19 September 2023

A pillar on which modern street culture is founded, we take a look through the storied history of Carhartt WIP.

A steadfast pillar of the modern zeitgeist, Carhartt WIP is one of the few brands that successfully bivouacs between all corners of the fashion sphere – a foundational brand upon which the nouveau fashion wave has been built. A workwear staple beloved by all, from streetwear OGs to modern-day high fashion designers, Carhartt’s stylistic sensibility offers a slice of Americana that is suited to contemporary living, slotting perfectly into the wardrobes of the fashion forward with a versatile aesthetic outlook and a particular sense of wearability.

Rugged by design, and imbued with a sense of outdoors spirit, Carhartt WIP has deftly negotiated the treacherous terrain of cross-cultural influence, organically building itself as a cultural reference point for many throughout fashion, music and beyond. To many, Carhartt may seem a steadfast symbol of American workwear, but throughout the brand’s 134-year history, their trajectory has seen the brand move through textile manufacturing, to the automotive industry, prior to settling as the purveyors of durable and hardwearing garments that they are today.

Born from their parent brand, the WIP subline saw Carhartt expand beyond the North American market and into Europe. Established in 1994 by Edwin Faeh, with the purpose of distributing Carhartt products throughout Europe, the brand’s history started just over 100 years prior in Detroit, in 1889. An era of industry, the late 19th Century saw the American Industrial Revolution in full swing, with steel, oil and railway systems connecting the country in ways previously unfathomable. With workers needed to implement this system, it seemed only logical that hardwearing clothing that could withstand the trials and tribulations of working in these industries were required to protect the workers, as well as ensure that they were properly outfitted with clothing that wasn’t going to degrade quickly.

Founded by Hamilton Carhartt, under the motto “Honest value for an honest dollar”, the American started his eponymous brand with the manufacturing of duck and denim overalls under trade union conditions, with a mere five employees and four sewing machines. The industrious work ethic of the Carhartt brand at this pivotal moment saw two further cotton mills open in Georgia and South Carolina by 1910, while the Carhartt Company opened factories in Detroit, Dallas and even further afield, on the West Coast, in San Francisco. Dipping their toes into the automotive industry, Carhartt produced around 300 cars a year as the Carhartt Automobile Corporation, expanding their domain to encompass industry beyond workwear. Contributing to the war effort during WWI, the brand produced uniforms for the military, dedicating seven of its facilities to the government. Creating the legendary Carhartt CO1 Chore Coat in 1923 – although adverts for an earlier version date back to as early as 1917 – the brand achieved the height of their success, with the Chore Coat remaining a steadfast favourite in the Carhartt roster, with the garment enduring with little to no changes throughout the past one hundred years.


Ever faithful to the ideal of unions, Hamilton continued to support the unions and worker’s rights, even throughout the hardships and challenges posed by the Great Depression. Following Hamilton’s death in 1937, the founder’s sons Hamilton Jr and Wylie led the company, continuing to work with American armed forces throughout WWII, ensuring that soldiers both at home and abroad were outfitted with the highest quality apparel. Following the impact of the Second World War, Carhartt went from strength to strength throughout the latter portion of the 20th century, with Carhartt products reaching further than ever before. No longer was Carhartt reserved for blue-collared workers, but it began to become popular with fashion forward tastemakers throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. As interest began to grow in Carhartt, the brand was compelled to create a new and innovative line to introduce Carhartt product to European markets. And so, Carhartt Work In Progress was born. The brainchild of Swiss designer Edwin Faeh, Carhartt WIP was originally dubbed “All American Concept” at its launch in 1989, before rebranding in 1994. Celebrating Carhartt’s history and important legacy as originators of workwear clothing, WIP offered a refined insight into the Carhartt world, tailor made for European consumers without forgoing the brand’s important design codes and DNA.

Looking beyond Carhartt’s heritage and complex history, the brand’s cultural influence sketches out a fascinating distinction between early and late 20th century sensibilities, ideals and attitudes. Following the heyday of the swinging sixties, the hedonism of the ‘70s and the yuppie culture that followed throughout the ‘80s, Carhartt’s influence continued to grow in culture embedded within music and streetwear. Far removed from the railway workers and soldiers who were outfitted with Carhartt in the early 20th century, Carhartt was adopted by the subculture of hip-hop, first and foremost. With a complex and varied relationship to clothing, hip-hop’s sartorial codes have traditionally had one foot firmly within the world of workwear. From Timberland boots in New York City to Dickies work pants on the West Coast, clothing staples that originated in work have remained emblematic of hip-hop’s cultural identity. Carhartt, too, stands as a synecdoche of hip-hop’s stylistic outlook. From Mobb Deep, Nas and Eazy-E to Tupac and Naughty By Nature, rappers, producers and record label executives wore Carhartt garments proudly. Hypermasculine by nature, the rugged and durable fabrics, oversized cuts and low-key colours lended themselves to illicit activities so often depicted in ‘90s hip-hop, from gang-banging to graffiti. While chosen by the culture, Carhartt WIP’s musical affinity saw the brand reflect on their own popularity and to support the cultures that so openly welcomed them from the '90s to the present day. From Stones Throw Records and Trojan Records to NTS Radio, Carhartt WIP have maintained their subcultural cachet through authentic means, such as investment and spotlighting up-and-coming artists from a range of different genre. Typifying this attitude, the brand’s Relevant Parties podcast series further platformed record labels and artists with an in depth insight into their creative practice and the subgenres they represent. Originally launched in 2020, Relevant Parties Vol. 1 saw Carhartt WIP celebrate Ghostly International, Ninja Tune, Jazzy Sport, DFA Records and Public Possession, while Vol.2 dug deeper, focussing on PAN, Mahogani Music, On-U Sound, Ed Banger Records and more.

From the ‘90s onwards, as Carhartt WIP continued to reach into Europe, the brand’s cultural impact expanded further, complemented by hip-hop’s overseas expansion as a cultural phenomenon of its own. While streetwear remained a somewhat American cultural vacuum, it began to seep further afield, authentically cropping up in places you might not have expected. Mathieu Kassovitz’s seminal 1995 film La Haine, starring Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui and Hubert Koundé, saw lead character Hubert donning one of Carhartt WIP’s iconic pieces throughout the film – the Watch Hat. A striking crossover for the early-internet era, the appearance of Carhartt in the French art house film served as a testimony to the brand’s cultural impact as a symbol of cutting-edge style. Carhartt’s filmic reference points go further too, with the brand cropping up throughout the past 30 years in a variety of motion pictures, from the iconic Detroit Jacket worn by Ben Affleck’s character Doug MacRay in his 2010 Boston-set crime film The Town, to the classic Hamilton Brown-coloured Detroit Jacket Matthew McConaughey’s character Cooper wore in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar. Symbolic of these character’s connection to working class occupations and communities, they also utilise Carhartt’s own symbolism as a motif and a signal for the character’s own identity – rugged and ready for anything that life my throw at them.

Further embedding themselves within the contemporary zeitgeist, Carhartt WIP’s cultural affiliations have spread beyond music and cinema. Somewhat naturally, fashion collaborations have served a core function within the brand. As they continue to deliver their distinctive take on refined workwear, their collaborative collections incorporate unusual and exciting twists that redefine the Carhartt DNA and adapt it further than they would naturally do so themselves. From the mid-00s, Carhartt WIP have embarked on a continuous voyage into the unknown, working with a variety of brands across a broad spectrum, transforming their workwear essentials with each brand’s distinctive stylistic approach. In 2006, their collaboration with Nigo’s iconic streetwear brand BAPE featured a number of pieces, but the crowning glory was a camouflage rendition of their Active Jacket, complete with BAPE branding across the chest. Carhartt WIP’s affinity for Japanese streetwear brands didn’t stop at Nigo’s door however, with the All-American label working with Maasaki Homma’s MASTERMIND JAPAN in 2013, Shinsuke Takizawa’s Neighborhood in 2014, WTAPS in 2015, Junya Watanabe in 2018 and Chitose Abe’s Sacai in 2023, amongst others. Amidst the veritable gamut of Japanese brands, Carhartt WIP looked to Europe, too, for inspiration, collaborating with A.P.C., Marni and Patta. Delivering a variety of aesthetic impulses, the breadth of Carhartt WIP’s collaborations elucidate the underlying truth about the brand – that its combination of versatility and quality transcends trends, allowing a brand that was born from function to ascend to heights previously unimaginable, both within the world of fashion and the subcultural spaces in which it simultaneously inhabits.