Hip-hop, skater culture helps make clothing company popular

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, JAN. 14 - In this Thursday, Jan. 3, 2018 photo, Sal Rodriquez, 41, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., tries on a Sawtooth Parka at the Carhartt store in Detroit. The nearly 130-year-old, family-owned, Dearborn-based company that began making durable clothing for railroad workers now is no longer a niche manufacturer. Its workwear has become mainstream. (Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News via AP)

By BREANA NOBLE

The Detroit News

AP Member Exchange

DETROIT — Moyra Aontsalakis walked into the flagship Carhartt store in midtown and made a beeline for the wall of beanies.

“A lot of my friends like Carhartt,” said the 16-year-old from Toronto, who was in town for an indoor softball tournament and wanted to visit the retail location because it offered more color options than stores near home. “It’s really popular in Toronto among skaters. It’s not too much, and I like it, too.”

Aontsalakis picked up a red A18 acrylic watch cap for a friend. She was not alone — Amazon recently said the Dearborn-based workwear manufacturer was one of its top brands this holiday season with more than a million items ordered.

The nearly 130-year-old family-owned company that began making durable clothing for railroad workers now is no longer a niche clothing manufacturer. Its brand is mainstream among the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Rihanna, Harry Styles and Kanye West. It’s a trend stemming from skaters and hip-hop culture that was years in the making.

“A lot of work and a lot of time and effort have been put into the brand for years,” Tony Ambroza, Carhartt’s chief brand officer, told The Detroit News . “In 2010 and 2011, there was the beginnings of a trend around workwear. If it is, it’s been a long trend in its development.”

Ambroza said the company grew 20 percent in 2018, and traffic increased in its 29 retail stores and online by nearly 30 percent. Google searches and impressions increased 92 percent, and the number of people talking about Carhartt on social media platforms exploded, increasing more than 200 percent.

Sal Rodriguez, 41, of St. Clair Shores grew up with the brand. His father and grandfather wore Carhartt when they worked on the railroads.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had this stuff,” said Rodriguez, who came to the Carhartt store to try on the Sawtooth Parka. “Now it’s a fad.”

More than 100 years after Hamilton Carhartt began to manufacturer overalls in brown duck fabric and denim with only four sewing machines and five employees in a small Detroit loft, Carhartt has grown popular.

In 1990, when the jackets started becoming popular on the streets, Tommy Boy Records, a hip-hop label, bought 800 Carhartt jackets embroidered with its logo and distributed them as a promotional stunt. It signed House of Pain, who wore the Weathered Duck Detroit coat in the music video “Jump Around,” contributing to the ubiquity of the brand.

Carhartt also benefited from some European glamour. Swiss jeans designer Edwin Faeh in 1989 bet on workwear when he introduced his own line of American-inspired products to the European market.

Five years later, he made a licensing agreement with Carhartt to launch Carhartt Work in Progress, or WIP, to become the exclusive distributor of the brand in Europe. It has more than 80 stores worldwide.

Still based in Amsterdam, WIP has similar products from the original Carhartt and pairs them with different materials and trims. It opened a U.S. store in New York City in 2010, and its products are available on its website. Carhartt WIP is not available on Amazon.

“With the Carhartt label, we were making products for a person that would be doing the roughest and toughest jobs,” Ambroza said. “WIP celebrates the workers that make art and film. Both are creative and are a part of the overall system of people we are committed to serving and protecting.”

WIP also has released products with French design group A.P.C., Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, athletic retailer Nike, Dutch streetwear boutique Patta and skater shoe brand Vans. Krista Corrigan, an analyst for retail technology company Edited, said limited-edition collaborations with streetwear giants such as Stussy and Supreme created exclusivity for the brand.

“Consumers are looking to be inspired,” Corrigan said in an email. “Mass no longer appeals to them in a market where exclusivity is key. They love seeing their favorite brands come together to collaborate on something new and fresh.”