Et tu, Filson?


Lumberjacks well-equipped in early C.C. Filson clothingThe history of exploration in the 20th century is littered with outfitters that got their start and earned fame by offering high-quality, durable clothing and equipment suitable for demanding use in the field, and which then devolved into mere fashion outlets flogging branded urban wear showing little if anything in common with their heritage.

Walk into an Abercrombie and Fitch store today and tell a clerk you’d like to be fitted for a new 16-bore sidelock shotgun. You’ll probably find yourself chatting with a policeman in short order. Yet for seven decades A&F was the premier U.S. outfitter for outdoorspeople, whether they were headed out for a weekend of flyfishing or, as one customer and former U.S. President was in 1909, off to Africa for a year of shooting and collecting for the Smithsonian. One could figuratively walk into an A&F store in one’s underwear and leave ready to tackle the Dark Continent. But in 1976 the company declared bankruptcy, and the hallowed name was bought by Oshman’s, which relaunched it as a mail-order shadow of its former self. That was a mild fate compared to the eventual acquisition by The Limited, which has morphed Teddy Roosevelt’s outfitter into . . . well, something he would not recognize.

Abercrombie and Fitch, then . . . . . . and now.

There was Willis and Geiger, founded in 1903, who supplied Roald Amundsen, Amelia Earhart,  and the Flying Tigers, among many others. When Charles Lindbergh needed a shearling suit for his flight over Antarctica, he turned to W&G, and when Ernest Hemingway wanted a bush jacket made to his own design, he did likewise. I still have several carefully hoarded W&G shirts and bush jackets in their bespoke, tough Bush Poplin.

In a twist of fate, W&G was Abercrombie and Fitch’s largest creditor when it filed Chapter 11 (because of branded merchandise), and it did not survive the writeoff. A new owner, Richard Avedon, revived the brand, the products, and the quality, but the writing was on the wall. Various takeovers ensued, production of new items moved offshore until the company was purchased by Lands’ End, which let it fade away ignominiously. (Speaking of which, does anyone here recall that Lands’ End got its start selling foul-weather gear to offshore sailors?)

There are others. Eddie Bauer was a sportsman who patented the quilted down jacket, supplied the military in WWII, and outfitted Jim Whittaker on the first U.S. ascent of Mt. Everest.  Once the company was sold in 1968, new corporate owners General Mills turned its focus to everyday clothing and began capitalizing on the evocative name, a marketing assault that hit its nadir when several Ford 4X4 vehicles—and eventually a minivan—received outdoorsy cosmetic packages and were sold as the “Eddie Bauer Edition.” And although Banana Republic’s history dates from just 1978, the company quickly gained a reputation for fine and practical outdoor clothing, only to lose it just as quickly after selling out to Gap Inc.

Jim Whittaker atop Mt. Everest, in an Eddie Bauer parka.

A page from a Banana Republic catalog.

One company weathered all this with standards intact. Clinton C. Filson was born in 1850, homesteaded in Nebraska, then opened a loggers’ outfitting store in Seattle in 1890. In 1897 his business expanded to outfit prospectors on their way to the Alaska gold rush with sleeping bags, boots, and clothing. With the end of the rush, it was natural to shift emphasis to equipping sportsmen with gear for hunting and fishing trips. The family ran the company and the catalog remained small for the next seven decades, until a skiwear manufacturer named Stan Kohls bought the name and expanded the line hugely, while retaining the original design philosophy and maintaining exceptional quality. 

This period was arguably the golden age of C.C. Filson. The company produced clothing ranging from heavy-duty outerwear for winter duck hunting to Feathercloth shirts suitable for the hottest African savannah, and luggage seemingly immune to wear. Through the 90s and into the 2000s, Filson shirts became nearly a uniform for me. One medium Filson duffel has made, as near as Roseann and I can figure, 13 trips to Africa between us.

One of our Filson duffels on its . . . 10th? . . . trip to Africa.Sometime around 2005, I noticed some production had shifted offshore. Although the quality remained, to be honest, apparently the equal of the U.S.-made predecessors, prices not only did not drop but began rising to heights at which tearing the sleeve of a Feathercloth shirt on an acacia really hurt. If I’d looked, I would have discovered that at this time Filson had been purchased by a California-based private-equity firm and a former Ralph Lauren executive.

Uh oh.

Still, I remained loyal because the products seemed to stay consistent, they lasted long enough to make the investment worth it, and there was really nothing else I found that I considered equivalent. 

Then, a couple of months ago, in preparation for a trip to Kenya, I went to the Filson website to buy a couple of new Feathercloth shirts, steeling myself for the $70-per-shirt hit on my bank account.  I found, to my chagrin, that the feathercloth shirt had been discontinued. 

No, it was worse—it hadn’t been discontinued, it had been rebranded. It’s now called the “Seattle Shirt”—and the price has doubled magically to $140. Each. So much for a shirt to wear in the bush—clearly this one is no longer intended to risk danger worse than having a latte spilled on it.

Expedition to Starbucks, anyone?

A little research reveals a disturbing development: “Filson Holdings” was sold in 2012 to Dallas-based Bedrock Manufacturing, which is backed by the founder of the fashionable accessory manufacturer Fossil. Note that “fashionable accessory” part. As if to confirm my worst fears, it was just this time I happened to catch the news of the “Filson Edition” AEV Brute, a $130,000 customized Jeep pickup outfitted with twill and leather seats (Filson logo prominently displayed), brass trim, and a rear-seat organizer equipped with special Filson bags.

Sigh . . .

It’s actually too early to write off Filson altogether. For example, the company has moved production of many products back to the U.S., a commendable effort. However, the prices of those, and other, items have ballooned so comically that it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion the company is targeting an entirely new customer base—one with whom a name such as “Seattle Shirt” will resonate. 

I know I’ll be looking elsewhere for my Kenya shirts.