Modern parkas a long way from skins and canvas
Picking a parka may not be exactly the same as choosing a car, but there are some similarities. Firstly, a parka will be your primary protective apparatus for instances of non-vehicular transit. In other words, if you’re not planning to drive everywhere in the winter cold you’ll need to wear something to keep your body warm.
Secondly, many parkas are priced almost proportionately as high as a vehicle. The average price of a car in Canada is $36,000. An average full-length parka, without GPS or other fancy options, could easily run you $1,000 and beyond. Such an expensive piece of clothing is something you would expect to last a long time, like a car. Both, alas, are prone to steep rates of depreciation.
Lame automotive analogies aside, parkas are serious business in Canada, where winter survival is an annual challenge and an historical theme. In Canada, there are three inevitables: death, taxes and parkas.
(The word “parka,” incidentally, is courtesy of Russia’s Samoyed people of the Aleutian Islands, and means, no surprise, animal skins.)
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when parkas were fairly humble, strictly functional apparel. They were sturdy, warm and stiff and about as fashionable as oilskins and sackcloth. A big technological improvement on the efficient but not terribly practicable Inuit animal skins concept was the invention by Ottawa entrepreneur James Woods in the late 1800s of a “revolutionary” waterproof light-weight canvas material.
Woods would go on to fame and fortune supplying not only outdoor workers, like lumbermen, with better winter-wear, but equipping explorers and soldiers with all sorts of gear from gas-masks to sleeping bags. The latter the Woods Eiderdown Sleeping Robe even earned some brand placement in Ernest Hemingway’s war novel, the robe serving as the scene of some serious romantic action.
The current editions of the Woods heavy-weather parka bear little resemblance to their canvas ancestors. They’re mostly made of synthetic materials and have sleeker tailoring for today’s urban dwellers.
Woods, now owned by Canadian Tire, is a relatively minor player in what is a rapidly expanding and highly competitive parka market. For the most part, Canadian companies appear to be holding their own in seizing their share of the domestic market.
Anyone who pays attention to logos on parkas - doesn’t everybody? - probably will have noted the proliferation of brands in recent years, as manufacturers cottoned on to the fact that being warm can also mean looking cool, or, shall we say, fashionable.
All brands are looking for the competitive edge, and hence, get edgy in their promotion. Canadian labels like Canada Goose, based in Toronto, and Montreal’s Moose Knuckles, for example, went rather risqué recently in selling the sensual allure of coats stuffed with waterfowl feathers.
Canada Goose surely hit the marketing jackpot in 2013 with the cover of the swimsuit edition featuring model Kate Upton, photographed in Antarctica, wearing a Canada Goose jacket and very little else.
Moose Knuckles went even further last year, hooking up with a Montrealbased pornography site to get exposure for a bomber jacket parka sported by an underclad. The item quickly sold out.
Along with the Goose and the Moose, the other leading major Canadian-based parka purveyor, according to industry information, is Mackage, also headquartered in Montreal.
Apart from the big names in the parka business, there are many other Quebec-based specialty designers of winter wear. Last week the Quebec edition put out a list of a dozen favourite winter coats made by Quebec houses. Apart from coats from popular brands such as Mackage and Kanuk, none was a familiar name - Ookpik, Noize and Alizée, for example.
Kanuk, perhaps the most venerable Quebec brand in the parka trade, emboldened with new ownership and new investors, is planning a major assault on the market this season, cranking up production thanks to the acquisition of a new plant in Batiscan. Kanuk is probably the only parka retailer to offer customers a -25 C “cold room” to try out its products, as it has at its Montreal flagship headquarters.
Winter is coming, time to don the parka like armour, and wage war with winter.