CARHARTT: DUAL IDENTITY
On the one hand, it’s American workwear. On the other, it’s mainstream streetwear. Say what?
“THIS BRAND IS A BADGE OF IDENTITY; IT SAYS EXACTLY WHO I AM: AN AMERICAN FARMER.”
If you’re traveling from Paris, you need to take a train from Gare de Lyon. Settle in and watch the Burgundy landscape glide by with its vineyards and valleys, then the foothills of the Jura Mountains appear, and the train veers eastward. Once you arrive in Basel threeand-a-half-hours later, there’s still a way to go – after first hopping across another border. A few minutes’ drive, and you’re in Weil am Rhein, home to around 30,000 residents and the third-largest town in Germany’s Lörrach district. Beneath a menacing sky, you soon catch sight of a seemingly endless line of warehouses and parking lots. At the heart of this setting that could be the bad guys’ hangout in an old James Bond movie, a low-slung steel and Plexiglas building finally appears. You see a young team busily working inside at their big computer screens. And here he is, Edwin Faeh. Wearing a hat, with a vest draped over his shoulders, he greets you softly in very precise English.
This man, whom you’ve had to track down to the ends of the Earth – that’s how it feels, anyway – is Edwin Faeh, or rather, Herr Faeh. Three decades ago, he set up Carhartt’s European branch, Carhartt WIP, for Work In Progress. Over the years, he has managed to build an unconventional business, surely quite unlike any other, with a unisex appeal that unites streetwear and workwear devotees, urbanites and out-of-towners, the fashion-forward and a whole lot of others besides. Welldressed people get their clothes from him, as do badly dressed people. Yet we know nothing about him, his story or the story of his brand. Why? “Probably because I don’t look to the past,” he replies. “I don’t collect classic cars or old paintings. I like things that are new. I’m an avant-gardist.”
FARMERS OR DEALERS?
To understand his story, we need to scroll back to the late 1980s. In those days, Edwin Faeh and his twin brother Laurin ran a jeans brand called Big Star they had launched together in Basel in 1974. Things were working fine, but the two brothers were always on the lookout for new ways to expand their collections, and by extension, their business. One way was to increase the range of authentic American garments they sold. Along with jeans, they stocked jackets by Schott and shirts by Five Brothers, but Faeh was always looking for new products. One morning, at the Saint-Ouen flea market in Paris, he had an epiphany when his eye was caught by the color of a jacket made in a fabric that intrigued him. “I’d never seen anything like it,” he recalls. “It was so heavy, 340 grams, even heavier than denim. Not even a grizzly could rip a fabric like that.” Faeh had just encountered the famous duck canvas and with it the Carhartt brand. He bought every jacket he could find at the market that day and promised himself that “one day I’ll talk to the people at Carhartt.”
A few months later, while Faeh and his wife Salomée were on a trip to the States, he looked up Carhartt’s number in an old phone directory and called them on the off chance.
He was told to visit whenever he wanted in Dearborn, Michigan, near Detroit, where the brand has had its HQ since it was founded by Hamilton Carhartt in 1889. The couple was staying somewhere in the forests of Vermont, a thousand miles away on the East Coast, but that wasn’t a problem. They jumped into a rental car and covered the distance in one shot, before checking into a roadside motel a few miles from Dearborn. The next morning, they set off early, expecting to find an old redbrick factory full of workers in blue overalls. Instead, they were met by a modern high-rise building. The Carhartt offices on the 16th floor were all plush carpeting and smart suits. “We simply explained to them that we wanted to set up large-scale distribution of Carhartt in Europe”, says Faeh. “But they were oldschool Americans, so we didn’t impress them much. I really don’t think they believed we were up to it.” But Faeh’s proposal did have one thing going for it – it came at a particularly good time.
The fact was that the iconic Michigan brand had fallen victim to a strange phenomenon: a brand-new clientele was starting to monopolize its products. Drug dealers in big American cities were now wearing Carhartt to keep themselves warm on street corners in winter. Designed to hold tools, the multiple pockets on the jackets were a real boon for them. The hoods came in handy, too. Carhartt was soon taken up by rappers as well. Brooklyn-based Das EFX and L.A.’s South Central’s Above the Law led the way, wearing the brand on their album covers and in their videos. In
Since it first arrived in Europe almost 30 years ago, Carhartt has been carving out a unique and credible place for itself as a mainstream brand. It owes much of this achievement to a discreet Swiss businessman. The untold story of Carhartt WIP, the brand’s streetwear version.
EDWIN FAEH, HEAD OF CARHARTT WIP “AT FIRST, EUROPEANS DIDN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT WE WERE DOING WITH THIS AMERICAN BRAND AT ALL. BUYERS AT TRADE FAIRS JUST LAUGHED AT US.”
1990, major New York label Tommy Boy Records bought 800 work jackets, had them embroidered with its yellow logo and handed them out to a select group of influential figures in their entourage (a Deadstock jacket of this type was recently sold at auction by Sotheby’s for $3,780).
To fill rising demand, Carhartt had to open a new production facility in Tennessee and a distribution center in neighboring Kentucky. A good thing, surely? But back in Dearborn, the Carhartt family, who continued to run the brand decades after Hamilton’s death in 1937, were more worried than anything else. Their concern was that they wouldn’t be able to meet the needs of their original customer base in rural areas and on construction sites. Carhartt’s core identity as dyed-in-the-wool workwear was under threat. Caught between a fashion trend and the traditional heart of its business – just as brands like Helly Hansen and Lacoste would later be in Europe – Carhartt finally came to a decision in 1992 and announced that playtime was over. “To provide American workers with their workwear,” stated a press release, “the brand will no longer supply a large number of city stores throughout the country.” At the same time, top executives at the company refused to open an account with retail giant Kmart.
AMERICAN CUT OR EUROPEAN STYLE?
“Against this backdrop, Edwin Faeh’s proposal looked like it might be a really good opportunity to develop the brand without risk,” recalls Debra Ferraro, now vice president of Carhartt’s traditional line. “We didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin. And we knew that he was bound to do better than us in Europe.”
In 1989, the Swiss Faeh was given permission to distribute the brand in Germany, and Germany alone. The deal gave Dearborn a percentage of each piece sold. The amount was set at 6 percent of the wholesale price. Faeh’s first order for his All American Concept set-up was for 300 jackets, which had to be paid for immediately. He complied with these conditions, but it didn’t take long for the first row to start brewing, when the Swiss entrepreneur decided he would illicitly sell Carhartt in France. To get away with it, he disguised his merchandise by sending the garments to workshops in Alsace where they were washed out, dyed and coated with paraffin.
“Eventually, I got a call from one of the American directors,” recalls Faeh. “He was very angry and told me the brand was going to stop working with me. I’d screwed up. But when I explained that I’d altered the products, the guy calmed down.” Sometime later, in 1992, Faeh was finally given proper authorization to exclusively distribute the brand in France and neighboring countries. This was the official birth of what could be called Carhartt Europe. Two years later, the WIP name was formalized.
“At first, people didn’t understand what we were doing with this brand at all,” says Faeh. “Buyers at trade fairs just laughed at us.” There’s no denying that Europe and America are very different markets, and tastes differ widely on either side of the Atlantic. Faeh quickly realized that he would have to restyle his collections if he wanted to succeed. With the approval of their American big brother, his teams soon came up with their own version of the brand’s famous carpenter pants. The loop, designed to hold a tool, was removed, as were the side pockets. The duck canvas was replaced by a more lightweight cotton. “We called them ‘simple pants.’ They were a wardrobe basic, but there was also something really fashionable about them,” says Oliver Drewes, who was supervising design at the time. His work consisted mainly of adapting the American collections into lighter, more colorful European versions, with a particular emphasis on corduroy.
In 1996, a symbolic milestone was reached when Faeh finally gained the right to design
original pieces, with no link to the historic models. Suddenly windbreakers, cargo pants and parkas appeared, the likes of which had never been seen in Dearborn. “All we did was make sure the brand identity was still represented by WIP,” says Ferraro. “Sometimes there’d be a pattern or a style that didn’t fit.” For example, the Americans were reluctant for a while to let Faeh make Bermuda shorts. They felt they were just too short. And then they gave in.
Meanwhile, another, more frustrating problem was emerging. The Midwestern U.S. factories, which still produced all the Carhartt lines, were struggling to keep up with demand and deliver to everyone on time, so management eventually gave Faeh the freedom to manufacture his garments himself, as long as he continued to source the fabric from Dearborn.
Faeh immediately set up production in Asia, enabling him to ramp up his quest to conquer Europe. In a fax to Faeh, a newly hired sales manager even drew up a road map for the coming years. His plan was to establish a presence in department stores and jeans stores, with special corners dedicated to the brand. He intended to flood the press with presentations, build up a list of clients who would receive catalogs by mail and distribute brochures wherever possible. Classic marketing stuff.
But Faeh, whose background was in jeans and who knew the limits of the market, had ambitions that were diametrically opposed. “We couldn’t position ourselves as just a jeans brand,” he said. “Jeans stores were of no interest to us.” He wanted to tie the brand to the underground subcultures of the moment. Soon it was sponsoring parties and breakdancing and snowboarding competitions. It set up its own music label and formed a team of skaters dressed entirely in its colors. “We blitzed everything around us,” says Drewes. “One night, I was having dinner in London with the Californian fanzine artist Eva Hecox. We drank absinthe until we slid under the table, and the following day we decided to produce a Carhartt line together.”
In Paris, it was the late, lamented Le Shop – located not far from Place de la Bourse at 3, rue d’Argout – that served as the brand’s flagship store. The sales team used its tremendous people skills to get Carhartt onto the backs of NTM, the Saïan Supa Crew and Raggasonic (famous French hip-hop bands). Later, while visiting Paris, New Yorkers Wu-Tang Clan and diva Lauryn Hill received similar special treatment. “It was crazy and totally laidback at the same time. All the kids from the coolest neighborhoods started wearing Carhartt tops,” recalls Steve Vogel, author of the fashion bible Streetwear and a one-time London salesman for the brand.
Back then, it took Carhartt no time at all to sell an entire series of bikes it had developed with the specialist brand Schwinn. “We launched that project just because I liked bikes,” says Drewes with a laugh. “Carhartt really was a playground for us. We did whatever we wanted. We never thought too much about it and just had fun.” Although the Americans still winced occasionally, as when WIP decided to decorate the pages of its catalogs with fake cigarette burns. The Dearborn bosses insisted that those revolting things never crossed the Atlantic.
OLIVER DREWES, FORMER CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF CARHARTT WIP “CARHARTT WIP REALLY WAS A PLAYGROUND FOR US. WE DID WHATEVER WE WANTED. WE NEVER THOUGHT TOO MUCH ABOUT IT.”
COLLABORATION WITH SAINT LAURENT OR WITH KASSOVITZ?
Savvy businessman Faeh – who is Swiss, remember – saw the image Carhartt was generating as a lever for growth. “I remember that he’d often give staff an economics book, to show that we weren’t just in it for fun,” says a former Paris salesman.
Faeh left people to their own devices but kept his controlling eye on everything. One day, he went in person to a store in Stockholm to claim payment for old bills. In similar vein, he had no qualms about firing a longstanding employee who had the misfortune of arguing with a sales representative on the phone. “Even though he knew my mother and thought of me as a son, Edwin just wanted to protect his business,” says the employee in question.
“Edwin Faeh didn’t buy the license because he thought it was cool and liked skateboarding,” says Vogel. “He bought it as a business operation.” Which is precisely why, in the late 2000s, Faeh and his army of strategic planners decided that Carhartt WIP needed to smooth away its sharper street edges and become a more mainstream fashion brand. A variety of new styles were introduced to make up for customers losing interest in baggy jeans. More photo shoots were set up with hip magazines, and the brand moved into department stores. “All of a sudden, the world had changed. We needed to become a modern company if we wanted to survive,” Faeh explains.
The brand also launched a cycle of collaborations that is still going today. The new initiative has headlined a glittering cast, from Japan’s Junya Watanabe to New Yorker Adam Kimmel and A.P.C. in Paris. “I’ve always been influenced by workwear, but I couldn’t take it as far as I wanted because I don’t have the manufacturing capacity,” says Jean Touitou, A.P.C.’s founder. “But WIP has. Their fabrics have real substance to them, and with their machines – they sound like ship’s engines – they can make serious fleece. In exchange I brought them a certain refinement, fitting their garments closer to the body.”
In summer 2018, Touitou brought his friend Kanye West to Basel to meet the brand’s creative teams. “In America, Basel is mainly known for Art Basel, the contemporary art fair in Miami. So it was funny for me to bring Kanye to the real Basel.” The Frenchman had something specific in mind. “I wanted Kanye to design a collection of clothes for them, I thought it would be a totally logical alliance.” All the other parties felt the same way, but the project never came to fruition due to clashing schedules. A few months later, Faeh and Carhartt were engaged in another collaboration, this time with Yves Saint Laurent. “The idea came from Anthony Vaccarello, creative director at Saint Laurent. There were discussions, and the partnership seemed to be in the works when Saint Laurent management stopped everything. I was very keen.” A salesman from the old days still cringes at the thought: “WIP wants to be everywhere. If bakeries sold clothes, the brand would make sure it was there.”
Carhartt WIP has become so big (annual sales of the brand is evaluated at 120 millions euros) that Faeh doesn’t like it when journalists mention the brand’s ties to Carhartt in America. And it’s true that the balance of power between the two entities has shifted over time. Although the bosses back in Dearborn had long forbidden WIP to set up shop in the U.S. so as not to undermine the American brand, they finally allowed WIP to open its first American store in 2011 in New York City’s Soho. In 2019, a second store opened in Los Angeles on bustling Fairfax Avenue. “Carhartt WIP showed us that we could do other things, that we could have other customers and still stay true to who we are,” says Ferraro. “In Dearborn, we even started to draw
EDWIN FAEH, HEAD OF CARHARTT WIP “ALL OF A SUDDEN, THE WORLD HAD CHANGED. WE NEEDED TO BECOME A MODERN COMPANY IF WE WANTED TO SURVIVE”
inspiration from some of their designs and colors.”
Yet 30 years after the contract between the two entities was drawn up, its terms have hardly changed. Carhartt U.S. still approves each WIP design, according to a particularly demanding set of specifications. “When we wanted to make an ashtray, they refused,” says Faeh, casually recognizing the Americans’ continued resistance to anything to do with cigarettes. Carhartt U.S. still takes a cut of the sale price on each WIP garment, with the terms of the contract between the two businesses renegotiated every four years.
“If the family ever decides to sell the brand to a holding company, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be taken out of the equation,” says Faeh. “The buyers would certainly want to manage WIP themselves. That means we always have to negotiate the contracts as early as possible, to protect ourselves.” Preparations for the next negotiations in 2024 are already well underway. There’s no room for improvisation at Carhartt WIP these days. Or almost no room – last autumn, the brand launched a collection
to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of the movie La Haine. The collection came about largely because filmmaker Matthieu Kassovitz hit it off with one of the brand’s directors when they discovered they shared the same weed dealer.