Why are the likes of Carhartt so popular?
Allow me to reference Supreme for a second, even if this is a Carhartt-adjacent article. I accompanied my younger brother to the Shibuya flagship store the other day, and was immediately shocked by how the store emitted a sense of mortality.
On the far-end of the store was a rack of T-shirts unadorned by the usual accoutrement of smouldering, shruggy salesmen, picked apart by a swarm of middle-aged tourists. Future’s Mask Off blared from the speakers. A row of six skateboards hung still on the opposite end of the shop, no one minding them. We, as usual, didn’t buy a thing as we skipped through the store, feeling a quiet tinge of relief when a store attendant told us briskly that we couldn’t fondle some of the choicer sweatshirts.
I mention this anecdote for three reasons: 1) because my editor gave me 700 words to fill up on the rising ubiquity of Carhartt’s fashion-as-utility philosophy, which; 2) in all honesty, I can sum up for you by linking to this August 22 Who What Wear article on “nu-minimalism” and “pragmatic wear.”
Oh—and 3) because street fashion’s loud rap music blaring, louche-fit clothing making, pop-art bastardizing, sweatshirt-friendly sloganeering, and go f*ck yourself attitude to store keeping ethoses are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to selling clothes now. Take note of this for context.
High fashion houses, such as Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga employ lead designers who cut their teeth at streetwear labels Off-White and Vetements. Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, while not at all a “streetwear” brand, still incorporates enough flowy louche fits, wink-and-you’ll-miss-it logo patterns-cum-slogans, and “remixed” rugby shirts to the point that the brand’s pieces wouldn’t necessarily look out of place at a Dover Street Market pop-up. The 2017 Guess x A$AP Rocky T-shirts—which are, at its core, Guess T-shirts—resell for as high as P15,000. The average Guess shirt sells for about P2000, if not only slightly higher for the oversized, big logo-emblazoned, pop-and-retro graphic editions. The hype ethos is mainstream, lucrative, and everyone wants a piece of it.
But, and as playground politics has so brutally ingrained in us—if everyone and their tito (no offense meant to original hypebeast and decorated newscaster Julius Babao) is into something, then it isn’t cool anymore. Enter Carhartt.
About a two-minute walk south of the Supreme store in Shibuya is Carhartt WIP’s main Tokyo branch. I spot a few similar elements between the stores, such as: 1) a shared penchant for looser-fitting fare; 2) the creative and all-encompassing incorporation of a logo into brand attire (the duck-thing for Carhartt, “SUPREME” for Supreme); 3) the presence of lithe, vaguely haughty, model-esque shop attendants who glower when I, a Uniqlo-bedecked tourist, accidentally rumple a pristinely folded chore coat. Seemingly still very cool, and very, erm, “street” (I’m sorry).
Well, “street” at least, until I climb up to the store’s second floor and find myself eye-to-eye with a timeline proudly displaying the visage of a staid-looking old white man with a handlebar mustache and the year "1889" emblazoned above him.
The man is Hamilton Carhartt, late 19th century workwear impresario, founder of Carhartt. The company is old. The store blares jazz music, which is older than rap music (#symbolism). The clothes, as a quick feel of the stiff duck canvas reveals, prioritize durability rather than comfort. Carhartt’s history proudly talks about how the founder himself kept in close correspondence with construction and railway workers in his hometown of Michigan to make sure that the chore coats and work pants he sold them, well, worked. Which in itself is I suppose the first selling point nowadays of workwear brands like Carhartt: that their stuff, more than just being vehicles for hype, have been doing as advertised for over 128 years. They “keep [you] warm, and help you carry a lot of stuff," as a chief salesman puts it.
I’d argue that this mix of heritage, what-you-see-is-what-you-get functionality, and christened influencer relevance (shoutouts to Brooklyn Beckham and Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis) are the three ingredients that make the brand compelling today. They're different, but in a way that doesn't connote too much effort. They're fashionable, but accidentally so. They're popular but with people who exist outside the confines of a nine tile digital facade. They work for everyone who wears it, from the regular construction worker to off-duty Jason Momoa.
There's a genuine sense of ownership that comes with the brand's products that has yet to be associated with naked commodification. You don't (yet) see Medium articles teaching readers how to maximize profit returns from a Carhartt resale, unlike, let’s say, with Supreme.
This I suppose brings me to the second selling point nowadays of workwear brands like Carhartt: namely that the world (and societal expectations surrounding our ability to identify and express ourselves) are commodified enough as is. Decade recaps abound chronicling the collective fatigue us young people feel regarding the economic fetishization of identity. Jia Tolentino—writer, athleisure and Barre patron, and one time reality TV star—has built a pretty hefty intellectual following chronicling Instagram and influence peddling’s said descent into brand-based commercialization.
Fashion, the serving of lewks, and the pages once dedicated solely to the pursuit of lewk-serving, have shifted along with this monetary tide. Wear Supreme and one day perhaps long to be sponsored by Mass Clothing Brand X, or GroceryMart. Click “like” on the APC official Instagram and find your stories bombarded by ads for Big Soap, or BagsCorp, or that one weirdly placed Lazada powerbank ad, grouped into pre-curated hives by corporate and advertising powers that be.
As such, to have a brand sell us products that place front and center a centuries-old philosophy of large pockets, sturdy canvas wear, and most importantly—clothes that you are actually supposed to do things in rather than be seen in, becomes a refuge. That the likes of APC, Supreme, and Adam Kimmel seem to find the brand cool enough to crank out limited edition, Instagram and StockX-friendly one-offs with is just a bonus. Or well, a necessary price, depending on whether or not you nowadays regard these virality-driven drops more of an unwelcome sartorial distraction from the pursuit of single minded, workmanlike authenticity.