Jane Herman Bishop joins the creative director behind American outfitter Filson as he heads to the rugged terrain of western Wyoming in search of inspiration.
The dogs start barking the second they saw us. This wasn’t the sedate woofing of house dogs, but the throaty baying of Alaskan huskies who live to pull sleds across some of the coldest, toughest terrain in the country. It was as if they were shouting, “HITCH US UP SO WE CAN RUN OUR HEARTS OUT NOW!!!!!”
Alex Carleton, creative director of the work-wear brand Filson, was on his knees, nose-to-nose with a husky, within minutes of our arrival. He’s a dog person. And the clothes he designs are built for places like the kennel owned by musher and Filson fan Billy Snodgrass on the fringes of Shoshone National Forest in Dubois, Wyoming.
Snodgrass’s kennel is far off most travelers’ paths, situated in a dip in the wide expanse of sagebrush-dotted land east of Jackson Hole. In the distance, the jagged Absaroka Range at the edge of Yellowstone juts up from the hills. There are no close neighbors—with 120 barking huskies, it’s better that way. And in fact, few but Carleton have ever trekked this far in the winter. When Snodgrass leads dogsled tours from November to April, he runs them from the easier-to-access Togwotee Mountain Lodge, in nearby Moran.
Seeing his products here, in context, will guide every aspect of what Carleton does, whether he’s updating the company’s classic Guide shirts or creating its marketing materials. City folk may have made Filson totes and jackets trendy, but it’s Snodgrass and his dogs that Carleton chose to feature in the company’s winter catalogue and ad campaign. “Real people, doing real things.”
Since it was founded in Seattle in 1897, Filson has outfitted men like Snodgrass, who live and work in rugged environments. Prospectors trekking through the Yukon at the end of the 19th century wore Filson. Timber surveyors, homesteaders, and hunters in the Pacific Northwest took its Cruiser jackets into the wilderness.
It’s to places like these that Carleton likes to travel—places worlds away from the streets of Paris and Tokyo, where so many other designers look for inspiration. “I don’t want to go where everyone else is going,” he said, and that’s true of his vision for the company. “Like Filson, what Billy does was born out of necessity,” Carleton said, referring to dog-sledding’s origins as a method of traversing snowy, otherwise impassable corners of the continent. And for Carleton, experiencing that firsthand is something no amount of market research or moodboarding can replicate.
“I’ve worn them every day since August,” Snodgrass said of his Mackinaw field pants, a water-repellent woolen style with side pockets for gear. There wasn’t time to worry about clothes: Snodgrass was training for the Iditarod, the 1,100-mile sled race that starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome, on Alaska’s Bering Sea coast. The day we visited, Snodgrass and his team had just finished a training run using an ATV to monitor the dogs’ speed.
This month, he’ll compete in the race wearing a custom jacket designed to his specifications. Comparable in performance to the Everest-ready Marmot brand parka he wore the last time he raced, the Filson Iditarod jacket is made of four-ounce super-dry cotton that’s lightweight, waxed for water repellency, and stuffed with 850-fill down for maximum warmth. “He’s trusting us with his life,” Carleton acknowledged.
To get a feel for the job’s demands, Carleton was going to drive the tour dogs himself. The ATV was hooked to eight psyched huskies—maniacs the minute they sensed a run coming. Perched on the vehicle, Carleton looked like a natural. Still, he was nervous. If he drove too slowly, the dogs would get frustrated, and although they wouldn’t turn on him (they are bred to be patient), they are animals, which is to say they need what they need, and Alaskan huskies need speed. Of course, if Carleton drove too fast, he’d run them over. “This is intense,” he whispered. With reverence for the frigid conditions, the animals on his leash, and his muse, Carleton nudged the gas. The revving of the engine drowned out the dogs’ barking until Carleton let go of the brakes, and then, all at once, they stopped. Dead silence. Time to run.