Imagine a worker heading home from a shift at one of the few factories still open in the center of a big American city.
As he walks down the street outside the factory, he passes a young couple walking to their apartment in the same neighbourhood — a warehouse recently converted into lofts — from the center of the city where they work an office job.
All are wearing items made by the same brand of clothing: Carhartt.
In 2017, in an increasingly divided America, it seems unlikely that a brand could sell both durable workwear to blue-collar workers and stylish lifestyle apparel to urban millennials. But in many cities across America, it has become a reality.
Founded in 1889, Carhartt makes durable workwear that has had a steady following for decades. The brand got its start making overalls for railroad workers before creating apparel for workers at automobile factories in the early 1900s. Carhartt created many of its iconic styles at this time, like the chore coat in 1923 and the dungaree in 1932.
It eventually grew to be the de facto apparel supplier for manual laborers, clothing construction workers, factory workers, nurses, and everyone else with a need for durable garments.
But this commitment to durability has also found an unlikely new customer in urban millennials, who see the brand as synonymous with hard work and a shortcut to a kind of “work with your hands” nostalgia.
“Carhartt is a very interesting brand in that it is legitimately workwear” but also could appeal to the “mainstream without losing its authenticity,” Deirdre Clemente, a historian studying 20th-century clothing and a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, told Business Insider.
From the factory to the fashion show
The brand has made a conspicuous jump from cornfields to catwalks in recent years, buoyed by the licensing of the Carhartt Work in Progress brand.
Carhartt WIP is a separate company that produces fashion-forward versions of Carhartt’s traditional items. It frequently collaborates with the high-fashion houses A.P.C. and Vetements and is even sold by J. Crew.
The brand has given Carhartt fashion chops it never had before, and it’s not uncommon to spot the characteristic Carhartt “C” logo on hats and coats in trendier parts of American cities.
Carhartt’s recent popularity tracks with the rise of “workwear” — items of clothing made primarily for working, like overalls and chore coats — as a fashion trend. Heritage brands have enjoyed an upswing in recent years, from L.L. Bean’s Bean Boots to Levi’s jeans. Now even brands like J. Crew — which has its own workwear-inspired line called Wallace & Barnes — have copied the hardworking aesthetic without the heritage component or the reputation for durability.
Carhartt first emerged as a lifestyle brand in the 1980s. It gained cachet in the hip-hop scene after rappers would wear its affordable yet functional items, according to the brand’s official history.
From there, Carhartt started to become popular in Europe, which led to the creation of WIP in 1994, which eventually came stateside in 2011. The brands operate independently, but because they use the same iconography they feed off each other and work together closely.
Different designs for different demos
Part of Carhartt’s appeal lies in its relative low cost. A chore coat — one of the brand’s famous designs — costs $US80. WIP’s version — spruced up with a corduroy collar — asks about $US100 more. It’s clear that these two editions of a largely similar jacket are targeted to different audiences.
Carhartt’s “cross-demographic appeal,” Clemente said, “is based on the actual qualities of the garments — durability being one of the most enduring and sought-after attributes in the American wardrobe.”
The brand’s “stuff lasts,” she added. “Durability has defined the success of many brands in the 20th century.”
The value of work
Tony Ambroza, Carhartt’s vice president of marketing, says it’s not surprising that the brand’s ethos carries on beyond the manual laborers for which it was designed.
“We really are focused on folks who do the hard work and believe in the values of hard work,” Ambroza told Business Insider. “We’re very conscious of the idea that there are folks who grew up in families who may not have the same job that their parents did that was maybe more manual in nature, but they have the values and incredible deep appreciation for the idea of doing and making things yourself.”
The nature of work itself has shifted in America: From 1930 to 2000, the share of white-collar workers in the US doubled to 60% from 30%. Still, the way we feel about work hasn’t changed: Hard work remains valued.
Carhartt’s “association with actual working people has an additional connotation — I work hard enough to demand clothing that can tolerate all of my hard working,” Clemente of UNLV said.
Since Carhartt is a stand-in for the idea of work, that enables its appeal to bridge a cultural divide. Putting on a Carhartt garment identifies you with those who value hard work. The garment works as a shorthand for an Americana outlook on the world, which attracts all demographics of wearers.
“We have to assume at some level … that a lot of folks choose badging” when deciding to wear Carhartt clothing, Ambroza said, alluding to the fact that Carhartt has a certain cachet.
“When something is well made, it appeals to a range of different kinds of people and serves a range of different kinds of purposes,” Clemente said.
These days, it’s uncommon for one brand to be able to appeal to many different kinds of people while still telling an authentic story. It’s clear that the idea that hard work can get you far is still ingrained in the minds of Americans, regardless of where they live and what they do.
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