Since the late 80s, Carhartt has been a cult brand worn by everyone from DJs to designers, forklift truck operators to fashion influencers. It has been a staple of the rapper’s closet from Tupac through to ASAP Rocky and has been invited to collaborate with Italian luxury fashion house, Marni, Japanese brand Sacai, as well as students at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. How does Carhartt cross over so effortlessly from elite to mainstream and how does it continue to possess that certain low key cool factor that everyone wants to be in on?
“I think it's because we don't try, honestly,” says Gretchen Valade, Sustainability Director at Carhartt in a sit-down with FashionUnited on her recent trip to NYC. “We are really, really focused on the worker. And even when we are trending again in, say, New York or Brooklyn, thats really cool, but we're asking what does the plumber or woodworker need? We acknowledge it and we appreciate it but, at the end of the day, we build functional apparel for the worker and that's where our mindset is. We do have retail stores, and we are on Amazon, but we're also in Tractor Supply Company.”
It is precisely Carhartt's generation-spanning, trend-transcending quality that makes the square patch logo with the orange C so immediately recognizable. For fall the workwear giant keeps its Work In Progress collection fresh by infusing items from its own archives with the bohemian artistry of the Bloomsbury Group. Among the Double Knee Pants, the Michigan Chore Coat, the bib overalls with details such as triple stitched cargo pockets, loops for holding hammers and tunnels for sliding workman’s pencils, there are notes of the dandy in paisley pattern and blanket lining.
A descendent of founder Hamilton Carhartt, Valade recalls one of her first projects in the role of Sustainability Director at the onset of the pandemic was to launch Carhartt Reworked. The resale program offers to take back previously used Carhartt items which will be cleaned, repaired and sent back into the market. The program’s Instagram page reads: “When you build clothing the right way, using the highest quality materials and sweating every detail, you build gear that stays in circulation and out of landfills.”
134 year-old Carhartt remains true to its roots
Michigander Hamilton Carhartt began making overalls in 1889 for the local US railway workers but the brand was soon adopted by ranchers, farmers and construction workers who shopped at agricultural co-ops or at hardware stores. In the 1980s hip-hop artists wore Carhartt’s muted khaki and mustard canvas gear in their music videos linking the brand with that iconic baggy streetwear style. During wartime, the company produced coveralls for soldiers, jungle suits for Marines, and workwear for women stepping into the labor force on the home front. Today Carhartt remains a privately held, family-owned company with headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. It has 4 US factories in Kentucky and Tennessee, and, according to the New York Times employs some of America's last unionized textile workers, as well as operating facilities in Mexico and China which follow Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) certification. The brand uses domestic suppliers for its cotton, buttons and drawstrings.
Despite data showing that the fashion industry continues to fall short of its goal to reduce emissions and with greenwashing occupying the headlines, Valade is undaunted, plowing ahead with her plans to nourish a sustainability-alert team.
“It can be incredibly hard to actually ingrain sustainability into a brand and business,” she says. “But I was kind of born into it.” When she speaks about sustainability it’s as if it’s something that exists and breathes, and even poses the question of where sustainability “lives” within a company. If it lives in fibers, the responsibility can get passed to the development team, but if it lives in transparency then it’s in the hands of communication team. At Carhartt, Valade sees her mandate as making sure it lives and breathes everywhere. “To have the most impact we build the strategy of what sustainability means to Carhartt, because it can mean so many different things to different people. Then we have a steering committee that has leaders throughout the company that help us achieve our goals.”
She points out that while some brands might not have previously had a dedicated director of sustainability they might have managed with a director of strategy who counted sustainability within their purview. “But now there are so many laws and regulations coming out,” says Valade, “that not having a focus on it could cause even more disruption within a company because you don’t have the foresight to understand what’s coming.”
Becoming Sustainability Director within the family firm is a result not only of good fortune but hard work. As a high school freshman and during summer breaks from college, Valade interned her way through different departments. “I have been privileged enough to have that opportunity,” she says about her stints working with the product and design teams, before branching out on her own to work for global supply-chain company Li & Fung in Hong Kong and New Delhi. Somewhere along the way, she says, “My mind shifted from product to values and I began to ask myself who was Carhartt outside of the clothing that we make.” She joined Detroit's Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center and the Nature Conservancy’s Michigan board of trustees. As she got more involved in the community, she noticed an absence of spaces that offered locals opportunities to connect and one of her early projects was creating a space that represented Carhartt but without product, building out the Carhartt workshop which includes a Tool Lending Library where people can borrow what they need to fix up their homes and gardens. “So that's sort of how I maneuvered my way to where I am now, focused on environmental impact, tied closely with social impact and supply chain.”
Unfortunately for many young fashion professionals who are looking for ways to make a difference within established companies, it can be challenging to get heard by the powers-that-be. Valade believes that even if they're not part of a sustainability team, there are still ways to contribute as every company is at a different point on the journey. “When I first started I met with about 30 people throughout the company just to see where we were, what was our baseline,” she says. “I found that people were doing things to lessen our impact, but weren’t calling it sustainability. So it can be about keeping an open mind, having conversations, understanding how it can all tie together, finding commonalities for greater impact.”Bringing sustainability knowledge to design rooms, material sourcing, or communications teams matters, but even just being able to simplify the topic for peers or the older generation that didn't grow up with it, can be enough to make a difference, believes Valade. Smaller brands are paving the way because they can adjust and act quickly to improve their systems whereas it can be harder to move the needle in larger companies. “But no one can do it alone. Honestly, the most refreshing thing for me is that brands are working together,” says Valade. “The industry needs a shift. It can't just be one brand with a mission, like Patagonia, for example, who I love for what they are doing, but they alone are not going to save the world. It really needs to be everyone falling in line and working together.”
And teams working together has been been at the heart of Carhartt's business since 1889.