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Carhartt – History, Philosophy, and Iconic Products

To me, the brands Dickies (read our recent overview here) and Carhartt always seemed like, “brothers from another mother,” Dickie’s Heat Miser to Carhartt’s Snow Miser, the Yin and Yang of workwear, keeping the cotton duck universe harmoniously in balance.

While there surely is crossover in the utility of the brands, Dickie’s “softer” history in the uniform space has always been complemented by Carhartt’s harder, more burly outdoor background, much the way Dickies have been embraced by gangly skate rats and Carhartt by rappers with less…athletic builds. Of course, there are other players in that game, but few companies ever come even close to the iconic status that Carhartt has achieved in the popular culture, whether that be through their street-style innovations or the fact that they make great clothes for swinging a hammer when it’s really, really cold outside.

The History of Carhartt

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First, a little background, courtesy of the Carhartt site:

The year 1889 was a time of steel, steam, and locomotives. It was also when Hamilton Carhartt & Company was founded by its namesake (known affectionately as “Ham”) and began producing overalls with two sewing machines and a half-horsepower electric motor in a small Detroit loft. Early failures led Hamilton to focus heavily on market research, and after talking directly with railroad workers, he designed a product that truly fit their needs.

Under the motto, “Honest value for an honest dollar,” the Carhartt bib overall was created and rapidly evolved into the standard for quality workwear. The Carhartt brand became popular with consumers outside blue-collar trades during the 1970s and 1980s. More people began to learn about the brand as big names in the hip-hop music industry started to wear Carhartt. Interest expanded across the pond in Europe, leading to the creation of the Carhartt Work In Progress label in 1989, which is targeted toward consumers in Europe and Asia who value refined details and design that remains true to Carhartt’s brand DNA.

Hey, we here in America like refined details and design as much as anyone! (Fine, except maybe the Italians. And French. And Swiss. Of course, there’s the Japanese. OK, maybe I see their point.)

Carhartt Today

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In this day and age it’s worth mentioning that Carhartt has remained a family owned and operated business since day one, and while a not-Carhartt is now president for the first time in the company’s history, the family is still actively involved–Ham’s great-grandson Mark, “still serves as chairman and chief executive officer, and his mother, Gretchen C. Valade, remains chairwoman emeritus.”

Additionally, while Carhartt is most certainly a global company (with operations in far off Mexico, Europe and Kentucky), they proudly employ 2,200 Americans, 900 of whom are union members (no such luck for overseas workers who make 90% of Carhartt’s stuff).

Forbes magazine estimated that Carhartt produces only about 10% of their goods here in Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, Texas, and California, and while that doesn’t seem like a lot, the average for an American company is just 2%. I’m choosing to be a glass-half-full kinda’ guy and see Carhartt as doing five times better than average, and that ain’t too shabby (this is positive reinforcement–let’s see if it works and that 10% number increases). Carhartt also produces a limited line of Made In The USA pieces, and unlike other companies where the homegrown stuff is “exotic,” and sold at a premium, Carhartt’s American stuff is usually just their regular stuff but made here in the United States.

Iconic Carhartt Products

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Now, when it comes to quality and construction, Carhartt (impossible to miss on a crowded shelf thanks to their big square label) is infinitely better than average. They’ve built a reputation on triple seams, riveted stress points, and tightly woven duck canvas fabric that keeps the chill (as well as splinters, sharp edges and rusty nails) out.

And much the way that certain brands and their legendary core products have found a way into your brain’s hard drive without you putting them there (who know how the fact that Christian Louboutin high heels all have red soles is in my noggin, but it is) you certainly already know Carhartt’s greatest hits.

B01 Double-Front Work Dungaree and Overall

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There’s the heavyweight, 12oz cotton duck bib overall (in Carhartt Brown, of course), the Firm Duck Double-Front Work Dungaree. A classic seen on worksites from coast to coast, and it can be yours for about the price of a pair of 501s.

Available for $50 at Carhartt.

Duck Canvas Active-Jac

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Active Jac!

Rounding out the Carhartt Canvas Tuxedo is the Active Jac, a quilted flannel lined hoodie that will never, ever soften, or your money back.

Available for $100 at Carhartt.

Acrylic Watch Cap

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Carhartt Watch Hat in Chili…Ole!

The perennial favorite of roofers and mallrats, alike, the classic watch cap is about as no nonsense as it comes. And as cheap as it comes, at 10 bucks, it even beats most Army surplus caps.

Available for $10 at Carhartt.

 

Action Bronson in plus-sized Carhartts. Image via Complex.

Carhartt has also built their reputation on two other important factors–layering and sizing. Like a giant corporate mother, Carhartt stresses the idea that layering (a Henley under Bib Overalls maintains range of motion, and leaves room for a Active Jac should you get chilly!) makes good sense (and sells more units), and they clearly get the idea that one size…or 2X…does not fit all (they go to a generous 4X).

You can see for yourself on larger than life rapper Action Bronson (and if you’re not watching him on Viceland, you’re missing out on one of those most charismatic and entertaining figures of the twenty-first century).

Carhartt – Work In Progress

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Action isn’t the only non-carpenter to embrace the Carhartt brand. In 1994, a man named Edwin Faeh established the project, “Work in Progress,”  and became the first distributor of Carhartt in Europe, a twist of fate that saw the late 1990’s with Carhartt WIP behind the wheel of the street and work wear head on collision, with its continued success proving this was no accident.

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Carhartt WIP Michigan Chore Coat

And as perplexing as the anti-fashion as fashion trend is to me (Are most WIP products, while running perhaps ten times more expensive as much as regular Army/Navy store Carhartt stuff, 10x better? Not a chance.), there have been items, like the above Michigan Coat, that have had me seriously considering a click on the Buy button. But knowing me, I’ll probably buy a non-WIP version, as it feels more honest and and in the spirit of what old Ham had in mind when he started the company in the first place.

Carhartt – The Final Say

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Hamilton Carhartt

“Honest value for an honest dollar” makes sense, especially if you put in an honest day’s work, hauling bundles of shingles on your shoulders, your Chore Coat’s pockets filled with drywall screws. An old friend’s Carhartt’s, after a couple years of carpentry in the great outdoors of Buffalo, NY, looked like beaten down and broken in works of art. He’s offered me and even trade–his old stuff for new replacements, but I just couldn’t do it. As another friend always tell me, you gotta’ earn your fades.