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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Iconic brand Filson to outsource most of remaining Seattle production to California

By Paul Roberts The Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Filson, the Seattle-based maker of durable, high-end outdoor wear, is preparing to cut most of its shrunken Seattle-area manufacturing operations.

The 126-year-old company plans to outsource up to two-thirds of its remaining Seattle-area production to an outside vendor near Los Angeles, but has no immediate plans to end all production here, company officials said Monday. The move would eliminate up to 26 Seattle-area manufacturing jobs, mainly in Kent, where Filson had consolidated local production. It would be the latest downsizing for a company whose head count has fallen from 634 in 2019 to 286 as of September, according to company data.

The latest round could start as early as Dec. 1, depending on negotiations between Filson’s parent company, Texas-based Bedrock Manufacturing, and United Food & Commercial Workers Local 3000, which represents Filson’s Seattle-area manufacturing workforce.

Bedrock informed UFCW officials last week about the planned move, which would cut by two-thirds the union workforce still at Filson. “We are hoping to meet with Filson in the next couple weeks to bargain over these changes, but do not have a date confirmed yet,” UFCW spokesperson Tom Geiger said Monday.

Filson will still make three “core” products – its Mackinaw Cruiser jacket and Mackinaw and Western vests – in Kent, but will outsource all other remaining product lines, Bedrock CEO Awenate Cobbina said Monday.

Bedrock, a privately held investment firm that also owns high-end watchmaker Shinola, acquired Filson in 2012.

Cobbina said the proposed move is aimed less at cost cutting, which will be minimal, than reducing the time executives at a small company now spend overseeing manufacturing systems for so many product lines.

“This is a shift in where we are putting our limited management resources and is taken at a critical time,” Cobbina said.

“I’m not going to pretend like we didn’t look at the costs, but [the move to California] was not a cost-driven exercise,” he added.

The move comes a little over two years after Filson laid off 56 Seattle-area workers, including 38 union manufacturing employees in Kent.

It also follows decades of consolidation and disruption among U.S. apparel makers, which have scrambled to compete with foreign manufacturers with lower labor costs.

“Apparel is one of the most globalized manufacturing industries out there,” said Jake Vigdor, an economist with the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy who follows state and local job markets.

“Clothing is nonperishable and in most cases light, which makes it easy to ship long distances. And the apparel industry is highly competitive. This creates pressure for manufacturers to push production toward low-cost regions,” Vigdor said. And the Seattle area, with its higher real estate and labor costs, “is the exact opposite of a low-cost region.”

Between 2001 and 2022, apparel manufacturing employment in Washington fell 59%, to 1,276, state Employment Security Department data shows. In King County, it fell 38%, to 889, over the same period, with most of the decline coming since the start of the pandemic.

Many of those jobs have gone overseas. Others have moved to Los Angeles, which, as Vigdor notes, now has “the largest cluster of apparel manufacturing in the USA” and which allows manufactures like Filson to keep the “Made in USA” label.

Filson bucked those outsourcing trends longer than most, in part by specializing in high-end apparel whose high prices could absorb higher labor costs.

As recently as 2015, Filson manufactured 90% of its products in the United States, with much of the production run out of two workshops in the Seattle neighborhood of Sodo, according to a 2015 story in The Seattle Times.

Until around 2021, customers at Filson’s flagship retail store on First Avenue South could watch various products being sewn by as many as 30 workers on a busy production line. That production was moved to Kent.

Company officials decline to say what share of Filson products is U.S.-made today. But many of the company’s higher-end products, including its $350 Tin Cloth Short Lined Cruiser Jacket and its $455 Skagit Rain Jacket, are imported, according to its online catalog.

After the 2021 layoffs, some observers also speculated that Bedrock hoped to cut costs as it reportedly prepared to take the company public.

Bedrock declined to comment about going public. During an interview Monday, Cobbina emphasized that the shift to Los Angeles was mainly about freeing up management to focus on more strategically important tasks, such as design, materials sourcing and retailing, as well as in marketing to existing and new customers.

Cobbina pointed to a new Filson collection inspired by the TV series “Yellowstone,” in which several characters wear Filson gear.

He said Bedrock could have outsourced all of its Seattle-area manufacturing to Los Angeles, but concluded that the three “core” products remaining in the Seattle area made economic sense to leave alone.

“We could have gotten out of the manufacturing business entirely,” Cobbina added. “But we didn’t feel like that was the right move to make at this time, especially for those key items.”

But Cobbina didn’t rule out such a move in the future.

Although that’s “not our intention,” Cobbina said, Bedrock must “do what we can to make sure that Filson has the strongest brand possible. … And if that means moving something from Seattle to somewhere else in the states, we would be open to it. But we’re not doing that right now.”