Mod­ern parkas a long way from skins and can­vas

Sherbrooke Record - - EDITORIAL - Pe­ter Black

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.

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