Carhartt WIP is a clothing brand, and yet at the same time, it’s far more than that.
Flicking through the brand’s newly released archival retrospective, The Carhartt WIP Archives, a photo-heavy tome released Friday November 4 to mark the first quarter century of the label, a few words seem to frequently crop up: friends, collaboration, circle, survival, rugged, Detroit, and Europe. Hardly anywhere do you see the word 'streetwear'.
And yet, despite the brand’s averseness to the term and the word's apparent cheapening over the years, it's arguable that Carhartt Work In Progress (Carhartt WIP) is the very bedrock and epitome of the streetwear movement.
If this sounds overblown, bear with us. But first, some quotes: "It felt improvised, and the themes were not directly connected to the brand. In a way it was antibrand." This is Tim Kottmann, Carhartt WIP’s art director, speaking about the label’s, now defunct, in-house produced fanzine, Rugged. And while the man was talking about a magazine, the publication was itself a visual and physical manifestation of the label in print; his words are equally applicable to the entire Work In Progress project.
Rugged ran from 2003 until 2006, before morphing into the cleaner Carhartt WIP BRAND BOOK. But Rugged’s initial art direction and name came from Michel Lebugle, Oliver Drewes and Thomas Gröger. Some 12 years later, Lebugle, along with editor and writer Anna Sinofzik, would begin work on editing the archival retrospective of Carhartt WIP.
"I would prefer to say that Carhartt streetwear invented itself," says Lebugle when I ask during the Archives’ launch party and exhibition if we could say the brand 'invented' streetwear. It’s a deliberately leading question of course, and one that echoes across the quietness of the huge exhibition hall of the angular and brutalist former church of ST. AGNES, located in Berlin’s Kreuzberg.
The hall, curated by Paris's Ill Studio, is filled with ephemera and rare archival pieces spanning the brand’s first 25 years, including a huge roll of brown duck cotton canvas fabric (a fabric that forms the material backbone of Carhartt’s garments) along with flickering television sets of archival campaign footage and music videos, assorted images from ads, and various moments of when Carhartt WIP crossed the boundary of the real world and became part of the common cultural one.
Yet the friends and designers gathering in the bar and lounge below – a space soundtracked by Carhartt WIP’s longtime music collaborator, London’s underground NTS Radio – are heavily drawn from the upper echelons of contemporary, cutting-edge fashion. All, in some way, are known for traversing the line between the high art of fashion, and the functional dynamism and universal applicability that 'streetwear' is at its best: Luca Benini of Slam Jam, Hiroshi Fujiwara of Fragment Design, Errolson Hugh of ACRONYM, Misha Hollenbach of PAM, Gee Guillaume Schmidt of Patta, Matthew Williams of ALYX – all are friends and collaborators of Carhartt WIP somewhere along the way.
The book follows a similarly thematic approach to the exhibition, eschewing strict chronology to spotlight themes and moments. The product of almost three years of archival research and sifting through the label’s annals, eventually these notes and images fell into the laps of Lebugle and Sinofzik who then spent a further 18 months editing, compiling and writing. Taking in broad sweeps of time, flicking through the book is an immersive journey that never seems to miss a beat when it comes to spotlighting key cultural trends, turning points, moods and general aesthetics that have helped form the last 25 years.
Particular touchstones flag the Carhartt BMX team; the founding of Carhartt WIP’s in-house music label, Combination Records, through what seemed a series of sweaty, dirty gigs in Bristol, London and Düsseldorf (later merged into the Carhartt Music Department and producing Carhartt Radio – the division responsible for the NTS partnership); the Carhartt WIP-run European Skateboard Championships in Basel, Switzerland, and the development of the Carhartt Skate Team; shoots with the likes of Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Jamie xx in the later years, contrast with lo-fi, semi-professional shoots with friends and in friends' apartments in the earlier ones; this all sits alongside a myriad of collab showcases with the likes of BAPE, APC, Commes des Garçons, Neighborhood, Pontus Alv’s Polar Skate Co., Patta, and P.A.M.
So what is Carhartt WIP if not the definitive streetwear brand? On paper, the label began in 1989 when Edwin and Salomée Faeh were granted a license to import and sell original Carhartt garments across Europe. That license came 100 years after Hamilton Carhartt, based out of Detroit, Michigan, first began selling his sturdy workwear overalls to American railroad workers. However, what Edwin and Salomée brokered essentially sowed the seeds of an entirely new (European) phase of the brand.
This facet of the label – a slow, measured, and considered approach – was deliberately reflected in Carhartt WIP through a shared ideology between Faeh and the wider Carhartt business. Edwin Faeh’s original business was not the only company importing Carhartt in Europe at that time, but what Salomée and he negotiated with the parent label was the first contract where they could pick as many styles as they wanted.
Several years later after Carhartt WIP was founded, in a series of prophetic faxes between Faeh and the company’s CEO, Willem Kampert, in 1995, Faeh would outline the same slow and considered approach of the parent company, and at the same time touching upon what would become the defining moments in youth culture: the internet and the opportunities the ease of sharing information would open up; the explosion of hip-hop and electronic music across the world; the dominance of 'urban culture' and the practical need for (urban) wear for the everyday. Carhartt WIP's garms spread because of a few simple rules: their inherent functionality and ruggedness, and cuts that were tailored to a youthful market.
Everything else the brand did simply hung from the strong foundational stones of the clothes themselves. Carhartt WIP never had to worry about the product in and of itself, which probably goes some way to explaining the ease and effortless level of casual coolness that defines Carhartt WIP. It defies categorization because it never needed to try and be anything it wasn't. The brand simply is.
"Carhartt WIP is just really a timeless and amazing product that traces back to something real," says Matthew Williams over the growing noise of the gathering crowds in the ST. AGNES exhibition hall. "A lot of times, these workwear garments that Carhartt and these hoodies, for example, are in, are in these important moments. The reason isn't hard: it's just because it was stuff that was available in every city, that really worked, and people connected with it for those reasons and that’s why everybody’s still here to support it. It's real."
The Carhartt WIP Archives is published by Rizzoli and is available now online, at Carhartt WIP Stores, and at selected retailers worldwide. Now read what industry heads think about the label with our exclusive look inside The Carhartt WIP Archives Exhibition launch party.