“Mind the mess,” Alex Carleton says, maneuvering around power tools, planks of plywood, and construction workers. It’s a few hours before the new Filson shop in Gastown debuts to a crowd of outdoor enthusiasts and VIPs, but Carleton, the brand’s creative director, doesn’t seem worried. Kicking up a bit of sawdust, he walks through the shop, highlighting some features. “We sourced and met local blacksmiths and woodworkers, and all of our fixtures are custom-made using recycled wood,” Carleton says, slapping a hand on a handsome display table, rustic and hand-tooled. “Even the style of the post and the bevelling—those are inspired by hikes I would take around Mount Baker.”
Filson was founded in 1897 by C.C. Filson, a Nebraska homesteader and railroad conductor who settled in Seattle in the 1890s. The Gold Rush was in full swing when Filson launched his namesake apparel and accessories brand, which focused on cold weather gear and apparel tough enough to last through the hard winter; wool clothing and blankets made up the bulk of the debut collections.
Today, nearly every item is stamped with that history: “Filson Since 1897.” It’s a nod to the lineage, yes, but it’s also a promise. Very little about the core of the brand has changed over the years; you’ll find no Velcro, no sweat-swatting high-tech fabrics, no athleisure trends. Instead, it’s the core elemental ingredients of leather, canvas, and wool that continue to epitomize the Filson brand, still based in Seattle and still serving the Northwest’s adventurous lifestyles.
At the same time, Filson is always expanding its boundaries with its stores. “In every location we open, we also test and explore new things, and that’s a very liberating and exciting approach—because we never believe that our work is finished, and we’re always challenging ourselves to push the meaning of the brand and the experience,” Carleton explains. “I think we’re getting better with each store, and they all have their special qualities and nuances that are unique.” Much of the Vancouver shop design was inspired by the Timberline Lodge in Oregon. It features one-of-a-kind artwork from the Northwest, and a cozy back-annex game room. “If you were to go from Portland to Seattle to Vancouver, you would get a different experience,” says Carleton. “We feel that there’s a really powerful story to be told about our culture, our history of the Pacific Northwest.”
That history is now closely and purposefully connected to Carleton himself. A native of New England and touting a resume that includes time with essential East Coast brands like Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, and L.L. Bean, Carleton’s relocation to Seattle for the Filson job was a kind of immersive education. “We say Filson represents anywhere the salmon swim,” Carleton says, his folded-up flannel sleeves exposing ropy, tattooed forearms. In terms of Vancouver, his learning experience included a visit to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria and a night at Nimmo Bay Resort up the coast. But a lot of the States needed to make his acquaintance, too. “Getting my arms wrapped around the region—from Alaska to Montana, Idaho, Oregon—it’s such rich, rich country,” says Carleton. “I feel you don’t really fully understand what it means to be an American until you’re able to experience the amazing natural resources of the Northwest. It’s game-changing.”
Design-wise, it’s essential to Carleton to incorporate Filson’s home region, its eccentricities and heritage, into the threads of the brand. “When we’re looking at things like colour, or prints, or patterns, we’re focused on our local culture and history,” explains Carleton. “We really scour our archives, and we look at everything from art and architecture to local sportsmen and outdoorsmen.” Silhouettes of apparel are classic; women’s coats, for example, don’t venture out of the recognizable parka, field, and bomber varieties. Perhaps one of the most popular items in the Filson lineup is the briefcase: a staple among stylish men both rural and urban, it feels rugged with industrial-strength fabric and saddle-grade Bridle Leather handles, while remaining perfectly sized to hold a laptop and other modern business tools. It’s the ideal accessory that goes from city to country—Gastown to Galiano, for instance.
Function remains at the centre of Filson products, because—unlike many other heritage labels—the brand is still used by the people who inspire it. “It’s been incredibly eye-opening, also, learning about this region, getting to know our customers,” Carleton says. “Whether it’s orchard owners, ranchers, bush pilots, or farmers, it has a very dynamic customer base, which has been really amazing to get in touch with.” Carleton has done more than just study his adopted home; it seems that he has truly fallen for the green trees and cedar-scented air of the Northwest. “Sometimes I lie in bed at night and I go through a roll of the different namespaces—like, I actually know that there is a place called Yakima,” he says in honest wonderment. “There’s so much here, but you really have to be patient with it. It’s not gratuitous. You really have to seek it out and turn over every rock.”