How Carhartt accidentally became a streetwear brand
A quick story about the history and rise of Carhartt WIP
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If you’re from a blue-collar family, odds are your dad wore Carhartt.
It’s one of the longest-standing American workwear brands. It's always been for farmers, truck drivers, construction workers, etc.
But 40 years ago, something happened that changed the brand forever.
Somewhere in the late 70s-early 80s. A flea market in Paris. A man named Edwin Faeh is browsing the markets and notices the fabric on this barn-looking jacket.
He recalled that “nothing could rip a fabric like that.” He's obsessed.
So he bought every jacket he could find at the market that day. He gets home and researches (pre-internet adoption) where the jackets are from.
Michigan (quite the journey).
But Faeh meant business and made it his goal to meet the owners on his next visit to America.
Fast forward to 1989
Faeh is travelling throughout the US. He decides to look up Carhartt's HQ in a phone book (!!). Story has it he called the corporate office and asked to speak with the owners and they just told him to swing on by.
Faeh explains his love for the jackets and the brand, and that he wants to sell them in Germany.
Around this time, the streetwearification of Carhartt is already taking shape in the US. Apparently, Carhartt was upset that drug dealers and rappers were monopolizing Carhartt's inventory in the city stores, leaving nothing for its core customers.
Looking back, this was a culturally rich moment.
In the same way NYC dudes were repurposing brands like Ralph Lauren and The North Face's Nuptse, the same phenomenon was happening with Carhartt.
Groups like Das EFX and Above the Law were notorious for repping Carhartt. Even Tommy Boy Records bought 800 Detroit jackets, embroidered them, and sent them to influential people in the entertainment space (IYKYK). One of these jackets sold at a Sotheby's auction for $3800+
Carhartt goes to Europe
Back to it. Carhartt gives Faeh the rights to sell in Germany *only* at first. But Edwin has a bigger vision. He wants to repurpose Carhartt and sell them across Europe, under a new name. Work in Progress, or WIP.
So he takes the initial inventory across the border to France and illegally sells them there.
When the owners found out about this they got super angry. Faeh thought he'd f*cked it up for sure. But the jackets sold like hot cakes, which gave Faeh leverage to negotiate a European-wide license for the brand.
Eventually, WIP got permission to put their own iterations on core products, manufacture their own pieces, and even do their own collabs. Here are some important collaborations from over the years...
WIP had a distinctly European persona, which is largely why it worked as a separate brand in the first place. In Europe, it became synonymous with youth and streetwear.
With Paris as the backbone, WIP managed to get French groups like NTM, Saïan Supa Crew, and Americans like Wu Tang Clan and Lauryn Hill.
The American owners were happy with the extra business, but they've long wanted to keep the brands separate so they didn't piss off their core customer in the US. Today, that mostly remains the same.
The more I think about it, what's incredible to me about Carhartt it has two loyal customer bases with different value systems, and they're both crazy about the same products.
That's the power of brand.