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“The History Factory Podcast” welcomes Dave Moore, archive and digital asset manager at Carhartt, to chat with guest host and History Factory Senior Director of Business Insight and Performance Erin Narloch. The two discuss Carhartt’s origins and values, why it is synonymous with quality work apparel, its evolution into a brand that influences celebrity fashion, and how it uses its heritage, archives, and company history to authenticate its brand positioning, develop products and connect with its consumer communities.

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Jason Dressel: Today on “The History Factory Podcast”: Carhartt with the company’s very own Dave Moore. I’m Jason Dressel, and welcome to “The History Factory Podcast,” the podcast at the intersection of business and history. With Labor Day around the corner, what better time to learn about a company and brand that is synonymous with labor and hard work—Carhartt, the iconic workwear and apparel company.

My History Factory colleague Erin Narloch sits down with her friend Dave Moore, Carhartt’s archive & digital asset manager, to talk about all things Carhartt. It’s interesting, because the founding and origin story of Carhartt is truly intertwined with American labor and the labor movement in some respects. The company began in 1889, which was just a few years after the first Labor Day holiday was celebrated in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882, and just five years before President Grover Cleveland signed a law in 1894 making the first Monday in September a national Labor Day holiday.

As you’re about to hear from Dave and Erin’s conversation, Carhartt has been linked to labor from the outset, and its iconic apparel, like its bib overalls, chore coat and other items, have evolved with, in some cases, very minimal changes. I love, for instance, how Dave notes some of the changes that have been made over time, like the little details of a pocket designed to hold a pocket watch, which was especially appreciated by customers a century ago, and it’s now a pocket that’s designed with consideration for carrying a mobile phone. So it’s only fitting that Carhartt was Detroit born and bred and is still headquartered there and now is a global company of 5,500 people. About half of those employees are American workers, about one third of whom are UFCW union members—so a great brand that is beloved by hard-working men and women all over the world. Here’s Carhartt’s Dave Moore speaking with History Factory’s Erin Narloch.

Erin Narloch: Dave, thanks for joining us today. It’s so nice to have you here representing Carhartt. Thinking of Carhartt as this heritage brand, it probably has an incredible origin story. Could you share that origin story with us?

Dave Moore: Yeah, I’d be happy to. First off, it’s great to be here talking about Carhartt. Carhartt’s origin story is pretty cool, because it connects very much to today, and it’s really rooted in how we develop product in the first place. So our founder, Hamilton Carhartt, started the business in Detroit in 1889, and leading up to that, he was a traveling salesman selling all sorts of goods on the railroad. He was a very outgoing, talkative guy, and he was always trying to find out what sort of products people needed. Anyway, he started talking to all these railroad workers and found that they could really use better-quality work clothing. So, really, Carhartt is born out of consumer research, which is something that really continues as a huge philosophy for us all the way up until today. We want to build functional product that that works for our consumers. He took all these things he was hearing from these railroad workers about the shortcomings of their work clothing and used that to design an overall to fit their needs. So, really, Carhartt started with this railroad worker overall and, after the initial success of building this high-quality clothing and this overall, started expanding into other outerwear in the early years and just really grew off this reputation of high-quality workwear from the very beginning. So that’s something we still hold very dear today in the way that we design product.

EN: I can’t imagine riding the railroads selling merchandise. I love it.

DM: Yeah, it was an evolution for him, because his first traveling salesman role was in a horse and wagon. So even working on the railroad was an evolution for him in those days.

EN: And continues today, I’m sure—where workers are working, what different industries and different types of vehicles.

DM: Yeah, it’s a huge part of what we do today. When I talk to new hires and other people about connecting then to now, I just say, “We have whole departments now that do what Hamilton did.” They’re constantly visiting job sites, talking to people about their clothing, their needs. If we design anything, we want it to be functional, and we want it to serve a purpose that’s dictated by the end user. That’s really the goal. So we’ll go out and visit, you know, solar farms—I think our teams have even gone to archeological digs and things like that, really casting a wide net of different types of jobs and uses for our clothing so that we can design a new product to fill those needs.

EN: How does the Carhartt archives support the business today? You mentioned that “then and now” series. Are there any other ways you support business?

DM: Well, we only have a half-hour, so I’ll try to keep it brief. I mentioned internally, so, you know, new hire orientation, onboarding, really being part of that initial introduction to the company for new employees to really be rooted in that history and the philosophy of what we’re all about since the beginning. So internal engagement is really big for the archive between orientation and tours of the archive, now that we have a cool space to be able to tour people through. But that also obviously goes into work with product development, work with marketing, campaign development. I myself am organized within the creative marketing department, so I work very heavily with that department, but really across the company—drawing inspiration, bringing old design details and patterns and things like that into new product, something that was here in bits and pieces before the archive really made its mark. But now, barely a season goes by that there’s not something in the line that has influence from a heritage piece. I was talking to a designer recently, and somebody was asking them about how we’re very sparing in the way that we do collabs with other brands. And what she said to them was, “Well, we collab with ourselves all the time,” which I thought was a really cool way to put it.

We have so much stuff in the archives to draw on that it really becomes a huge part of how we do things. But then, in addition to all of that from the archives side and the information science side, I serve as the manager for our digital asset management system. I’ll sit in with other teams, things like advice on our production team or our design team and their inventory and inventorying all their samples and things like that. We’ll provide expertise and help those teams with like organizational stuff as it relates to information science. So even beyond that really cool stuff you see reflected in the product and the marketing, bringing that archival organizational expertise is also something that the archive can help with. So it’s really like every day brings a new adventure. Even helping customer service—we often have people reaching out to our customer service team looking for more information about an old product they have, whether they bought it vintage or handed down from a family member, which happens quite a bit, which is really cool: to work with the end users and the customers to get them some more information about the old products they have. That’s always a fun research project for me. So there’s definitely more, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

EN: I think you did a great job of showing how the archive at Carhartt is really positioned to serve the whole business and the consumer. It’s so interesting that you mentioned not only the product stories that you have to pull from but this concept that the expertise of archives and structure, taxonomy and organization can be a benefit to the rest of the organization. That’s super interesting. If you think about the values of Carhartt, can you provide any examples from history that highlight what Carhartt stands for?

DM: Just like any other company, we have our mission and values and all of our statements. But really, if you boil it down, the idea is: Do the right thing. And that is something that’s also rooted in our origin story. So in addition to quality product and all of that, quality really also made its way into the way that Hamilton Carhartt set up his business for his employees and his associates. Being born in the late 1800s, he was one who was very outspoken in workers rights, in the union movement, providing good working conditions, fair pay, fair wages, having those unions and organizations in place to have good relationships with employees and have that structure—when they did have an issue, it could be dealt with in a meaningful way that worked between the management and the employees. So that idea of treating your employees right, doing the right thing, working responsibly, all of those things are a huge way that the archive can provide the foundation for that, and the records and the documents and all the evidence.

I would say that when you have an archive, and you talk about your history or your values from the beginning, you need to have the archive to back it up, or else how are you proving what you’re saying now? So those ideas of being responsible in the way that you’re operating and working with your employees and working within society are a huge part of who we are, too. That’s rooted in our history. So we’re always bringing out examples of that: writings from our founder about those things, even his testimony in front of Congress in 1900 about the value of unions and workers rights and good relationships between employer and employee, and also a history of charitable giving and things that we’ve done ever since the beginning to give back to our local community and organizations for our core consumers. Those are all things in the archive that really lend a lot of weight to what we’re doing today as something that has been consistent through the history and not just something we’re trying to launch and do right now. It’s something that has a legacy.

EN: Authenticity, right? It’s not that flash in the pan. We can provide the authenticity throughout time—the receipts, right? You have the receipts.

DM: I like that. Yeah, we have the receipts.

EN: Thinking about Carhartt as a beloved brand, right, and this brand affinity, I think it represents a wide audience base right from the union workers or railroads—but it also crosses into, I think, fashion-conscious individuals. How do you serve your core audience and fans of the brand, and how do you differentiate the messaging from the archive to touch these different audiences?

DM: That’s a really good question, and I think it relates to the way that Carhartt in general, as a company, does its marketing and its interaction with the public. And I think you hit the nail on the head already with that term authenticity: That’s what drives everything that we do with the way that we talk to our consumers, no matter who they are. It’s really about being authentic to our mission and that idea of building functional, durable clothing responsibly. The goal is to serve everyone who works hard. So it’s kind of a mantra that can cross all of these different consumer segments and all the terms that we use. Ultimately, Carhartt is for anybody and everybody who wants to work hard and get their hands dirty. And I think the affinity that some have to it from a fashion standpoint, where maybe you’re not wearing it for that, is rooted in the same thing, right? It has that ethos. It has that DNA of being this no-nonsense functional product, and that appeals, obviously, to the people who need it for their jobs and to keep themselves safe and protected on the jobsite. But that mission and mantra behind the product makes it authentic to somebody saying, “I’m going to wear this just as fashion or out on the town.” It’s the same thing that’s appealing to them, in a way: that authenticity. You’re wearing something that is no-nonsense, and it’s made for a purpose, and maybe that’s reflective of my personality and who I am. Even if I’m not working in manual labor with my hands, I have that mentality of getting the job done, and having that Carhartt patch reflects it in what you’re wearing, whether or not you need it in that way.

EN: Some people work hard at looking good, right?

DM: Yeah.

EN: Good to know that Carhartt delivers for that as well.

DM: Well, you know, I’m the archivist. Of course, I lift my boxes and have to deal with some dirty things here and there, but obviously I have plenty of color in my wardrobe. For me, it’s that appeal that it has for functionality, even just around the house, in the outdoors. I’m a very outdoorsy guy, so I like to wear it. It’s good for camping and cold weather and increasingly, now, warm weather—with a lot of our new products gearing up for that, too. So it appeals in that way.

EN: Good design is timeless.

DM: Yeah.

EN: So I’m visiting the Carhartt Archive today.


EN: What are you showing me and why?

DM: Oh, man. Well, I would be lying if I didn’t say that, on any given day, what I’m feeling and what I’m interested in on any given day might come into it. These days, I think it’s really exciting—I think maybe it’s the popularity of unboxing videos or other things like that. I do like to show off what’s new, and so it’s fun to just show off, “Hey, this is the newest thing we acquired.” But as far as the displays I put together and tours I do for folks, I really like to illustrate change over time, but the commitment to the mission that I outlined.

It’s something I show a lot with our iconic products: things like the overalls. Our product colored chore coat, which we still sell today, was introduced in the 1910s. Our Detroit jacket that was introduced in the 1950s we still sell today. But I like to bring out ones from different eras and different years, because obviously a big part of my collection strategy is to be like: OK, these have been in the line for years, right? So I’m not going to collect one from every year. I don’t have that much space, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the exact year with the old ones, but to show change over time, to show when the pocket that was designed initially to have a pocket watch was updated to be a more generic pocket, because everybody started wearing wristwatches—or now the pocket on the bib overall has a zipper and it’s designed for your cell phone. So showing that change over time, especially in those classic pieces, to say that we respect our DNA, and we want to have that feel and silhouette of that style be the same, but we’re not just going to sit around and say, “OK, well, it’s selling. We’ll just leave it be.” We always want to relook at all of those things to make sure that, even if it’s that core style that’s been in line for over 100 years, we’re serving the needs of today.

So I really like to show examples of these pieces through time, and not only that, but to show different fabrics we’ve used—how even our classic Carhartt brown color has changed over the years. Change over time is a really cool thing to show, because I always say, no matter how advanced and technical the new product we are making is with all sorts of stretch fabrics and moisture wicking and whatever, it’s part of this lineage. You can’t have it without all the things—you can’t have our moisture-wicking Force T-shirt without having our classic cotton pocket tee that was introduced in the ’90s. It’s all part of this continuum. So the stuff I show, I really try to capture those stories.

EN: It’s great—the consideration of design details as the world around us continues to change.

DM: Yeah.

EN: It’s a really wonderful thing to think about, especially when you consider the target consumer being someone who’s out there working. So you’re, in essence, an extension of their gear—you are the gear, right? You’re protection. You’re all of those things to them.

DM: Well, that’s the cool thing. When we get information and stories from consumers, especially sometimes they’ll send back something that’s absolutely trashed. They’ll send it to us because their partner or whoever is saying: “You’ve got to get rid of this. This is not usable anymore. Why is that still in the house?” So a lot of times they’ll send it to us with like a letter being like, “I couldn’t bear to throw this away, because I’ve got to get it out of house. It’s to the point I can’t wear it anymore. But I couldn’t just throw it in the garbage. It had to have a future.” And I think that speaks to that connection. Not only is the clothing an extension of us as a company—well, not kind of; it is—but also it becomes a second skin, a lot of times, for the wearer, where not only are they wearing it to stay protected on a job where they’re supporting their family, so it becomes this extension of them. So in a way, it connects us as the company directly to that person through the clothing. It becomes this conduit—we’ve got your back—and then it’s returned when they’re like: “Man, I can’t throw this away. I’ve got to send it back.” Fortunately, since the archive was established, we have that. But even before the archive, we’d love to put those kinds of things on display and talk to those ways that consumers connect to us.

EN: Because it then becomes more than a jacket or overalls, right? To your point, it’s an extension of that person’s lived experience.

DM: Or an heirloom—it’s passed down to them from their parent or uncle or whatever or aunt. It’s really cool to see the way that happens.

EN: I also enjoy the concept around—these are evidence of long wear test periods. This is how something wears after 20, 30 years of use or whatever it might be.

DM: Yeah, it’s very interesting. When I show stuff, I like to show that evolution. I like to show the different aspects of the archive. So obviously there’s trying to collect the product history and show the change over time in the styles, but also to show those other parts of the collection—like, OK, those are important because of their role in the product history. This one is important because it tells a story of a consumer and everything they went through wearing it.

EN: In closing, I just want to ask: Do you have a favorite product story? Do you have a favorite piece from the archive? If so, please dish.

DM: For sure. I’ll take them separately, because one of my favorite product stories isn’t a story about a clothing product at all. It’s a story about an automotive product. A little-known fact is that Carhartt, in the early 1910s, actually tried our hand in the automobile industry, and we actually started our own car company. Seeing as it was a time in Detroit before the idea of automobile mass production hadn’t fully come into fruition yet by that point, there was a lot of competition. There were a lot of different companies popping up, making cars, and we tried our hand at that industry. It’s a very cool story—was not particularly successful and was shuttered after a few years, but it’s a cool part of our history that also we’re very proud of our roots here, where I am in Detroit. So it’s kind of a fun connection to the city. That’s been a fun one for me, because I don’t have a lot in the archives related to it. I have some advertisements and things like that, but it’s actually been me getting connected and working with some local institutions like the Detroit Public Library in particular, who has books and photographs and other information about these cars. It’s been a fun investigation for me, and probably just selfishly mentioning this, because I have not been able to source a vehicle, so any opportunity I have to get the word out there—connect and reach out to me if you know where one is or might have a line on one. But that’s probably one of my favorite product stories. I’ve been with Carhartt about nine years, so obviously I have a lot, but that’s a fun one.

A couple of my favorite pieces in the archives are obviously the clothes—I love all the clothing, but I think maybe it’s the things that are a little bit harder for me to find that excite me a little bit more. Years back, through actually our design department working with some vintage hounds, people hunting down vintage stuff that they work with for inspiration pieces, they were actually able to source a pair of Carhartt leather gloves from about the 1910s as well. Those are really cool. They’re these beautiful black leather gauntlet-style gloves, the big gauntlet coming down beyond the wrist, and those are really cool. Just last year, through someone actually reaching out to our customer service looking for information, I was able to acquire a hiking backpack from the 1930s from what we called our Super Dux line. It was our first hunting and outdoors line. We recently brought the brand name back, actually, for some new product of Super Dux. But locating that, it’s just this huge giant rectangular backpack that’s made out of our old canvas fabric. Those are much more rare to find, those accessory pieces and things that weren’t part of that main line of clothing. So those are really exciting ones to find, and have even brought out some of those pieces with our accessories department and stuff—conversations around, “Hey, what if we did a limited run, brought something like this back?” So there’s a lot of conversations we have like that. But those rare pieces are really exciting to me and are fun to show off.

EN: Yeah, for sure. I would be interested in some gauntlet leather gloves.

DM: I had some folks looking at them, and they were like, “Yeah, this is really functional.” The intention was, you’re stringing barbed wire or doing whatever, anything where you needed to protect all the way up near the elbow, and it’s like, this is still functional. This is still a good idea. So I think it’s interesting, the places that you’ll find inspiration through the archive. As a little bit of a sum-up, that’s what I really love when I’m walking especially product people through some of this old stuff, because you are the archivist and you’re the access to the stuff. You put it out and put it on display or show it off to them, and they can get up and see it up close. It’s interesting to me to see the inspiration they draw: some little stitch pattern or piece of trim or the littlest thing. They’re looking through all these and going: “Oh, look at that. Oh, we could do a stitch like that.” Those things that I, as someone who’s not a product designer, would never think to pay attention to—it’s exciting to see them get excited about it sometimes. Like kids: They’re getting excited about seeing some design detail that’s just, to me, so miniscule I wouldn’t have even noticed it myself. But they get all excited about it, and it’s really cool to see.

EN: That’s definitely the magic and alchemy of archives. It’s good to not only preserve but bring forward and pull that red thread of authenticity and see it in the market today or next season.

DM: Or three years from now, or when I feel like it. And that’s the cool thing too, is that as someone who works with product and marketing and all these different departments that are on different timelines—obviously product works so far out, and marketing’s still working a ways out but on a closer timeline. I think the benefit of being in the archive is you can see it. You touch so many different departments that you see things evolve. The more you get integrated into these processes and development, you see how things evolve over time from that initial kernel of an idea all the way into—there’s product on the shelves and ads on TV.

EN: Very cool. Well, Dave, thank you so much for your time today. It was great to catch up with you and hear your perspective on how the Carhartt archives serves the business and future product development and the consumer.

DM: Oh, it was great. It was my pleasure. Happy to be here.

JD: That concludes this episode of “The History Factory Podcast.” Thanks again to Carhartt’s Dave Moore and History Factory’s Erin Narloch. Stay tuned for new episodes coming soon. Be well, and hope you have a great Labor Day weekend.

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