Carhartt’s success story in Europe begins in 1994, when selective products from the popular US workwear brand were authorized outside of the American continent for the first time under distribution by Work in Progress. The authentic Carhartt workwear products quickly became popular with both fans of traditional US heritage garments and people from to the nascent urban culture and urban sports scene in Europe. The success was immediate. European riders, graffiti writers, and MCs recognised Carhartt’s straightforward and rugged clothing as an authentic expression of their style. The first product range designed exclusively for Europe followed in 1997. The original workwear cuts were re-interpreted and re-fitted for the demands of an active life in the urban environment true to Carhartt’s core values: outstanding design combined with exceptional quality, durability and comfort.
Although Carhartt’s history in Europe now exists over more than a decade, this is only a fragment of the brand’s long and rich heritage. The origins of the Carhartt brand are in the USA and date over 120 years back. Since the foundation in America’s grand industrial city Detroit, the brand has been dedicated to a mission of providing “Best In Class” apparel for the active worker. Tailored to meet the highest standards of quality, durability, and comfort, Carhartt’s unique pants and jackets have always been made from denim and brown duck – a hardwearing cotton canvas fabric. Today, Carhartt is one of the largest outfitters for tradespeople in the US where it enjoys a legendary reputation as the garment of choice for craftsmen from every field.
When Hamilton Carhartt established his business for worker’s garments in 1889 the city of Detroit, strategically located along the Great Lakes waterway, was still a long stretch away from being the Motor Town of Henry Ford or America’s great armoury of World War II. Since the 1830s the city had grown with the rise of shipping, shipbuilding, and the manufacturing industries. Hamilton Carhartt singled out the workman’s overall as one of the essential commodities of Detroit’s mostly blue-collar clientele. Starting with only four sewing machines and five employees, he set up an operation in an attic. The first products were overalls made of denim fabric and duck. This tightly-woven cotton fabric was also used to make tents or ship’s sails and therefore perfectly suited to withstand extreme wear and tear. But in spite of the great demand in clothes caused by the growing workforces of Detroit and Southern Michigan, Carhartt’s business did not take off right away.
Literally going back to the drawing board, Hamilton Carhartt asked for the help of a railroad engineer to improve his product and to create a unique overall tailored to suit the specific needs of the railroad workers. Made from denim or 12-ounce cotton canvas (also called duck from the dutch word doek), designed to be snag-proof and to give extra-durability (triple-stitched seams, copper rivets at stress points and strengthened buttonholes) and extra-comfort (wide legs, suspenders and a patented form-fitting bib) the overall came with a whole other list of extras, like pockets for rulers, pliers and watches, and a hammer loop.
Hamilton Carhartt decided to make a point of the fact that his overalls were produced under humane working conditions. A Labour Union Label on each pair that went out, gave unmistakable proof that purchasing a Carhartt meant supporting the unionised workforce. Maybe this made his garments more expensive, but none of his competitors could offer a product of similar, long-lasting quality. With the slogan “Honest value for an honest dollar” the Carhartt union-made bib overall was set and ready to become one of the iconic garments of the American working class.
With the greatly improved product and new marketing strategy, the business finally climbed. By 1910 it had become so successful that the Carhartt Company was expanding to places all over North America and even Europe, owning several cotton mills that turned out the high-quality long-fibre cotton used to weave the Carhartt master cloth, a particularly fine denim fabric, and the trademark brown duck canvas fabric used for overalls, jackets, workpants, and gloves.
Now, a good 120 years later, Carhartt, the brand and its iconic “function over form” product, are still around. Carhartt has kept its traditional public – construction workers, farmers, and outdoorsmen – but also gained a new audience: musicians, artists, clubbers, and hipsters of all strands.
During the late 80s, clockers and sprayers took Carhartt clothing to the streets. It may sound strange, but it makes sense. Spending a lot of time outdoors, they needed to keep warm while they also had to carry a lot of gear – circumstances under which a durable, lined canvas jacket with roomy patch pockets, such as the Carhartt siberian parka, appeared the most smart choice. Hip kids striving to copy this new look adopted the style making it the hip thing to wear. From there, it was a short way into the wardrobes of rap stars and hip hoppers, and the look slowly became a part of the urban subcultures connected to their music.
Carhartt’s main focus is providing the best clothes for the worker. In Europe, Asia, Japan and Australia – export countries where the brand gained in popularity in connection with the subcultures – its licensee Carhartt Work In Progress has been dedicated to further exploring the brand’s urban lifestyle character.
Compared to the US, Carhartt’s history on the old continent is a fairly young one. During the late 80s, incidental Carhartt goods had occasionally found its way to Europe. These were small imports by independent companies for a select group of fans.
Founded in 1994 Work in Progress started to initiate a distribution network for Carhartt in Europe and step-by-step began to introduce classic products from the original workwear range to the new market.
As the urban scene in Europe progressed and developed its own concepts and ideas, it became clear that Work in Progress and Carhartt had to move along with it if they wanted to accommodate the changing needs. The original American cuts, great in terms of their unconditional and straightforward approach towards materials, quality, and use, were also tailored to fit the average American worker. This made them generally a great deal wider and occasionally much shorter in the sleeves than suitable for the European consumer. If Carhartt did not want to limit its range over here to a few select classics, they had to address these issues.
In 1997, the great success of the brand made it possible for Carhartt and Work in Progress to present its first Carhartt range produced for and available exclusively in Europe. Under strict license and never without the expressed consent of the company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, Work in Progress carefully adapted and re-interpreted the original cuts. Since then the prodcuts have been progressively developed further, first for an active use in urban sports, and later - as Work in Progress positioned Carhartt as the largest streetwear brand in Europe - for an active city life.
Carhartt Work In Progress is not only known for being a reliable supplier of admired textiles but also for its dedicated support of artists, musicians, and riders.
Since its very beginning, Work in Progress has closely involved Carhartt with the European skateboarding and BMX scene, aiding in showcasing the scene’s cultural diversity and creativity. Despite other appearances, the scene in Europe is a fiercely independent group wary of being exploited by marketing departments. But Work in Progress’ honest engagement to their cause has managed that Carhartt gained deep respect from even the most hardcore skate activists. The brand’s support includes lobbying work on various levels. It consists of creating partnerships with many of the main skating and BMX events in Europe as well as supporting local scenes over many years, helping skateparks to develop and persist, and much more.