The story behind the rise of this country’s iconic winter coat — and why it never, ever goes on sale,
You see them everywhere: On the subway, in hockey arenas, outside high schools across Toronto, the fur trimmed parkas with the distinctive red, white and blue upper arm badge that says Canada Goose.
Originally created for research scientists who work in Canada’s Far North, the super warm, down-filled parkas are now one of the world’s hottest fashion statements.
Priced at $500 to $1,000, they sell out so quickly that retailers are already taking orders for next winter.
“It’s become almost the uniform of the inner city among 16-to 24-year-olds,” said Randy Harris, president of market research firm Trendex North America. “At the same time, it’s also worn by government officials who work outside up North.”
Rugged but fashionable. Equally in demand among Hollywood starlets and northern bush pilots. It is the Land Rover of outerwear, the Swiss watch of apparel, says Dani Reiss, third generation chief executive of the privately held, family-owned firm.
That was his vision for the company started in 1957 by his grandfather, Sam Tick, a Polish immigrant, making jackets and woollen shirts for local shops.
In the 1970s, Tick’s son-in-law, David Reiss (Dani’s father), joined the business, turning Metro Sportswear, as he renamed it, into a thriving private-label manufacturer, specializing in down-filled outerwear.
The company cut and sewed for brands such as Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean. It also produced its own jacket — the Snow Goose — for rugged work in the Far North.
But by the time Dani was in his 20s, the company, along with the rest of the North American apparel manufacturing industry, was in deep trouble. A rising dollar and free trade were driving brands to manufacture in cheaper countries in Asia. Metro Sportswear’s customers were disappearing faster than the polar ice cap. “I got involved in ’97 by accident. It wasn’t the intended path by me or anybody else. I was going to write. I was an English lit major,” Reiss says in an interview at the company’s factory-warehouse-head office in an industrial area of Toronto. Dressed in jeans and a casual shirt, Reiss goes on to describe how he decided to rebuild the business around the one brand the company owned. “It was the best of its kind in the world. Let’s tell people about it. Let’s try and make more of this stuff. Then we can be the determiner of our own fortunes,” Reiss said. At first, it was a tough sell. “I started out showing these jackets to the kind of stores in Toronto and New York that you now find us in. (Harry Rosen, Holt Renfrew, Sporting Life, Europe Bound.) And the response was, ‘This is a utilitarian jacket. Why would anybody buy this?’ ” Reiss recalls. Weighing nearly eight pounds, the warmest of the coats, the Snow Mantra, is a thick, boxy parka, filled with premium quality white goose down and covered in useful pockets, including a plastic ID holder, and a specialized kidney warming pouch. The company had yet to develop the lighter more fashion-driven categories that now populate its showroom. So, Reiss took the parka to Europe “partly because we had a little bit of business there already and I really wanted to travel.” There, he found willing listeners for his story about the “warmest jacket on earth.” Made from a secret blend of goose and duck down and feathers, much of it from Hutterite farms in Western Canada, it was trimmed with coyote fur trapped in the Far North. “The Europeans got it. The imagery of Canada is the Great White North, the polar bears, the Aurora Borealis, we all live in igloos. That’s the mythology. People around the world love that mythology.” The Canada Goose brand was born. The company set about replicating that success in North America, appealing directly to consumers in order to create demand retailers couldn’t ignore. To seed the market, it began outfitting the bouncers at nightclubs and ticket scalpers outside the Air
The Europeans got it. The imagery of Canada is . . . we all live in igloos. . . . People around the world love that mythology
CEO CANADA GOOSE
Canada Centre. After years of outfitting film crews in remote locations, Hollywood began using Canada Goose jackets on camera.
“We try to be very tactical,” adds Kevin Spreekmeester, Canada Goose’s vice-president of marketing and a former Arctic photographer.
The company also supports the Inuit, sending scrap materials to Pond Inlet where sewers make their own parkas, and works with Polar Bears International to preserve the Arctic environment, Spreekmeester notes.
But Reiss’s most important, and potentially risky, decision was to continue manufacturing in Canada even as scores of apparel makers were shutting down.
While employment in the industry plunged to 35,000 last year, a third of its peak a decade earlier, Canada Goose was hiring.
It now employs 600 people across Canada in its own and contract factories. The original plant in Toronto, as well as the new one in Winnipeg, is unionized.
On the factory floor at Castlefield Ave. and Caledonia Rd., two men operate the down filling machines Reiss’ father invented. Cutters slice through stacks of fabric using inhouse patterns. Rows of women sit at sewing machines stitching together the pieces.
Wage rates range from $12 to $21 an hour, according to Workers United, the union that represents them. “So, when you buy a Canada Goose jacket you’re not only paying for a beautiful product but you’re contributing to decent paying jobs,” said the union’s Canadian director Alexandra Dagg.
Canada Goose is one of a new breed of Canadian apparel manufacturers that own and control their own brand, a move that is helping make the industry stronger, said Bob Kirke, executive director of the Canadian Apparel Federation.
He lists yoga pant maker Lululemon and mountain gear maker Arc’teryx in the same breath as Canada Goose. And while some still manufacture offshore, employment in the Canadian industry is showing signs of recovery, Kirke said.
“Canada Goose is the most successful of the “we make it here” companies,” Kirke says
Today, Canada Goose makes more than 100 styles of jackets, pants and vests, using four different combinations of down and feathers.
The company’s sales grew 80 per cent last year, says Reiss, to “under $100 million.” About half is fashiondriven, he says. Canada is its largest market, followed by the U.S., Europe, and Asia, especially Japan.
In a sign it has reached near iconic status, one of the company’s biggest headaches is now counterfeiters. “We had to hire an online brand protection service to do daily sweeps of the Internet,” Spreekmeester says.
Fake parkas are not just bad for the brand, but for the wearer, he says, noting poor quality down and feathers may contain bacteria and mildew. Knock-offs may have been made in offshore factories that employ child labour. And the proceeds of counterfeiting often go to support organized crime, he says. Not to mention the jackets just aren’t as warm as the real thing.
How can you tell a fake from the real thing? That’s easy.
“If it’s on sale, it’s not a Canada Goose,” says Spreekmeester.
One of the world’s warmest, most popular parkas never goes on sale. It doesn’t have to.
Roksana Cieplowska, 22, poses in her Canada Goose parka — fashion must-have for the 16-to-24 crowd.
Isabel DeSousa works in the finishing section of Canada Goose’s Toronto factory. The workers are all union members.
Dani Reiss, President and CEO of Canada Goose, helped rebuild the family business by focusing on its specialized parkas selling the brand overseas.
Canada Goose employs about 600 workers across Canada. It has two factories, including this Toronto one at Castlefield Ave. and Caledonia Rd.