Carhartt Work in Progress
From workwear to streetwear.
Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer
People sometimes ask if I have a favourite fashion-brand, others are able to work it out pretty quickly after meeting me. For the last 5 years or so, one brand has stood out for both honouring its heritage whilst remaining progressive: Carhartt and specifically — but not exclusively — its European fashion/streetwear branch, Carhartt Work in Progress (WIP).
“Back in the eighties, when the Western world was deluged by a wave of blue denim, Carhartt’s brown duck work coats entered the streets as an antidote. Detached from their original purpose of attiring hard-working men in mines and on railroad tracks, they arrived in our cities as some sort of new anti-denim. Soon after, through its cooperation with the European distributor Work in Progress, the American workwear classic would spawn Carhartt WIP.”
Carhartt as a brand stands out to me for numerous reasons, firstly their dedication to their staple products. Founded in 1889, some of their products have remained relatively untouched for over 100 years, such as their Chore Coat: a heavy-weight, hard-wearing canvas jacket originally designed for builders and ranch workers. Each season the Chore Coat gets a minor technical update in material or fit but retains its original and iconic look and feel with its visible rivets, Carhartt badge and four front pockets.
“The word timeless gets thrown around a lot these days. Very rarely is its use justified. But the Carhartt Chore Coat provides an exception to the hyperbole. From railroad workers to corner boys, from those who’ve laboured in fields to those who’ve ploughed their own, lonely furrow—independent thinkers, free spirits, backs-to-the-wall workers and family men—the Chore Coat has been stretched across the shoulders of them all. And they have all chose it for the same qualities. It’s tough. It’s resilient. It’s durable.” Calum Gordon.
2017 was the year when the Chore Jacket celebrated 100 years since it was first introduced. To commemorate this event Carhartt worked with LAW—a London based bi-annual magazine that documents the beautiful undercurrent of Britain (LIVES AND WORKS)—and asked 4 designers to “future-proof” it; asking Christopher Shannon, Liam Hodges, Sadie Williams and the late Judy Blame to imagine how it might look in 100 more years time.
The life-span and longevity of Carhartt products is an important factor for me as although it can be expensive you know that it will last. They are known for using long-lasting, heavy-duty canvas and cotton materials;
it’s not uncommon for people to keep products for years even after wearing them on a regular basis and often handing them down from generation to generation.
Collaborations are what keep Carhartt exciting; each season brings a wealth of exciting partnerships from established names such as Converse, Stüssy and A.P.C. as well as more obscure and lesser-known names such as Braindead Records, Perks & Mini (P.A.M.) and Patta. Each collaboration brings either totally new designs, a brand’s spin on existing Carhartt products or Carhartt’s spin on a brand’s existing products. Each collaboration collection is often released with a video or printed look-book shot by fresh, young, contemporary, fashion photographers.
As a work-wear/street-wear fashion brand, each season Carhartt release a wide range of t-shirts with graphic prints and typography. They choose to work with their in-house team as well as artists and designers; either working to a brief or having freedom to create bold imagery.
Carhartt is also not only a fashion brand who just make clothes and accessories; they also release regular publications, magazines and short films for their skate team and each month sees a new contemporary Soundcloud mix from the Berlin-based Carhartt WIP Radio. To write this post I used their recent book, The Carhartt WIP Archives, published by Rizolli. This book is essentially a bible of the brand and documents the brand’s history, ethos and releases over the 25+ years the WIP brand has been going for.
“The Carhartt WIP Archives presents itself as a diverse visual voyage. Less conceived as a complete survey on the brand’s history, but rather as a celebratory, transatlantic stroll along some of its most formative moments, the publication traces Carhartt WIP’s close connections with various creative scenes and subcultures; from Detroit to Berlin, Paris to Tokyo — and beyond.
Preluding with a series of portraits of the Hip Hop community that brought Carhartt clothing to the streets in the early nineties, the book takes us back to the days when WIP was still a fledgling European line and licensee; then into the brand’s remarkable route to success. Portraying many of the musicians, artists, and collaborations that have been part of that journey, it brims with re-encounters and never-before-seen content. Not short of re-discoveries either, it brings back iconic styles, items that are no longer produced, and the brand’s most memorable illustration campaigns.
It features over 350 images of unpublished photographs, artworks, as well as memorabilia drawn from the company’s own archives and different private collections, providing an unparalleled look into Carhartt WIP’s universe.”
The Carhartt in-store experience is also special with each store’s design being unique, featuring bespoke signage and decoration with a consideration for and flavour of the city in which they are in. Some stores are totally new fit-outs with others taking and retaining the previous store’s original taste with the Carhartt spin.
Recently, Carhartt opened a new store in London’s exciting Kings Cross area with a totally new store design by London designer Faye Toogood.
“The look and feel of the space is informed by the same ideals that led to Carhartt WIP being embraced by subcultures and style tribes on both sides of the Atlantic. Consequently, there is a focus on rugged utilitarianism with aggregate-concrete flooring and a ceiling which features serried banks of pendant lamps. Wall panels have been created in tough canvas and display units crafted from hard-wearing materials in warm tones of deep brown and tan”. Lucy Bourton.
Faye Toogood’s approach to designing spaces has consistently embraced the use of materials, providing reason for the chosen material as well as its aesthetic value.
Lastly, the cultural and somewhat subversive impact of Carhartt is something that makes the brand appealing to me. The Carhartt brand has been a staple brand in subcultures for a long time. The ‘golden age’ of hip-hop in the ’90s was awash with Carhartt, worn by the likes of Tupac, Nas, Redman, Chuck D and probably every other rapper, DJ, producer, break-dancer and graffiti writer in New York and LA; creating the now iconic ’90s fashion image of loose, oversized, workwear-inspired streetwear.
“With its oversized cuts and rugged fabrics, Carhartt’s clothing has always chimed with the hyper-masculine ideals and aesthetics that have underpinned much of mainstream hip-hop. Their jackets were bulky and imposing, adding mass and presence to any frame. But like many of the stylistic developments in hip hop — such as its love-affair with luxury labels — it was the hustlers on the streets who can lay claim to pioneering the label in this new context.
The very same properties which had always seen the brand favoured by labourers in factories and on farms also lent themselves well to those engaging in more illicit forms of work in more populated areas, where nights spent on street corners saw warmth, durability and adequate storage as beneficial properties in a jacket.”
There is an interesting argument that has been ongoing for a while now about the ethics of Carhartt WIP, the up-scale, tailored, hip streetwear version of the affordable, blue-collar worker regular Carhartt—particularly in the USA. The argument is about the appropriation of workwear, however I see the two brands as being far apart from one another. They share the same logo and often the same products however Carhartt WIP is an outlet for Carhartt to explore and be experimental to a captive audience; something that regular Carhartt is not. There is an interesting article on how Carhartt is the uniform of both the right and the left.
Somewhat related to this is a photo project commissioned by Carhartt in the early 2000s. Gemma Booth (b. 1974), an English photographer who previously worked for i-D and The Face, went to Detroit (the birthplace and current headquarters of Carhartt) to record impressions of everyday life in the downtown area. Her documentary-style photos were intended for a book about the birthplace of the Carhartt brand. Gemma gave a talk at my university a few years ago which I and many others found inspiring: they give an image of both the brand in context as well as the fledgling but determined image of Detroit (she mentioned how throughout the trip they went to several gigs and at the time it was the height of Eminem’s career). You can read more on this project here.
One thing I am looking forward to in 2019 is the 30th anniversary of the Carhartt WIP brand as I’m sure there will be celebrations and some great new products. For now though, every or every other weekend I visit one of the three Carhartt WIP stores in Amsterdam (six in the Netherlands) to see what’s new, what’s coming out soon or just to see what’s going on. It’s a lifestyle and something I’m happy to be involved in.