through their Filson Restoration Department (FRD), which revives and sometimes reimagines old Filson pieces so they’re good-as-probably-better (and way more expensive) than new. History don’t come cheap, and I’m dumb enough to pay that premium, now regretting abandoning my bag back east.

Filson – The Final Say

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Filson’s Flagship Store in Seattle.

With their headquarters and flagship store still in Seattle (where coffee is, sigh, now taken more seriously than ever), there are Filson stores across the country, a website where you can browse endlessly while reading about the company history, and they’ll even mail you a paper catalog should you feel like ridding the world of one more tree.

Filson’s company motto is, “Might as well have the best,” and once you invest in a piece or two of you own, I believe you’ll find that to be less marketing hype and more simple statement of fact. As C.C. Filson put it back in 1914, “The goods we quote must not be confounded with the cheap and vastly inferior grade with which the market is over-run. Such goods are not only useless for the purpose for which they are intended, but the person wearing them would be better off without them.”