29. LaCroix, Canada Goose, and Carhartt are cool. Why?
Some brands aren't cool no matter how hard they try. Others start out cool, but lose their cachet over time. Then there are the brands that somehow, surprisingly turn cool. Without really changing their products, LaCroix, Canada Goose, and Carhartt became the hottest things around. How did that happen?
Produced by Jennifer Sigl with Dan Bobkoff, Amy Pedulla, Claire Tighe, and Sarah Wyman.
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
DAN BOBKOFF: From Business Insider and Stitcher, this is Household Name. Brands you know, stories you don't. I'm Dan Bobkoff.
Let's talk about La Croix, Canada Goose and Carhartt for a minute. All of these brands have humble beginnings.
They all began as kind of unassuming products. Seltzer, warm winter coats, practical outerwear. And these products haven't changed much over the years. But they all have something else in common too. Somehow, they became cool. People instagram their La Croix cans. Canada Goose coats are status symbols. Carhartt is worn by electricians and rappers.
So we wanted to know: Why?
Today, three stories of unexpected coolness. Stay with us.
DB: I remember it was sometime around 2015. I was in the office, and somebody said 'hey, do you want to get a La Croix?' And I remember thinking like 'why is there a Seltzer brand that has so much cachet that somebody will actually use the name? There's so many brands that make seltzer, and we don't really think of them. And yet this one brand has become something of a cultural phenomenon.' And so with us right now is Claire Tighe, and she's going to explain how this happened. Hey Claire.
CLAIRE TIGHE: Hey, Dan.
DB: All right. So what is the deal with La Croix?
CT: So I'm from Chicago and I thought I would be the perfect person to explain how this '90s drink went from this boring thing that our parents used to love in the Midwest to Instagram's Seltzer darling.
DB: Seltzer darling?
CT: That's how I see it, Instagram Seltzer darling! So first of all, let's establish some pronunciation. Even we Midwesterners are in debate about the pronunciation. Is it La Kwah? Is it La Croy? Is it La Crotch?
DB: La Crotch? I'm going with La Croy.
CT: La Croy. I called up my friend Emma's mom. Her name is Sue Wood, and she lives in Michigan. She pronounces it like this.
SUE WOOD: I think I've been drinking La Croixes for many many years, perhaps 20.
DB: La Kwaaahhhs.
CT: La Kwahs! It's Lacroix. It's pronounced La Croix. So let me tell you as a Midwesterner, I found it hilarious when La Croix was getting really popular a few years ago.
CT: La Croix was something that our parents drank, and of course because my parents drink it, it was not something that I thought was cool.
La Croix is from Wisconsin and it's been around for decades. It was invented by a beer company in Wisconsin. The G. Heileman Brewing Company, who are also the makers of Old Style Beer for all my Chicagoans out there. At first, in the 1980s and 1990s, it was only distributed locally in Wisconsin and the rest of the Midwest. It was purely a Midwestern product that was known and loved by locals. In the 1980s, people were drinking a lot of Perrier. It's that seltzer water that's in a green bottle, it has that nice label…
DB: Looks almost like wine.
CT: It looks almost like a wine! Imported wine! But it was imported water, and Heileman was like 'we want to try an American homegrown version of that.' But it was supposed to be the anti-Perrier because people thought Perrier was kind of pretentious. The funny thing is with the French-sounding name, La Croix totally plays off of Perrier's image. I called up Steve Buckner, my friend Max's Dad.
STEVE BUCKNER: I always loved it when people would drink La Croix and think they were getting a fancy foreign drink, imported straight from the headwaters of the St. Croix River, way up there in northern Wisconsin, eh?
CT: My dad even remembers seeing La Croix at cocktail parties all the way back in 1994 in Chicago.
FRANK TIGHE: I remember La Croix being served. It was sort of an alternative to Perrier, which was a little pretentious, I always thought. La Croix didn't have any calories. It didn't have any caffeine. And it was adult. But I don't remember it ever being a, what I'd call "a thing."
CT: Even when I still visit my dad, I'll see these clear recycling bags full of lemon-lime La Croix cans. So in 1992, a company called National Beverage bought La Croix. By the way, their NASDAQ symbol is Fizz, F-I-Z-Z.
DB: Which is not great if the stock goes down, but okay.
CT: It will fizzle? National Beverage's specialty is flavors. And so after National Beverage bought La Croix, they were able to develop new flavor. So they went from six to 21 flavors in just a few years.
DB: Like pamplemousse.
CT: And with National Beverage, they started to distribute La Croix beyond the Midwest. So it went from this regional thing that everyone loved to something that was nationally distributed.
DB: A National Beverage.
CT: National beverage is right! What I find so funny about all of this, Dan, is that of course, you wouldn't know that it's from the Midwest because the Midwest is a proudly non-trendy place. We are humble people. We make cool things, but we just kind of go like, 'yeah, we did that.'
DB: All right, but that doesn't quite explain why La Croix is such a cultural thing now.
CT: So do you remember in the 2000s when soda started going out of style?
DB: Yeah. I mean there's all this talk about obesity and diabetes and you get like Dasani and Aquafina and basically like very expensive tap water in a bottle.
CT: Exactly. So there was this huge push against sugary drinks. Philadelphia and Berkeley introduced soda taxes, schools are no longer selling soda in their vending machines. Of course, we have Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to get schools and kids to be healthy. At the same time, bottled water is becoming a thing and all of these big companies are experimenting with new bottled water brands. So the market is ripe for this healthy alternative to soda as well as a cool bottled water. So that is the backdrop, and then you have the internet. And I found the perfect person to help me understand this. Her name is Chelsea Steele and her Instagram is one of the reasons that we have the internet to thank, and Instagram to thank, for the popularity of La Croix.
CHELSEA STEELE: I was working for a company in Nashville that sells peaches. I was trying to take a curated picture of like my peach set up and I had a La Croix with me.
CT: Chelsea lives in the South, but her parents are from the Midwest. She thought it was so funny because she also remembered La Croix as being something that her parents loved.
CS: I just remember everyone being like 'Omg I love La Croix' and commenting on it and thinking back to being in like a counselor's office or seeing my dad drink them in like the carpool pickup line and being like 'this is not new and it's not cool.' And I think that is for me when the conundrum of like why is this regenerating now, happened, and I don't know that it's a question any of us have been able to answer.
CT: Around 2011, Instagram is starting to get more popular. Hashtags become a thing, and in 2015 when Chelsea came on the scene, La Croix becomes an official partner of the Whole 30, which is this 30 day diet trend. And La Croix was considered the healthy drink option. At the same time, La Croix is starting to trend on the internet. There's this YouTube video with a song called La Croix Boi and it's this guy dancing around and the lyrics are "so let me be your La Croix boy" and he like opens up the fridge and there's just like all this La Croix.
DB: And this is not branded content
CT: I don't believe it was branded content.
[LA CROIX BOI]
CT: And at the same time all of this La Croix merchandise are showing up on Etsy. And then there was the shirt.
DB: The shirt?
CT: In 2015, Chelsea posts a picture of herself and her friends with La Croix on her Instagram and she captions it "La Croixs over boys."
CS: All of my friends were like 'omg girl you gotta make shirts.'
CT: And it gets so many likes and recognition from La Croix that she starts to make shirts and people are buying the shirts.
DB: La Croixs over boys went viral.
CT: It went viral. So after the original Instagram, she takes a picture of herself with a can of La Croix wearing the shirt that says "La Croixs over boys" and she posts that to her Instagram and immediately that becomes a sensation. It gets a ton of attention. La Croix re-instagrammed it, and it turns out that at the time La Croix wasn't doing traditional marketing and ad placement for La Croix.
CS: They don't really have public ad spaces. They don't do commercials. They I think just like claimed their camp in bubble water and have been thriving ever since.
CT: And at the same time that Chelsea posts her picture, La Croix sales are going up and they're beating out all of these other corporate brands for their bubbly water. So Bloomberg picks up the story about how great La Croix is doing compared to these other brands, but there weren't any good stock photos of La Croix. And so they use Chelsea's Instagram post.
CS: And the picture they have for that article is me in my T-shirt and it links directly to my Instagram. So all of the sudden hundreds of strangers are commenting me and are like, 'Where can I get this shirt? Oh my god I love it.'
CT: And she ends up selling out of the shirts, and each time a publication picked up her picture, more people would try to buy the shirt and more publicity would generate for La Croix.
CS: That was the first time I think I noticed the power of the Internet. It exploded. I had so many I think within the first hour it was posted I had 60 orders and I was like 'I gotta get more envelopes, more bubble mailers.' [laughs]
CT: Part of what makes it so Instagram-able is the labeling. It's so unique. It's so colorful. It's so fun. And the La Croix flavors and La Croix cans become known specifically as La Croix. The brand itself says 'I'm healthy. I'm hip!' and sort of tongue-in-cheek trend aware. So in this case, it was the perfect Seltzer storm. People were looking for a healthy alternative to soda and pop. Instagram becomes a thing. And at the same time, La Croix had this perfect label, they had the name, and they had all of these unique flavors, and voila, you've got a pamplemousse problem.
DB: I also think it's like it's very accessible. Like I was in Target the other day and there's a whole wall of La Croix. So it's in Target. It's also in Whole Foods. Maybe a little more expensive than other seltzer, but it's not the most expensive thing out there. I mean anyone can buy La Croix.
CT: I think it's also fun to drink! Like you have this green thing in your hand, but it doesn't have sugar in it. Or you have this pink thing in your hand and it can like match your outfit or match your Instagram. And so I think it has the same effect as like picking out a can of cola but it's it doesn't hurt you.
DB: So your parents are really cool now.
CT: I guess so.
DB: Alright. When we come back, another brand that has exploded in the last few years, but this one's a bit more expensive. That's in a minute.
[LA CROIX BOI]
DB: We're back. A few years ago, I started at business school. And you know, this is New York City. It gets pretty cold here. And I just noticed around November, December it just seemed like every business school student was wearing the same big black jacket with this seal on the sleeve that was red and looked like it had a map on it. And I was wondering… 'why are all these business school students wearing the same jacket?' Then flash forward to a few months ago and one of our founding producers at Household Name, Clare Rawlinson, sent us a note wondering the same thing. So she wanted to know… what is the deal with Canada Goose? And she is back to try to answer that.
CLARE RAWLINSON: I just started noticing these strange red and white round stamps on people's shoulders. Everywhere. And then when I found out what they were and how much they cost, I was confused and curious and had to know more.
DB: All right. So let's back up a little bit. What exactly, for people who haven't seen them, what exactly are Canada Goose jackets?
CR: They're a big puffy jacket with a sort of thick lining on the outside. They're wind and water resistant and they have this down filling that is what provides the warmth. They've got a very kind of utilitarian design you could say. They… some of them have that fur-lined hood just around the face and then they have this very recognizable, the circular patch, the seal you were talking about, on the upper arm of the coat which has the outline of the North Pole on it. Not even Canada!
DB: Alright, well, that's the branding. So you mentioned that in your mind at least they're a little out of sight price-wise. How expensive are these coats?
CR: They are insanely expensive. Like good luck trying to get one under 700 bucks. But closer to a thousand is the norm and they go up to about 1600.
DB: Wow. Alright, so obviously these coats are a little bit polarizing. Have these always been a luxury item? Have these always been… you know, sort of a status symbol?
CR: Alright. Well, it is worth going back through the history of Canada Goose to try and make sense of the way that they exist today. So, some background, a Canadian entrepreneur named Sam Tic, he started the company in 1957, but back then it was actually called Metro Sportswear. And then in the '80s, Canada Goose parkas started to become popular among scientists actually in Antarctica at McMurdo Station, which I checked today and the current temp is minus 19 degrees Fahrenheit.
CR: So yeah, you want a pretty good jacket down there. That's for sure. And they, over time, they earned this nickname of "the big red coat." And so with their presence in Antarctica, they start to become sort of the standard for people who work in these extremely cold climates. And then in 1982, the first Canadian climbs Mount Everest, and he does it in a Canada Goose parka.
The turning point for the brand comes in 2001 though. Sam Tic's grandson becomes president and CEO of Canada Goose. His name is Dani Reiss and Dani sets in motion this plan to expand the brand into more countries. So he starts by taking it to Stockholm. And from there, it spreads across Europe. And Reiss also has his sights set on the US market. And he had a bit of a head start because Canada Goose coats were already the unofficial jacket for film crews working in cold climates. So he sees this opportunity to peddle even more influence through Hollywood. He starts sponsoring film festivals in cold places like Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival.
DB: Oh, that's smart. So now all these influential, fashionable people are wearing them.
CR: And then in 2004, the jackets show up on screen in, you know, the movie The Day After Tomorrow? Do you remember that moment where there's like, they're dragging each other through the ice and the super freeze comes, you see like the flag freezes and then the Empire State Building freezes, and then they run into the New York Library underground and they start burning books and they've got the… one of the guys has a Canada Goose parka on.
DB: I guess in the apocalypse.
CR: Yeah (laughs).
DB: It's what you wear.
CR: And then it gets a second on-screen spot in National Treasure, that Nicolas Cage film where he's trying to steal the Declaration of Independence.
Zoom forward to 2013, and then Kate Upton is wearing a Canada Goose jacket on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
DB: So did Canada Goose pay for all this publicity in the movies and on this cover?
CR: Well, they claim that these appearances weren't product placements, and that it doesn't actually do that. And then in 2013, the US private equity firm Bain Capital buys a majority stake in the company for $250 million.
DB: So after Bain Capital, which is known for making changes in companies… after they bought a stake in the company, what changed?
CR: Well things really ramp up from this point. Canada Goose opens a 90,000 square foot factory in Toronto, and this allows it to double production. In 2015, then, Canada Goose opens a flagship store in Tokyo and New York City. 2017, the company goes public. And just last year, in 2018, it reported nearly $600 million in revenue.
DB: Wow. That's a lot of coats. Alright, so that is just about up to today. Now Canada Goose is seen as this luxury item worn by business school students and other fashionable people with means and we see celebrities wearing them often and in photographs. But why do you think people are so willing to spend so much money on a coat when there are other really good high quality coats that cost hundreds of dollars less?
CR: That is my question exactly. Because yes, Canada Goose parkas are expensive, but what I found is that actually they're not the most expensive brand out there. As crazy as 1600 seems for a parka, there's a luxury brand called Montclair which sells winter coats for upwards of $2,000. So yes, Canada Goose is more expensive than something like Patagonia, but it's still cheaper than other luxury brands. So it has this somewhat kind of obtainable allure to it.
DB: So it's a splurge but it's not completely out of sight.
CR: Yeah. It's not totally unrealistic if you have disposable income and you're willing to save up for this one item that you really want and you're going to wear every day for six months of the year. And especially if you live somewhere that's really really cold. You can kind of justify it to yourself as practical. Chloe Pantazi is the lifestyle editor at Insider and she thinks this kind of highly conspicuous functionality is actually becoming fashionable.
CHLOE PANTAZI: It also kind of speaks to I think a shift in the way that we value what we wear and how we spend our money. So before people might spend their money on a Rolex watch or you know really be buying things to show off their wealth and now it seems people are buying things more to improve that lifestyle. So you know, people buy Peloton bikes they go to expensive spin courses or expensive boxing classes or they wear an Apple Watch or they you know there are certain items I just kind of synonymous with living a certain life. And I think Canada Goose jackets are fitting that narrative really well.
CR: Just like Apple Watch, people recognize it. It might not be the most expensive luxury down coat out there, but it's definitely the most recognizable. So it is perfect for signaling your wealth. It's kind of like the ultimate in aspirational basicness. And yes, that was a throwback to the PSL episode.
DB: Oh, yes.
CR: I mean, I still just struggle to believe that it's as popular as it is because all these people in New York really need all that extra warmth. I mean, sure for the Antarctic, but New York or Tokyo, I just… I mean, come on, Uniqlo gets the job done. It's literally the tenth of the price. It looks pretty similar. It just doesn't have that big round branding on the arm. And I actually checked the warmth ratings for the jackets, for Canada Goose, and the $900 one, which that says middle of the range, that has a warmth rating of between – 13 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. And I've definitely worn my Uniqlo down in five degrees Fahrenheit.
DB: And you know Clare, there are schemers on eBay that are selling knock-off iron on Canada Goose logo badges that you could just stick on your sleeve of your Uniqlo if you feel like you want to be…
CR: Oh, sign me uuuuuup!! No…
DB: … if you feel like you want want the status without the price.
CR: And isn't that just like the truest test when something has become a status symbol is when one of these counterfeits start popping up. The company has a whole page on its website with a detailed guide on how to tell if the coat is a knockoff or not.
DB: Alright so some people want the cachet that this coat has so much that it doesn't even matter to them if the coat is fake?
CR: Exactly. Chloe says that this just has a lot to do with Instagram and influencer culture.
CP: Instagram has had a huge effect on the fashion industry and it's really shaping the way that people shop. People don't just shop anymore for a particular product because they want to stand out or show off their wealth. It's now kind of geared towards showing off their social media currency.
DB: So okay these jackets, at least among a certain population, certain people of means, in certain cities, have become ubiquitous. Has there been a backlash?
CR: Well, quite often if you go to the flagship store in New York, you'll see PETA activists protesting there over the treatment of the geese that Canada Goose uses to source the down in these jackets. Basically PETA claims that it did an investigation into Canada Goose's geese farms and took some footage that was pretty grim, you know, of geese just crammed in together, really poorly treated. Canada Goose, on the other hand, says that they ethically source their down. So I mean… it's not entirely clear what's going on with those two stories, but there's plenty of footage and research that PETA has publicized that it's done online if you were to look into that. And interestingly, PETA bought a stake in the company when it went public in 2017.
DB: That's what can happen when you're a publicly traded company.
DB: Alright so, Canada Goose. Why are these cool?
CR: It's clear that they're kind of associated with experiences. So working outdoors in Arctic weather conditions, for example… It says that you've bought this because you do things other than wear it between your home and the subway. You have a exciting, exploratory adventurous life and you need to be dressed like an adventurer battling the elements.
DB: Yeah especially if you want to like explore Staten Island or something in the winter. Far-off lands!
CR: (laughs) And you're gonna do it looking like a badass. And who's going to mess with you if you're wearing that Canada Goose coat? Like you've clearly done some snowboarding at some point in your life or other! And that patch on the sleeve, "Canada Goose Arctic program." CEO Dani Reiss says that that badge makes people feel like they belong to a club. And sometimes I do wonder… I watch, you know, the hordes of people in their Canada Goose coats passing each other on subway platforms, and I just think… I wonder if they kind of wink knowingly as they pass by each other when they identify a genuine branded shoulder.
DB: Clare Rawlinson, thanks so much.
CR: Thanks, Dan.
DB: Coming up, why do so many different people share a love for Carhartt? That's in a minute.
DB: We're back. And the final brand of our exploration of why things became cool is Carhartt. And here to walk us through it is our newest producer, Jenni Sigl. Welcome!
JENNI SIGL: Thank you, excited to be here.
DB: Yeah, so what got you interested in Carhartt?
JS: So when I moved to New York about a year and a half ago, I started noticing that a lot of people here were wearing this one specific beanie, and it comes in a bunch of different colors, but the style is exactly the same. And one day I was on the subway, I was standing next to someone who was wearing one of these beanies. So I finally got an up close look and I saw that the brand was something called Carhartt.
DB: Had you heard of Carhartt before?
JS: I don't think I had, no. This was my first… first time coming across it. These beanies are pretty distinctive because they have this square patch stitched front and center, right above the forehead, and that patch has this yellow C logo with the name of the brand.
DB: And I have a feeling that the Carhartt story does not start on the New York City subway.
JS: Your intuition is correct. It does not start on a Brooklyn subway.
DB: Okay. So where… where does Carhartt come from?
JS: The clothing brand Carhartt has actually been around for more than a century. It began in Dearborn, Michigan in 1889. When the brand was started, there were five workers. They had two sewing machines, and the plan was to make overalls for railroad workers. In the first 20 years that Carhartt is around, it expands rapidly. It opens new sewing facilities from Atlanta to San Francisco. But then the Great Depression hits. It's a tough time for Carhartt, as it is for many American businesses, but it manages to survive.
DB: I guess it's making the kind of things that people need in a depression, right? Like sort of practical, long-lasting clothing.
JS: Exactly. And post-World War II, it really establishes itself as a leader in mass-produced workwear. It becomes really popular among blue collar workers who need sturdy, durable workwear. These are people working in manufacturing, shipping, and other outdoor labor-intensive industries, like construction. Interestingly, Carhartt becomes especially popular in the state of Alaska.
DB: Are they like especially warm?
JS: Yes, one popular item that Carhartt makes is this jacket, and it's extremely warm… obviously great for really cold climates like Alaska. I wanted to understand why this brand got so popular there and why it means so much to the people there. So I called up this guy and he is what I would call a Carhartt enthusiast.
BRYAN GEARRY: My name is Bryan Gearry and I'm from Wasilla, Alaska.
DB: Can he see Russia from his house?
JS: He actually made that joke to me, which is a reference to the 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. And Bryan's been wearing Carhartt for years, since he moved to Alaska when he was 18 years old. And he told me about a couple of funny nicknames that they have for Carhartt in Alaska.
BG: Prudhoe pajamas and Alaska tuxedos.
DB: What does that mean?
JS: So Prudhoe is a reference to the Prudhoe Bay, and that's this area on the Northern edge of Alaska that has this big oil field.
DB: Oh, so I guess they wear a lot of Carhartt up in the oil fields.
JS: They do. Bryan is retired now, but for many years he was an advisor for a wood product engineering company. So he spent a lot of time visiting construction sites all over Alaska.
BG: Did I wear Carhartts? Yes I did. And the nice part about it is they would get so stinky and thick with grease and everything else, they would stand up in the corner by itself. So it was easy to get in and out of. (laughs)
JS: Carhartt makes everything from jackets to shirts to pants to those overalls that they originally started making. They still make those today, and they're very popular. They are actually Bryan's favorite item. And these clothes aren't cheap… some might even say they're a little bit expensive. But these items are durable. Zippers don't usually break, and these clothes last. Those overalls that Bryan likes, they start at around $70. They have a really popular style of jacket that starts at a hundred dollars. But again, these clothes will last you for a while. Bryan said it might take him five years to wear out a pair of the pants before he needs to replace them.
DB: So it's an overall value.
JS: It is. Bryan loves Carhartt so much that when he and a couple of his friends started a three man band in the '90s, they decided to name themselves the Carhartt Brothers.
DB: What kind of music do they play?
JS: Bluegrass… But also, they do a little bit of everything.
BG: From the Grateful Dead to Bill Monroe from Flatt and Scruggs to Eric Clapton.
JS: So Bryan told me that one night they were about to perform in a bar, and the person introducing them turns to them and is like, 'what's your name?'
BG: And we all looked at each other and we said we're all wearing Carhartt because it's cold out and we just said, 'Well, the Carhartt Brothers, how about that?' And from that point on, it… it stuck.
DB: It's pretty good marketing for Carhartt.
JS: Yes, but they were never officially affiliated with the brand. Though they did have a good relationship with Carhartt. They never got sued. And at the time that they named themselves the Carhartt Brothers, there was this guy named Doug Tweedy who was sort of the face of the brand in Alaska. And Bryan told me that they had a good relationship with Doug. He was the state sales representative for many years and was really well-known and instrumental in making the brand so big there.
BG: I mean he'd have us come to do things like grand openings at you know, at outfitting stores and just oddball promotional stuff like that. And we were more than happy to… to do that for him.
JS: And from time to time, Doug would hook up the Carhartt Brothers with some gear, so they were sort of unofficially sponsored by Carhartt. And Doug Tweedy really cemented Carhartt as the workwear brand in Alaska. So much so that in 2001, Alaska had the highest per capita Carhartt sales in the world.
JS: To give you a sense of how big it is there, a lot of towns will host what they call Carhartt balls.
DB: Like a dance?
JS: Yes, like a prom. Basically all the people in a small town will gather together, they'll get decked out in their Carhartt, and have a big party.
BG: It's just an excuse to get together and stomp around in buddy boots, wearing Carhartts. Get drunk and just have a good time. You know…
JS: There's drinking, there's sometimes a band. Bryan told me that his band has played many a Carhartt ball.
DB: Probably a good place to be the Carhartt Brothers.
JS: Exactly. To wear your Alaskan tuxedos, your Prudhoe pajamas.
DB: So, okay. So now at this point we know that Carhartt is practical, they're good quality, and they're really big in Alaska, but that doesn't answer the question of why hipsters and other people going to get oat milk lattes in Brooklyn are wearing so much Carhartt.
JS: So I started this reporting in hopes of answering the question: how did Carhartt become cool? The question that you're asking me. But as I was talking to Bryan, I realized that the question I actually wanted to answer was how did Carhartt become cool to everyone outside of Alaska? And to answer that question, we need to go back to the '80s.
Remember, at this time Carhartt is cementing itself as the brand for America's working class. And at this point its customer base is predominantly white, blue collar workers. But then this thing happens in the '80s where Carhartt jackets start becoming popular among urban drug dealers.
DB: Why that group in particular?
JS: So we don't have a great answer to that question. But what we do know is that the jackets they were wearing are these really heavy duty, warm jackets that can carry a lot of stuff. So that was part of the appeal. So these jackets start showing up in cities like New York and kids and young people see these guys wearing them, and that's when they start to sort of become cool there. They're starting to become more popular. And around this time, there is this record label. It's called Tommy Boy Records, it was started in New York in the 80s. It embroiders its logo on a batch of 800 Carhartt jackets as a marketing tactic. And around this time, rappers like Nas and Tupac and Eazy-E are photographed wearing Carhartt. So this is Carhartt's entry into what we now refer to as Streetwear. This style really comes into being in the '90s. I'd describe it as casual utilitarian, heavily influenced by skate culture, sportswear, and hip-hop.
DB: And so Carhartt didn't even try to make this happen, it just kind of happened to them?
JS: Around the same time, so we're still in the late 80s, early 90s, Carhartt starts expanding into the European Streetwear market. A couple of Swiss denim designers, they ink a deal with Carhartt to create Carhartt Work In Progress… also known as WIP, and these designers modify original Carhartt designs to be a little sleeker, a little more high fashion, and they're more expensive. Soon enough Carhartt becomes a staple item for European skateboarders, rappers, rebellious youth. And then in 2001, Carhartt Work In Progress opens a store in SoHo pushing the brand even further into New York's High fashion scene. After that, throughout the early 2000s and up to today, Carhartt has done a number of other high fashion collaborations. So with all the visibility that this brand has gained in the last 20 years through its entry into the Streetwear market through these high fashion collaborations, it's really not surprising that now you can buy it on Amazon. You can buy it in Urban Outfitters.
DB: But what's so interesting about this is that it's appealing to the hip-hop community. It's appealing to the fashion-conscious. And yet, it's still just as appealing to the… to its core audience that's been Carhartt fans for decades, right?
JS: Yeah, and I asked Bryan about this because I wanted to ask him like, how does someone who's been wearing Carhartt for years and years feel about all these kind of newcomers? What is it like to see that show up on runways or like you said, you know people in Brooklyn coffee shops? And Bryan's definitely noticed that the brand has gotten trendier. But what Bryan told me is that they have this phrase that they use a lot in Alaska, and it goes something like this…
BG: We don't care how they do it outside, we're going to do it our own way.
JS: And for him, as long as the product stays true to what it is and it doesn't become crazy expensive or something like that, he doesn't really mind that other people wear it. The way… the way that I put it to him was it's sort of like 'you mind your business and I'll mind mine,' and he said 'yeah, that's pretty much it.' And I think for Alaskans like Bryan, no matter how big the brand gets everywhere else, he still feels a sense of ownership over this brand because it's so much a part of the culture there, Alaska was so instrumental in building this brand into what it is today…
BG: I mean if you're Alaskan, you know, that's… you have to wear Carhartts. It's kind of… think like duct tape, you know? Every Alaskan's got a case of duct tape and pair of Carhartts. You know, any good Alaskan does.
JS: And it's not like the brand has totally abandoned its original workwear line. They still make all of those clothes, even though now they've done a few of these high fashion collaborations. So they still make the same durable, cool clothes that they always have, and you can still buy them in the same places…. Yes, you can buy them on Amazon now, but they're still sold in tractor supply stores and REIs… the brand is just more widely available to other kinds of consumers.
DB: Hm. So they really have like managed to do something here that is pretty rare, that they get the best of both worlds… They get like status in fashion and they get a long-time loyal customer base. And they get to do all that at once.
JS: Yeah, they really do get the best of both worlds. Carhartt as I like to say is a no-bullshit brand, and I think that appeals to a lot of people.
BG: It's… it's basic. You know, it's no frills. It's basic, it gets the job done and that's what it's all about.
JS: In 1889, it was founded on the motto honest value for an honest dollar, and that hasn't changed. That's still the brand's motto now.
DB: Now it's just more dollars.
JS: Exactly. Couple more… inflation.
DB: Yeah, so, okay. Did somebody decide the Carhartt was cool?
JS: I would say it's always been cool to Alaskans and a lot of other working-class people who have been wearing it for a long time. But over the years, different groups of people have decided it's cool for their own reasons. And what I think is interesting is that people in Alaska think it's cool for a totally different reason than, say, European skateboarders.
Like people in Alaska don't think Carhartt is cool because European skateboarders are wearing it, and European skateboarders don't think it's cool because people in Alaska are wearing it. So really everyone decided it was cool. And now I think the brand has reached what…. what I would say is universal coolness.
DB: Well, Jenni Sigl. Thank you so much for explaining Carhartt to us.
JS: No problem.
DB: Hey, if you want a sneak peek of what's to come this season and other things we're thinking about, sign up for our BRAND NEW NEWSLETTER! You can find it at businessinsider.com/household-name, or by clicking the link in our show notes. We'll also post a link in our Facebook group. If you're not a member, search for Household Name Podcast.
While we're at it, follow me on Twitter! I'm @danbobkoff. Send us ideas and comments at [email protected] And if you like the show, please leave us a review and five stars on Apple Podcasts. It really helps.
This episode was produced by Jennifer Sigl with Claire Tighe, Amy Pedulla, Sarah Wyman, and me. Special thanks to Clare Rawlinson, always great to have her back on the show. Thanks also to Big Dipper, for letting us use his La Croix Boi song.
Sound design and original music by Casey Holford and John DeLore.
Our cool editor is Gianna Palmer.
The executive producers are Chris Bannon, Jenny Radelet and me.
Household Name is a production of Insider Audio.
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