With the advent of the nation's "Shale Gale," workers have poured into the oil and gas industry by the thousands, and with them incredible demand for a unique breed of clothing and equipment that can withstand the harshest, hottest, most dangerous conditions.
And so, "frackwear" was born.
Retailers have been overwhelmed with demand for battle-tested equipment like well-built work boots and fire-resistant clothing, fueling projections that sales of protective clothing will eclipse $2.3 billion by 2017, according to Frost & Sullivan data reported in the Wall Street Journal. Last year, sales climbed to $1.6 billion, up from $1.5 billion 2011, in large part due to the expansion of domestic oil and gas production.
"We have seen an increase in demand domestically, especially in shale fields, that has been quite dramatic," says Peter Engel, spokesman for Red Wing Shoe Company. A fixture in the oil and gas industry for almost 50 years, the Minnesota-based company is best known for its footwear but has expanded into flame-resistant garments in recent years, responding to heightened demand for the products in the oil and gas country.
According to Engel, the footwear company plans to open 12 new stores between Texas and North Dakota by the end of the year, some of which will be almost double the size of traditional Red Wing Shoe stores.
"We're dramatically increasing our footprint. We're going into where we've had almost no presence historically, like the cities and towns in North Dakota that are serving the oil fields up there," Engel says. "Part of the problem in places like North Dakota where retailers carry our brands has been just to keep up with their retail footprint and their inventories."
"We're kind of scrambling to catch up," he adds.
Carhartt, a Dearborn, Mich.-based manufacturer of fire-resistant clothing, work boots and outerwear, has seen a similar ramp up in demand for their products over the past several years thanks to the domestic oil and gas boom. Where the oil and gas industry used to make up just 15 percent of the company's business with the electric utility industry taking up the lion's share, that has now "completely swapped," according to Tom Kiddle, industrial director of sales at Carhartt. These days, almost 70 percent of Carhartt's gear goes to oil and gas workers.
But it's not only the company's demographic that's shifted in the response to the fountain of demand from the oil and gas industries. The types of products companies such as Carhartt offers are changing, too.
"Years ago [fire-resistant] clothing was looked at as a uniform – it wasn't something someone wanted to wear," Kiddle says.
That's changed now as Carhartt has expanded its product offerings in recent years from around five styles 10 years ago to more than 100 today, taking normal work wear and making it fire-resistant but breathable for workers in hot climates such as Texas and Louisiana.
"Because of the oil and gas boom, we really have been able to focus on several new innovative products," Kiddle says.
"Style is coming into play with [fire-resistant] clothing," Kiddle adds with a chuckle. "You have soft-shell looking jackets, jeans, ripstop pants - you've got guys that want to look and feel like they're wearing normal clothes."
But it's not just style that's given birth to a new generation of workwear for oil and gas workers. A slew of fires and explosions at oil and gas sites in 2010 prompted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue guidelines on what workers should wear, which included flame-resistant clothing.
"You went from a position in 2010 where most of those oil workers were in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt to the next day when they had to be in [fire-resistant] clothing," Kiddle says. "It was kind of a perfect storm – not only did you have thousands of workers already on the sites, but now you had thousands of new workers pouring in."
But with or without the guidelines from OSHA, retailers such as Carhartt and Red Wing Shoe Company expect sales to continue growing, especially in light of new policies allowing energy producers to export more natural gas abroad. With more oil and gas being pulled out of the ground, there'll me more need for the gear to do it. And that's changed the way businesses like Carhartt and Red Wing look at how to meet the demand.
"This industry is dependent on large inventories - a guy has to have something to go to work in the next day," Kiddle says. "We've had to change our business model to increase capacity in our inventory levels so that we can support this increase in business."