A century before the tech boom brought waves of programmers to a once-desolate Seattle neighborhood, a different group of starry-eyed workers flocked to the quiet port city in hopes of striking gold. Only, that time, their aspirations were literal.
Much like how taprooms and salad bars sprung up for the new industry of the 2000s, Seattle’s turn-of-the-century waterfront exploded to serve the tens of thousands of prospectors who would use it as an embarkation point. Canadian law required gold-mining hopefuls to come prepared with a year’s worth of supplies before crossing the border. Clinton C. Filson was happy to oblige. He founded his business in 1897 and soon gained a reputation among gold rush veterans, especially for his wool outerwear: Those headed to the Klondike ought to first make a stop at Filson’s shop.
That business, unlike many of the men it outfitted, endured the gold boom turned bust. Filson soon shifted its focus toward providing the region’s miners, loggers, and outdoors people with clothing so practical and well made it could never go out of style—an ethos captured by the company’s early slogan, “Might as well have the best.”
Have things changed since then? Definitely. Have things at Filson changed as much as they have everywhere else? Not even close. “We’re custodians of an amazing legacy,” Filson product specialist Nathan Gray says. “Our job is to preserve and grow that heritage going forward.” Here’s what 125 years of striving for the best looks like.
A list of supply recommendations passed from one stampeder to another circa 1898 holds what is likely the earliest known mention of a shirt that would make history: the Filson Cruiser. The long-sleeve, wool button-up shirt with a two-layer back is designed to hold maps for timber cruisers who survey land before bringing in the rest of the logging crew. Copycats abound even after C.C. Filson patents the design in 1914, and his 1919 death complicates things even further, but as Gray puts it, “Nobody likes a pretender.” The Cruiser still claims a spot at the top of Filson’s lineup today, with only small changes. If you find a compass pocket, that’s pre-1980s vintage; enameled snaps mean pre-1960s, according to the Barn Owl Vintage Goods owner and Filson archivist, Josh Dand.
Straw Boater Hat
A Filson free association game might turn up professions like logger, hunter, and fisher. But what about golfer? Filson’s early catalogs are dotted with the kind of gear that might upset purists today: preppy plaid blazers, golf shirts, cardigans. The Museum of History and Industry even carries a straw boater sold by Filson (possibly made by another company). But it tracks. The 1920s Filson customer, Gray says, was “basically anybody who’s doing stuff outside.”
Russell Pac Boot
In August 1930, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer dedicates a full-page spread to Filson’s move—both to a new physical location on Second and Madison, and from a “small outfitting store” to a firm “of nationally known fame.” The article itself is rivaled for space by the congratulatory ads taken out by brands Filson carried, like the W.C. Russell Moccasin Company, who wanted their names associated with the growing outfitter.
Filson pares down its product list significantly in the 1950s and keeps operations small well into the 1970s. Gray theorizes that the company wanted to push back against the era’s fascination with synthetic materials and cheap, mass-produced fabrications by primarily producing garments that reflected its proud heritage as an outfitter for the working man. “We started to say, You know what, we’re not going to be everything to everybody,” Gray says. “We’re gonna do what we do best.” This single-back coat, produced for a couple of years in the ’50s and ’60s, is a slight variation on the Cruiser that stands out for the rarity of its “peppermint patty” green, white, and brown plaid pattern. One particularly pristine version from 1951 earned a spot on the dress form at the 125th anniversary Filson Archive Shop curated by Dand, who compares Filson loyalists to “a woolen Waldorf and Statler from The Muppet Show”—always complaining about change. Hearkening back to this bygone era of stability “gives them an opportunity to go ahead and be like, Oh, this is how we remember things.”
Skiwear mogul Stan Kohls purchases Filson in 1981 and promptly expands the catalog from 35 to 250 products. In 1991, Filson launches its now-central luggage line, marking a shift toward outfitting the outdoorsman “not just in the outdoors, but in their everyday life,” Gray says. The 2005 Lodge Line (think raglan tees and corduroy trousers), launched right after former Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation president Doug Williams took over the company, may have been ill-fated, but Filson’s been working to broaden its customer base ever since.
Women’s Alaskan Guide Shirt
Gray recalls two women visiting Filson’s Portland shop on the same day during his time as general manger. The first eyeballs a women’s shirt and asks Gray, “Do you have anything for girls?” The second looks at the same shirt and asks, “Where’s the real Filson stuff for women?” Though the company has offered women’s clothing on and off throughout its history—the 1926 catalog advertises an alligator coat and calls Filson “really the only place to get PRACTICAL shoes for women”—2008 signaled one significant reintroduction. Still, it’s a market they’ve yet to master.
Filson x Nanamica Red Label Canvas Tote
Heritage-driven Americana fashion, popularized in Japan and exported back to its country of origin, stokes “a resurgence of interest in once-obscure American brands” like Filson, per a 2009 article in The New York Times. The Seattle company’s popularity abroad leads them to open Filson’s first international storefront in Osaka, Japan, in 2010; soon after, Filson partners with Tokyo-based Nanamica on preppy canvas totes exclusive to the Japanese market.
NeoShell Reliance Technical Rain Jacket
In the land of neon puffer coats and Gore-Tex, could we really expect Filson to stick with wool and tin cloth forever? Outside Magazine’s Wes Siler writes that Filson gear was “just too heavy and not technical enough for high-exertion activities” until the 2018 introduction of the surprisingly fashionable NeoShell Reliance rain jacket, a waterproof layer that rivals offerings from the likes of North Face and Patagonia while maintaining a rugged workwear look. The catch: This sort of specialized manufacturing, which overseas factories excel at, would be prohibitively expensive for Filson to perform stateside, Gray says. Filson still makes certain heritage products at its Kent factory, but followers of the company have vehemently criticized local manufacturing layoffs and the move away from its American-made past.
Filson performs a balancing act with each addition to its product lineup: The company needs to grow and change to attract new customers, but it needs new customers to support growth and change. Take the small line of jeans, Filson’s first serious foray into denim, introduced in 2020. “Our challenge is to get that Filson name out there,” Gray says, and convince customers new and old that if they “want the best denim around, go with us.”
Wool Packer Coat
What’s drawn customers to Filson for the past 125 years might just work today. A 2020 release of Filson’s previously discontinued shearling-collared wool Packer coats sold out so quickly that the company repeated the launch in 2021 and plans to release more archival designs in the coming years. It’s an approach that appeals to serious collectors, like Dand, who rarely buys new but went in for the limited-edition green-and-black Cruiser. It’s an approach that appeals to fashionable, would-be fans who appreciate Filson’s heritage aesthetic—“guys running around New York City,” as Gray calls them. But, most crucially, it’s an approach that stays true to customers that “have known us and have grown up with us,” Gray says. “We don’t want to become something else.”