Could Workwear Be a Response to Fast Fashion and a Sense of Frustration?

Bianca Felicori
·7 minuto per la lettura
Photo credit: Elliot Ross. Courtesy Carhartt
Photo credit: Elliot Ross. Courtesy Carhartt

From ELLE Decor

The global crisis before us has brought the fragility of our economic, social and cultural systems to the fore, leading to a radical revision of the concept of work. In the hopes that this situation isn’t definite, what emerges from the working class to which I belong — freelancers, essentially — is a great sense of frustration and exhaustion. Work, today, often coincides with life, meaning we’re constantly “on the job”, and the possibility of working remotely has only fueled this sense of restlessness for those who were used to office life. At times, when discouragement eats at our energy, we begin to question our professional identities and roles, far from last century’s concept of “labor”, when work meant getting your hands dirty. Some say this is a reason for which, in recent years, the trend of workwear has exploded in Europe’s cultural and creative sphere. Workwear offers the possibility, for those accustomed to sitting at the computer for ten hours a day, to feel the nostalgic and romantic sensation of belonging to a social class that works in the primary and secondary sector. The more our concept of work evolves away from traditional labor, and the more industrial automation develops, the more we desire to incorporate workwear and normalize it within an urban context.

Of course this theory has its weak points, but it’s interesting to note how this appropriation can be traced to a sense of frustration with contemporaneity. Meanwhile, even workwear brands themselves have studied strategies to bring this type of clothing outside its specialized sphere. In 1994, Edwin Faeh founded Carhartt Work in Progress (WIP), developing its own collections, revisited in a contemporary key. WIP was born with the urgency to translate a trend that was unfolding in the United States — that of wearing Carhartt clothes, which had been around since the ‘80s, in cities like New York and Detroit — in collections adapted to this new context. In 1997, WIP arrived in Europe, opening its first store in London, and in 2010, began collaborating with important brands like A.P.C., Converse, Fragment Design, Junya Watanabe, Nike and Vetements, not to mention collaborations with musical icons like Fela Kuti, Underground Resistance and Vestax.

Photo credit: Elliot Ross. Courtesy Carhartt
Photo credit: Elliot Ross. Courtesy Carhartt

The peculiarity of this trend lies in its ability to remain a constant, without a precise date or reference to a specific historical moment, represented by the American hip hop scene of the ‘90s and the new generation of stars in Luca Guadagnino’s series We Are Who We Are. “Workwear became a trend for its technical features in both durability and comfort — versatile qualities for an everyday-city style. I consider everyday workwear as an evolution of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), or a series of products with the purpose of protecting and safeguarding workers,” says Aaron Dankwah, a freelance agent. “Its evolution is also owed especially to the role of brands like Carhartt, Dickies, Ben Davis, Mephisto and CAT in repositioning products. Thanks to the essential qualities of workwear, these brands found great success in the ‘90s, beginning from the urban subculture linked to the street and made of skaters, writers, artists and dancers.”

To find out more about workwear, we posed a few questions to Claudia Sternberg, Marketing Executive at CAT footwear and Wolverine Worldwide, and Amy Hellebuyck, Sr. Public Relations Manager at Carhartt.

What do you think of workwear as a fashion trend?

Claudia: I think this trend is positive for the fashion industry, because workwear is functional and durable, and consumers are searching for these qualities more and more. There are close links between workwear and the various subcultures, and this tendency has only reinvigorated the fashion industry, making industrial materials and shapes popular. Workwear also has a nostalgic link to the idea of “hard work” that’s very much appreciated by consumers.

Amy: People appreciate not only the quality but also the values of workwear. By nature, workwear is functional and isn’t connected to any trend. At Carhartt, we produce clothing for people who work hard. If people want to wear them fashionably, great, but we’re not a company that follows these trends. Workwear is always relevant because it hinges on the needs of consumers and the real final usage.

Why do you think this trend has exploded?

Claudia: This trend emerged partially from an opposition to fast-fashion. Workwear means practicality and comfort, and it’s extremely sustainable because these clothes were made to last over time. The more consumers become conscious of the environmental effects of their shopping habits, the more workwear will become widespread. These clothes have a timeless quality to them and they transcend fads, so they’re not part of the “disposable” and unsustainable fast-fashion market.

Amy: It’s a response to fast-fashion and the desire to wear truly functional clothes. Our products contain the real value of this clothing and it certainly isn’t determined by trends of the moment. We want people to appreciate them, to take care of them, and to pass them down to future generations. I think the new generation has become attached to our workwear because they appreciate those that work in these sectors — especially today when we truly recognize the importance of these workers.

Photo credit: Courtesy Photo
Photo credit: Courtesy Photo

How do you include, in terms of marketing strategy and communication, the market of “non-professionals”?

Claudia: Cat Footwear is part of the Caterpillar industry and was born as a brand for those that use them at work and those that use them in the city. The “lifestyle consumers” appreciate the unique quality of our products, which are the result of 100 years of engineering and industrial research. Our marketing strategy looks to find a balance between the emphasis of our cultural heritage and the creation of new cultural references to establish the brand in the sphere of urban consumers. We know our products are recognized and valued for their functional characteristics, which are the main reasons they’re purchased: they’re durable, comfortable, and often waterproof. Our only strategy is that of clearly communicating that we’re a brand rooted in our rich history.

Amy: Carhartt doesn’t pursue the consumer, nor the fashion market. We are a brand for people who work hard and for 130 years, we’ve remained authentic. This will never change. Also, we never use models in our ad campaigns. The people who wear our work clothes in marketing campaigns are the people who really use them.

Photo credit: Courtesy Photo
Photo credit: Courtesy Photo

Have you ever collaborated with fashion labels, and if so, which ones?

Claudia: Yes, we just worked on an exciting collaboration with workwear/streetwear designer Heron Preston, which we’ll launch in early 2021. We recently collaborated with Axel Arigato for two seasons, fusing industrial elements like the hi-vis and “safety colour” with the elegant and clean aesthetic of Axel. And we also have a few workwear collaborations in the pipeline, so keep an eye out!

Amy: We are always very selective when we have to choose a brand to collaborate with. Every time we decide to bring forward a collaboration, we have to assure that the product realized is able to address difficult conditions and construction sites. Last year we collaborated with Hurley for a four season collection (although it was available only in North America). We worked closely with Hurley to ensure that everything addressed our needs for durability and functionality. We believe that our patch is a guarantee and that means we always have to respect the expectations of our consumers. We really enjoyed working with a company that studies products for swimming and surfing, because it allowed us to test our items in contact with water. Together, we designed the most resistant (and shortest) surfboard ever, along with functional clothing for those working closely with water, on both the docks or on the boat.