At the Filson retail store in the SoDo neighborhood in Seattle, in the literal shadow of Safeco Field, home of the hapless Seattle Mariners, a cop and his partner stroll in the door. It’s not a bust. The officer’s personal Filson belt has popped a rivet. No problem, the factory happens to be in the back, visibly humming through a set of double doors. The store manager takes the belt, tells the officer it’ll just be a moment, and walks into the factory. The cops stroll around the store and talk about hunting. Five minutes later the belt’s back, repaired and as good as new.
Try that at Walmart.
Filson’s business model is a lot more service oriented and hands-on, and even if you wouldn’t necessarily start a company in 2012 with a factory and retail outlet joined at the hip, it’s consistent with how this brand has always operated.
Part of that has to do with why Filson came to be in the first place.
In the 1890s Clinton C. Filson, born in Ohio, made his way to Seattle with an eye toward Alaska but never got that far. Instead he set up Filson’s Pioneer Alaska and Blanket Manufacturers. Right: Filson then, just like Filson today, wore the fact that it made things, it didn’t just sell them, right out in the open, for the world to see.
In those early days there was a woolen mill on site making clothing and blankets out of Mackinaw wool fabric. (Today Filson still owns all its own patterns but has vendors supply the leather and fabric.) And that meant if Filson didn’t have an item in stock, or didn’t make exactly what a customer wanted, Clinton Filson had the item custom-made, sometimes right on the spot. And you have to love the motto: “No more, no less. Your satisfaction is the sole purpose of our transaction.”
Another awesome fact is it that a year after opening his store, in 1898, Filson added a proto research arm: Filson’s “Reliable Free Information Bureau” was set up to offer free advice to miners headed north (and it didn’t hurt that the service was based in Filson’s store).
The gold rush would eventually peter out, but timber didn’t, and tradespeople, farmers, hunters and anglers nationwide got wind of Filson and the brand grew; today it’s pretty common to see folks who hunt in waxed cotton tin cloth on weekends carrying Filson brief cases to law offices on weekdays.
The American Dream
Filson today, much as it’s always been, is the American Dream in action. Not because of what they make but because immigrants make up the vast majority of sewers, cutters, leather workers and pattern makers at Filson, as they always have. Teresa Whittaker, who manages the factory says that just as her grandparents were European immigrants, the vast majority of workers at the company today are Southeast Asian — in part because they’re trained at factories run in China and Vietnam to do incredibly complex sewing and know that they can actually make a living wage if they’re able to get a green card and come to work in the States.
And other parts of the Filson business also mirror the good old days: The company still shapes leather with cold water rather than using chemicals because it’s cheaper, less noxious and, as Whittaker points out, “It just takes patience, not money.” Clearly a company that’s been around this long has had a long time to figure out what makes sense, what manufacturing techniques yield quality, which don’t, and when to innovate, or not.
Also, because Filson has so many proprietary fabrics, they don’t send returns back to vendors if there’s a blemish, because the supplier would resell it and that would hurt the brand’s reputation for quality. Instead the products will be dismantled and repurposed — a run of leather might be used to make handles or tin cloth scraps used to smooth the edges of just-cut leather that’ll become belts.
Nothing ever goes to waste here if there’s any possible use for a different application.
Recycling, Literally and Not
Because Filson manufactures more than 70 percent of its product domestically, the zipper company YKK gave Filson its own zipper machine. YKK doesn’t do this very often. Its own brand is as prized as Filson’s. But Filson’s domestic response time to orders is as short as a single week and YKK couldn’t keep up. Instead they told Filson to crank out its own zippers. Which Filson did, and because they’re made of brass Whittaker herself said they should sweep up the floor beneath the machine each night and bring the tiny, chocolate-sprinkle-sized leavings from the zipper maker to a recycler. After a single busy day Filson will collect as much as a thousand dollars in recycled brass.
There are other, less literal ways you’ll see Filson recycling in the future.
Decades ago Filson made clothing for both the rugged and not-so rugged customer. They made sport coats (think riding jackets) and ads featured men in bow-ties wearing smoking jackets.
And so Filson is going to mine some of those old styles to influence what they make next and they’re partnering with brands as varied as Levis and Harris Tweed. And they’re bringing out a bunch of new styles that aren’t new at all: They’re wicked-cool refreshes of styles from the 1950s and 1930s. It’s product that Filson hopes will capture the current generation, sure, but it’s also timeless and beautiful.
And it’ll be made in America.