Feedback Culture: A Short History of Carhartt WIP and Music
Carhartt WIP has undeniable gravity on the street, but it hasn’t always been that way. The brand actually has its roots in a 19th-century workwear company. Founded in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan in 1889 Carhartt originally catered to the city’s railroad workers but, propelled by some key musical influencers, the brand has since become a streetwear staple.
In a new book, The Carhartt WIP Archives, the brand’s story is told through photographs of musicians, skateboarders and other subcultural heroes who have adopted the brand over the years. Everyone from Eazy-E to Moodymann to Danny Brown has pledged allegiance to the brand but where did it all begin? And how have Carhartt managed to keep it real for all these years?
Philipp Maiburg, a member of Carhartt’s dedicated music team explains that Carhartt WIP’s personal philosophy lends itself to the creative industries perfectly, “I’m head of the music department but we don’t really work much with titles here at Carhartt.” He tells me. “Of course you have your responbilities but there’s no signature under my emails that says ‘Philipp Maiburg is the head of the music department’. We see it as teamwork and everyone of us has their own qualities.”
This commitment to recognising talent and individuality is the very thing that’s kept Carhartt WIP ahead of the pack when it comes to their musical collaborations. I spoke to Philipp to find out just why Carhartt WIP and music are such a good fit.
Many of Carhartt’s early musical adopters were hip-hop artists. Why do you think this was?
That’s actually the most interesting point for me. It’s the origin of the brand Carhartt Work In Progress – it’s the more streetwear and youth orientated part of the brand compared to the workwear part which is mostly active in the USA.
The interesting point here is that the culture has chosen the brand, and not the other way around. That’s something which is still leading us when we are creating marketing concepts for the brand today.
We see it as our task to let things grow organically, and not to say “OK we want to reach this or that target and now we’re going there with a big pile of money.” We are kind of building from the bottom in order to build relationships over a long term period so that’s maybe the most interesting part of this whole thing.
Why the hip-hop community have chosen the brand relates to the New York history of the brand really. There’s a big part of the book that tells that story. There’s one story in the book about a robbery that has taken place on a New York street and there’s this guy who’s obviously wearing this Carhartt jacket, you can see a picture of the reward poster in the book. It kind of made its way to the streets itself without a strategy behind it. We only actually picked up on this trail when we started Carhartt Work in Progress.
How do you keep it organic?
There is a dedicated team for music, and also for skate, who have been with music and pop culture all our lives so we kind of almost accidentally ended up working for a fashion brand. Our background is more in music so we know the needs of artists and labels and promoters. We get in touch with them with ideas that actually help and support them on their way. We are just there to make something which would most likely happen without us but we are there to support it and maybe make it maybe a bit better or give the project more opportunities.
A good example is back in 2010, we got approached by Stones Throw Records, a label we had built a good relationship with over the previous years. They approached us with this new soul artist, Aloe Blacc, who was not very well known at this time, and they played us his new album. They told us they needed finanical support to fly in his band otherwise he would have needed to tour with a band from Europe so we paid for the flights. I think Aloe Blacc is still really happy with that because he really went through the roof after that tour with his song I Need A Dollar – which actually kind of sums up this project.
We also worked with NTS from day one. We were kind of fans of the station and got in touch and slowly built a relationship to the point where we asked, “What can we do together that really makes sense and really helps both parties?” So we developed this tour with NTS Radio. The original idea was to rebuild the booth from Dalston which houses NTS Radio. We rebuilt this booth, made it mobile, invited local talent and had an NTS Radio DJ hosting. This helps local talents, this helps NTS to get more reach all over Europe and it kind of positions Carhartt where we want to be positioned. That’s the whole point. Whatever we do we really always look for an authentic and organic way to let things grow. Sometimes things don’t grow of course – or maybe you get a misunderstanding – but in most cases we keep a really good relationship with whoever we work with and this has brought us much trust of artists and labels.
So you can see if you look at the Sound of Detroit series for instance which led to cooperations with Moodymann and Mahogany Music for instance. We really believe in following a road and not switching from one lane to another.
"The interesting point here is that the culture has chosen the brand, and not the other way around."
So what are Carhartt working on right now in the music world?
At the moment we are supporting Danny Brown on his European tour. We would definitely work again with Odissee who we met two years ago. He needed support on his European tour and he was only known to us as producer mainly and with his kind of independent hip-hop approach. Where he’s doing many things by himself. We supported his European tour and had amazing in store events with him. He had his incredible band with him – The Grand Scheme. So we will definitely help him with his next album as well and we would definitely also continue to work with NTS. This collaboration with NTS has even led to a collection we released this fall / winter. But the story doesn’t end here! Of course, there are many other things in the pipeline which I am not yet talking about. But it reaches from global project that are known all over the world to local projects.
We are also collaborating with Moxie on her On Loop party series and upcoming label so there was also a point before it was actually happening we decided OK, let’s do this together, let’s help out here. It was great decision because it’s worked out well. We believe in the artists when they come to us with ideas that their energy and enthusiasm is the right match for us and at a certain level you just have to trust that it will work and we have made a really good experience with trusting artists.
So, what do you consider the key moments with Carhartt WIP and music?
Of course, how it all started, which is pretty much documented in the book. It’s pretty much how did Carhartt get on the streets and how did Carhartt Work In Progress developed out of it. If a marketing strategist would have built Carhartt Work In Progress he would have most likely only worked with US hip-hop artists. But we always had a very close look to the European and also Asian underground club culture, like OK what’s happening in our countries where we are mostly active. That’s where it all started, it was mainly Germany, France and UK back in the day. It’s kind of interesting how pop culture and youth culture between Europe and Asia has always influenced each other. There was always an impulse and an answer. Just like when Kraftwerk was heard in Detroit, played by Electrifying Mojo for the first time. It made something with the musicians and their answer was Detroit techno and then Detroit techno ended up come back to Europe again and you know brought something new you know. We are very much interested in this feedback between culture. We see that it has great potential for the brand and for pop culture itself. It’s super interesting to work with that.
"We are very much interested in this feedback between culture."
Carhartt WIP used to have a label, Combination records, can you tell me about this?
That’s how it all started actually. I got approached by Carhartt in 1999 because they were sponsoring artists for quite some years already and they said “Hey we wanna have our own record label and do you wanna run it for us?” So I started Combination Records as a very open-minded electronic music label but then after 8 years we all kind of felt that running a label shouldn’t be the only thing that you know, uh, defines Carhartt in the music world. So we decided to skip the label work and put all energy into Carhartt Music. This music department has been founded after since we closed down Combination. We wanna be more free and work on more projects rather than just the record label. That was really the time when this game changed. And now if you look back it was a very good decision because this gave us the freedom to work with many labels and many artists and radio stations and so on. So Combination has been closed now since 2008. We are using this record label once in a while. Like we did this Moodymann 7” alongside the collections so there are still release but it’s now more linked to the Carhartt project.