Finding Your Wilderness | Interview with Alex Carleton, Filson
Alex Carleton’s personality is exactly synonymous with the brand that he has worked with over the past three years. All about heritage, history, and the wilderness, he is unapologetically himself. It is a refreshing take on what it means to be a creative director of a brand and it is rare to find someone so truly fitting for their position – who lives and breathes the culture and mantra of a brand like Filson.
Alex had a very unconventional start to his career in retail. It was never his intention to be in the industry, originally thinking of being a teacher, professor, or historian.
“It’s not 1+2=3 for me. I never had a dream or desire to pursue this industry. There were just a few pivotal moments in my life where I grew up surrounded by people who were outdoorsmen. It was in the ether around me. I always had a love of craft and quality. The house I grew up in was hand-built and I grew up with sort of a respect for old things and history. I always had a very artistic family, and we were always making and building things. I thought that if I didn’t go into academia the way my dad did that I would make chairs, or end up somewhere in rural New England being a builder.
“Fast forward, I really had no intention of coming to the West Coast, but I met with Tom Kartsotis – the owner of Bedrock who bought Filson four years ago. I grew up with Filson, it was always the more exotic outdoor brand – a bit meaner, tougher, and more remote. I remember, too, being a little kid and every once in a while, a Filson product would appear in my vicinity, or even in the mudroom of my childhood house. My father had a Filson mud cloth jacket and it was almost ominous, it was this scary thing, that if I ever had to go and take the dogs out or get firewood it was this rustic, exotic thing that he had. Filson wasn’t something I was looking for or ready for. I always thought about the prospect and adventure that the Northwest represented for me. I hadn’t spent a lot of time in the Northwest, it was always since childhood a very romantic and exotic place for me. There was always something about the scale and the mystique and the power and presence of nature and wilderness that still exists in the West, and it always engaged my imagination.”
Alex believed that there was a lot of untapped potential of the heritage brand. He was able to take a brand like Filson and redirect it to its original roots, bringing it back to the core values that make Filson, Filson.
“I think the fact that Filson was a 100-year-old start up is the least I can say. It was really a brand that had an opportunity to build infrastructure and sort of refine its focus and its meaning. There was an incredible unsung core competency with really legendary core products. There’s also a lot of conversation around an almost schizophrenic approach or understanding of who the customer was.”
The potential of seeing what kind of framework you can build on a brand’s foundation is really enticing.
“Studying the origin of Filson and its trajectory and understanding what the brand valued from its beginning developed, for us, a clear gravitational focus for where we could go. Developing what is believable coming from Filson based on the past and who we’ve been. I use that all the time as a filter. It’s this idea of defining what is believable and what makes sense coming from a brand. Going back to the origin of Filson, people’s survival depended on it, we were an outfitter. An outfitter meant we were selling things to accommodate people in pursuit of their dreams in the Klondike, in the gold mines of Alaska. So you’ve got 100 years of being a brand that’s about workwear – its pragmatic, practical, and function-oriented. It was influenced by the territory and reactionary to the environment. Like the idea of paraffin soaked tin cloth fabric was because it was wet in the Northwest. The cruiser jacket that we sell, the pattern goes back to 1914 and it’s still one of our top-selling products. I wonder sometimes how many people wear that coat in Brooklyn and actually understand that it’s not a hunting coat, but something that helped people survey the land. That back pocket, it was where you would put all of your maps, compass and surveying tools for people who were surveying the forests in the Northwest. So, it was sort of this idea of developing and socializing a core understanding and celebrating the origin – being Filson centric.
The ethos of Filson is evident in everything from their branding campaigns to the merchandise and artifacts within their stores. Every aspect tells a story and conveys a message that is at the core of this Northwestern brand.
“We use real people for our creative strategy, we show them using the product in context for the use it was intended. The interpretation of our product is not only how it was intended but it helps us further our understanding of our products’ potential. It starts to expand the meaning of Filson. We also determined to be regionally focused. In an industry that is focused on being global, we went the opposite course – ‘we are proud of our regionality.’ We want to show our enhanced local vernacular. We want to be known as a pacific Northwest brand to recognize that distinction. In a way, we put the blinders on, and build up in a vacuum. It’s really been working; what we’re finding is that there is a sort of purity that comes through that discipline of staying focused. Not that its not tempting; we travel and find beauty and inspiration in that, but to properly steward a brand, you need to be able to discern what is applicable to your brand, and not be too many things to too many people, and not be fickle about your decisions. Something else we are disciplined in as well is not being arbitrary in decision making, whether its design or product development, we are incredibly deliberate. If creative proposes a font or an image in marketing or an event, a button on a shirt, you have to be able to explain why and how it connects to the brand. It has to be purposeful. We’re developing a level of standards within this company that is world class in the sense of its quality. It’s fantastic to see how much people internally are developing a further sense of pride and value for their own work and quality”
At Filson, we have the opportunity to be rugged and pure but also refined.
Many brands don’t have that foundation of 100 years that Filson does. This heritage appeals to Alex’s ever growing appetite for history and romanticism.
“This is a historic brand and I am just drawn to history. Working in a business that’s historic is really fascinating for me. There’s always the past that can be drawn upon for creative development. It’s the fact that Filson is a manufacturer and the culture of manufacturing is very unique. We have 3 factories in the Northwest. Being able to work in that environment is incredibly inspiring. It keeps me engaged. The other thing I love is more Romantic, with a capital R, but it’s the esoteric, ethereal connection to the narrative of the wild and building a narrative that is connected to the wild. We’re very strict to say it’s not about a connection to nature, because everybody is connected to nature, but not every brand can connect and channel the wild. It’s that sense of insanity, unpredictability, danger, the primal factor of Filson that is stripped down. It is super romantic, and it’s a narrative that is a north-star for where we are going. Wilderness, you can devote a whole issue to the idea of wilderness, the whole idea of urban wilderness it’s a global universal conversation. There’s wilderness in outer space and even within you… It’s an interesting concept. I love that this brand has the opportunity to provide people a look to that. It’s our opportunity to bring somebody into the Filson narrative.”
Wilderness is a constant source of inspiration for Alex and what the wilderness can mean to individuals.
“What does the wilderness mean to a guy who is in public lands management in Kodiak Alaska, what does it mean to Kiki Smith or Mark Dion? They’re both engaged in the conversation about wilderness but in different ways. Robert Sullivan, a writer in Brooklyn, wrote a book called Rats, which is a history of vermin in New York City. It’s a fascinating topic: wilderness in high density urban environments. It’s there.”
When looking at new technologies, Alex notes that new materials allow Filson to concentrate on their heritage brand in more productive and efficient ways.
“We do have a legacy cache of materials, it’s very storied and part of our DNA, but we also had a bit of an epiphany and a shift in our outlook. We have taken our handcuffs off and asked ourselves how we can be problem solvers for different end-uses. To say I’m going to make the best fishing products but I’m beholden to a set of qualities and materials, it keeps me from moving the brand forward. So that’s very exciting. Materials are important to our evolution. We like to think, Clinton C. Filson was an entrepreneur, what would he do today? That’s the great thing about the approach with Filson; the entrepreneurial, fresh and innovative thinking, within the construct of a 100-year-old brand, is what’s going to create relevance and be a game changer for the company. It’s what is different for heritage brands, they are beholden to the way they’ve done business, but here it’s the opposite. Here it’s an old brand with a lot of fresh and new energy and perspective on where can we go and how can we innovate. We are defining a new paradigm within an old shell.”
In regards to inspiration, it is no surprise that the great outdoors is the main source for Alex. It’s where he engages his mind and looks for new ideas and reflection.
I look to the outdoors, exercise and sports as a good palette cleanser to refresh. It’s cathartic.
“You have to go out into the wilderness. It’s where all of the stories and the narratives come from, when I’m alone in the woods. It’s critical.”
There are a lot of brands that use the word like craftsmanship and tend to abuse it or use it improperly. Alex believes words like craftsmanship and heritage have lost their value over the years.
“They don’t mean anything anymore. I’m jaded – maybe it’s an advantage that I had the opportunity to work in a branding agency where the rhetoric of marketing is so important. Original, I love that word, and it’s really succinct for Filson and I love that origin is the root word of original. Because origin speaks of history and the wilderness and connection and a place we call home. Where did the idea originate from? The tin cruiser jacket is original, its original to this region, its function was that it was a true tool. I have total respect for luxury brands and I am intrigued and entertained by creativity of all different forms, but there is recognizing and respecting and learning, but then there is having an emotional connection to something. It’s different.”
Being someone who loves history and the Filson narrative, we were curious as to what Alex’s person aesthetic was and what the inside of his home looked like!
“Chaos. Crazy person. Grey gardens at best. Boxes of shit… I really love the stories that things tell. I love stuff, the original things, old quilts, Paula Rubenstein in NYC is one of my favorites. Everything from books to broken tables to rugs. There is a narrative, it’s antiques, it’s classics. If you look at my apartment here, I’ve gotten into Northwest Native American art, like true original indigenous artwork. Wherever I go, I try to find what’s true to that place. Now that I’m thinking about it, the photography of the forestry industry and Native American artwork… That’s where I am and that’s what I like – it works for me.”