Carhartt Re-tooling the Image of Workwear

Carhartt

Carhartt Re-Tooling the Image of Workwear

Is this a time of wondrous innovation? We see iPads and say yes.

Is this a time of howling frustration? We see the Occupy Wall Street protests multiply and say absolutely.

Is this a time for hope that U.S. manufacturing is not dead? We see Ford and Chrysler and General Motors hiring and say yes, there’s at least a twinkle.

Amid these bewildering economic crosscurrents, what’s a 122-year-old Michigan maker of rugged jeans, jackets and other work-wear to do?

Keep cranking out the sturdy stuff that working men on farms and construction sites have worn for generations? Or diversify both product line and retailing approach with a bet that women and city folks can also be attracted to such a brand?

Dearborn-based Carhartt is trying both approaches — and rolling out its biggest-ever national advertising campaign this week to get out the message.

Growth in tough times

The first TV commercial aired Sunday during the Detroit Lions football game. Titled “Hands,” it’s something of an ode to working men and women, narrated by Detroit Red Wings announcer Mickey Redmond, who encourages viewers to shake the hands of people wearing Carhartt.

Established in 1889, Carhartt first made clothing for railroad workers and eventually became known for rugged denim overalls and cotton duck jackets and vests, especially for cold weather. In recent years, the firm has added woven shirts and a line of products for women.

With the prolonged U.S. housing and construction slump, many of Carhartt’s core customers have faced hard times. But sales for the privately held firm have surpassed $500 million, up from around $300 million early in the last decade.

Carhartt has added about 75 employees in the past 18 months at its Dearborn headquarters, where nearly 300 people work now. Last week, the firm announced plans to invest $11 million and add 150 jobs at its Hopkins County, Ky., plant.

In the labor-intensive clothing industry where about 98% of all apparel sold in the U.S. is imported, Carhartt manufactures 40% of its products and employs about 45% of its 3,600 workers worldwide in the U.S. It also has plants in Mexico and Asia.

Raising the profile

After more than a century of focusing sales efforts on farms, ranches and construction sites, Carhartt opened its first urban retail store in April, in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. That followed licensing the brand name to independent retail shops in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City, which did well.

Carhartt now expects to put retail stores in other cities, including Detroit, said Tony Ambroza, vice president of marketing, but he didn’t say when.

In the meantime, the “Hands” spot will soon be followed by other TV ads, on ESPN, the History and Discovery channels and Country Music TV, Ambroza said.

There’s also a social media component to the marketing push, which Carhartt calls “Everyday Icons,” featuring not only traditional Carhartt customers such as farmers and construction workers, but also stories of a winemaker, a pottery artist and a Detroit glassblower on the firm’s Facebook page.

Content credited to: Tom Walsh: 313-223-4430 or [email protected]