A work in progress

From overalls for blue-collar workers to millennial must-haves, we chart the evolution of Carhartt WIP

Posted: Wednesday 11th April 2018

Those in-the-know will spot the white label, 20mm square, with a swirl of yellow. That’s the Carhartt WIP logo. Like the brand itself, it isn’t flashy. Instead, it is slick but minimal, unintrusive and subtly stylish. Clothing for those who see function as a priority when getting dressed. In fact, they see well-designed clothing that is fit for purpose — the perfect hoody, or a pair of five pocket trousers — as the most elegant thing there is. We’re talking workwear, fashion’s sweet spot where function meets design.

For the no-collar workforce (those likely to be working in creative industries) this combination makes sense. As dress codes have relaxed, suits at work feel like an anachronism, even if worn in the ‘fashion style’ — with trainers. But there is nothing quite like having a uniform to make you feel pulled-together and ready for the day when you set off on your commute. While the Silicon Valley look of anonymous hoodies and jeans is the ultimate anti-fashion, alpha-comfort dressing, some of us still like to semaphore that we have an understanding and appreciation of good design. Carhartt WIP are masters at this. Their boxy T-shirts, easy sweatshirts, work shirts and beanies are like Lego blocks of a well built wardrobe; pieces that slot together pleasingly and without too much thought.

In 2018, workwear is a much-used term dropped by high street companies or catwalk designers to add a sprinkle of much-prized authenticity, but it is one that legitimately applies to Carhartt WIP. In 1889, Hamilton Carhartt (Ham to his friends) founded his company making denim overalls. Over the next 50 years of the United States’ industrialisation, Carhartt clothed the working man, producing uniforms for workers in the First World War and employing workers in the south during the Great Depression. In the US, construction workers in Carhartt overalls are still a familiar sight — though their wardrobe is now shared with those whose work with their hands is limited to tapping a laptop keyboard. This evolution is best explained by the street style story of Carhartt dating back to the Nineties, when those laptop workers were in their formative years and the brand was endorsed by hip hop artists including Nas, Tupac and Wu-Tang Clan. The trickle-down effect to the streets was seen on skaters everywhere but immortalised in La Haine, the 1995 French film about life in the housing projects of Paris. Hubert, one of the central characters, wears his Carhartt beanie proudly. Speaking in 2010, director Mathieu Kassovitz said, “Hubert is more the kind of guy who minds his own business, who is honest and doesn’t need much money. He’s an urban survivalist. That’s why he wears Carhartt.” In other words, Carhartt is a street uniform that practically arms those who wear it against whatever the day might throw at them.

With Hubert and friends wearing the label and European kids even coming over to the US to buy it in bulk, Carhartt realised their appeal to a new demographic beyond workers. In response, in 1994 they launched Work In Progress to distribute to Europe, with the first stand-alone collection designed three years later, and womenswear following in 2000. WIP, as it has become known, is now established as Carhartt’s fashion arm, with collaborations with Vans, A.P.C. and Gosha Rubchinskiy’s PACCBET under their belt. The spring collection brings a sense of colour and fun, with prints, slogans and details like logos on the wrist of a sweatshirt, while classic, no-nonsense shapes (the kind that Hamilton Carhartt would recognise) draw it all together. Staying true to their all-important heritage, Ham even has a colour named after him — that deep ochre, otherwise known as Hamilton Brown.

These days, skate kids continue to wear Carhartt WIP, (along with every millennial who wants to keep their head warm) but so do 40-somethings working in graphic design studios. Carhartt’s history suggests an analogue existence, one in opposition to a working culture that more often functions behind screens in shiny offices. Sure, their work pants are now more likely to be accessorised with a flat white than a circular saw but the appeal of a work uniform — over, perhaps, an on-trend velvet suit and leopard print shirt — remains. That’s what Carhartt WIP provides. The genuine article, it comes without fuss but (like all clothes) says something about the wearer. Ultimately, it’s a formula for modern workwear we can all get behind.

The Sweatshirt
Who doesn’t love a sweatshirt in 2018? It forms a cornerstone of modern dressing, where sports staples are now a given in most wardrobes. The sweatshirt began life in the Twenties, as an item to wear while exercising. The Sixties saw it become what we’re now familiar with — somewhere to put a slogan, which began when colleges started producing sweatshirts with their name across the chest. Since then, the sweatshirt has been adopted by street culture (the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt becoming a cult favourite) and the catwalk, where brands including Givenchy and Kenzo have mooted the idea of
the statement sweatshirt, with bold prints and three-figure price tags. Sweatshirt aficionados prefer to keep things plain, with the search for the perfect block colour sweatshirt the project for many midweek lunchtime Google searches. With a simple solid shape, minimal logo and subtle seam across the front, the Carhartt WIP Chase sweatshirt may see those daily searches come to a stop.

The Overalls
Overalls are the kind of fashion item where resistance is futile; the comfort and cool-factor combine to have you at ‘hello’. They have history with women for whom Pinterest girl crushes were invented: Jane Birkin, Clare Danes in My So-Called Life, all the members of TLC and, to a lesser extent, Alexa Chung and Rihanna. They also have workwear pedigree: Rosie the Riveter and Barbara from The Good Life wore overalls. These are women with a ‘can-do’ attitude — whether that doing is dedicated to the war effort or their allotment is beside the point. Overalls are active, not passive. They’re about running around, getting things done, the antithesis of, say, the Presidents’ Club look and so very right for now. As a workwear classic, it comes as no surprise that Carhartt WIP do a great set of overalls. Buckle up, wear with pride, channel those heroes and stride forth.

The Work Jacket
The work jacket is an icon of functionality — a perfectly designed item of clothing that gives its wearer a top layer to both protect them from whatever a day might hurl at them, and also provide a full stop to an outfit. While a denim jacket, or a biker, have pop culture references, this is the quieter choice; the diligent worker bee of the wardrobe. It’s rugged but stylish, utilitarian but elegant — because the design elements have been distilled down to their essence. Think of James Dean on set, Jackson Pollock flinging paint around in the studio and Neal Cassady rolling into town. The Carhartt WIP Chore Coat with its familiar boxy drill design is the preferred choice. A jacket originally designed in 1923, it’s still in production today. The lesson? While times have changed, some designs don’t need to.

This article first appeared in the spring 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below. 

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