Detroit Work City
For generations, Detroit was the industrial heart of the American economy. Home to the Big Three automakers, the Detroit metro area is also home to Carhartt’s corporate offices, which are located in the nearby suburb of Dearborn, Michigan. Carhartt’s relationship to the auto industry has more history than simple proximity: Back in 1911, Carhartt actually attempted to get into the automobile business, but after a single year, in which very few models of the “Carhartt Car” were actually produced, the company returned to the workwear business.
For a new generation of Carhartt’s consumers, this “way of life” doesn’t necessarily involve working at a steel mill or at a construction site, nor does it involve a blue-collar world made up of only men.
Fast-forward a hundred or so years, and Detroit now finds itself in a very different position. Much has been made of the city’s urban decay, and the changing economics of the auto industry played a huge role in that decline. But recently, a new generation of workers has begun to rebuild the Motor City. According to WIRED magazine, “Detroit feels like the heart of the maker movement.”
Maker movement is a loosely defined term used to describe the new wave of independent artisans, inventors, and designers. While this movement may be amorphous in nature, it’s enough of a phenomenon to have inspired a new online zine called Make:, as well Maker Faires around the globe, some of which attract more than 100,000 people. What differentiates the maker movement from your average DIY culture is the entrepreneurial spirit with which these indie craftspeople market themselves. In many ways, the maker movement is Etsy taken to its logical conclusion.
Businesses have taken notice of the movement and put these makers to work. Levi’s has introduced a Levi’s Makers line at its boutique-style shops. General Electric introduced a program called GE Garages, which provides workspaces for aspiring inventors and tinkerers. And in Detroit, Carhartt has attempted to harness the maker movement’s energy by aligning its brand with what Tony Ambroza, Carhartt’s senior vice president of marketing, called “the creative class from the millennial generation.”
In an interview with Adweek, Ambroza went on to say, “Lots of diverse people are doing cool things like growing organic food and building furniture. ... While it sounds romantic, in reality these makers have to work unbelievably hard, and many know our products.”
During the summer and fall of 2014, Ambroza and Carhartt teamed up with New Holland Brewing Co., out of Holland, Michigan, for the Road Home to Craftsmanship Tour, which stretched all the way from Detroit to Denver. While part of the tour’s goal was to promote to new Carhartt Woodsman beer brewed by New Holland, it also had deeper branding goals. As Fred Bueltmann, New Holland’s VP of brand and lifestyle, said, the plan was to “hang in some great, hardworking towns, sit down with local craftspeople and tradespeople, and talk about something we’re all passionate about: what it is to live a craft life.”
And the diverse group of consumers who live that “craft life” is a new target audience for Carhartt. The company has even introduced slimmer silhouettes to appeal to the skinny-jeans crowd. Whenever Ambroza is interviewed, he is careful to reaffirm the company’s commitment to its core customers of blue-collar workers. However, his new, more expansive vision has the company looking forward to a future where what it means to “work” may be very different than how we conceive of that term today.