When hell freezes over

Only then would Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss consider moving production overseas.

The story of how Dani Reiss came into the family business is one we’ve heard before. He never planned on a career there. His parents advised him against entering the industry, told him the business was too stressful, too hard.

In 1997, after earning a degree in English literature, Reiss came on for a three-month period to earn a little extra cash before he left to travel the world. Three months turned into six, and six into nine, and before long, Reiss was trading in his dreams of creative writing for a full-time gig at the family factory.

It was all very George Bailey.

But what happened next was far less common: Reiss grew the now 55-year-old company from 40 employees to over 1,000 and increased sales by 4,000% over 10 years, all while resisting constant pressure to shut down his Canadian manufacturing and take his business overseas.

“I always wanted to do something that meant something, that I could be passionate about,” Reiss explains. “When I finally learned about our business, I realized that this was it, because of the story behind our product and the people who use it.”

Metro Sportswear Ltd. was founded in Toronto in 1957 by Reiss’ grandfather, Sam Tick, who made mostly private label wool outerwear and uniforms. When Reiss’ father David got involved in the ’70s, he created Snow Goose (later changed to Canada Goose) and got the company into the down-filled garment business. The existing equipment left much to be desired, so David invented and sold his own down-filling machines, which helped revolutionize the industry and positioned the company as one of the premiere manufacturers of down clothing, targeting “the people who live and work in the coldest places on earth.”

Still, the Canada Goose brand was only a small side project; the company’s focus was making outerwear for North American brands like L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer and Browning. “By the time I joined, a lot of our contract work had moved to Asia. And our small Canada Goose business was mainly supplying the American National Science Foundation, people ‘North of 60′ [Canada’s Yukon Territory] and researchers in the South Pole.”

When asked why his company has been able to stay afloat while many others have failed altogether or been forced to move production overseas, Reiss is pensive. “In today’s product landscape, everything is branded. To me brands have been commoditized: they’ve all become generic. We’ve been able to make ‘made in Canada’ a differentiator. We wouldn’t be where we are today had we not made a conscious decision not to follow the pack.

“One of the biggest (and most controversial) decisions I made was to remain made in Canada. It’s important because it creates jobs for Canadians, as well as allows us to ensure the quality of our product. I also saw the opportunity, because I knew there were a lot of people out there who wanted authentic things—something really lacking in the marketplace. My dad deserves a ton of credit for letting me take the company in the direction that I have, and I think we’re all happy with how it worked out.

“If I went to business school it might have been harder to make that decision; in ways, coming from an arts background gave me a different approach. I wasn’t just thinking in terms of producing and selling as much as possible. I was thinking creatively. I wanted to tell our story,” Reiss explains. The brand’s website, canada-goose.com, does this effectively in an easy-to-use interface. One thing the site doesn’t do? Sell product. Reiss has no plans to develop e-commerce or open branded brick and mortar stores, good news for retailers tired of competing with their own vendors for customer dollars.

The U.S. comprises about 15 percent of the brand’s business (Canada makes up about 30 percent and Europe another 30 percent, with the rest coming from various countries in Asia) and is Reiss’ biggest target market. Canada Goose is currently available in most states, though Reiss is selective when it comes to partnering with retailers. “We believe our product is best in class and we only want to be represented by the best stores,” he says, citing Paragon Sports in NYC and The Tannery in Boston as great longtime partners. The brand is also carried at top-end department stores and outdoor suppliers. Vests start at around $250 retail, and jackets range from $600 to $1,200 in the Outdoor Performance line; prices in the Branta collection, part of which is made with Loro Piana fabrics, go up to $2,000.

Though originally known as a menswear company, Canada Goose has been successfully growing women’s for the past 10 years. The brand is now about 50/50 men’s to women’s, with 150 total styles. “We’ve been growing our product base within the down-filled category, from heavier utilitarian jackets into lightweight and ultra-lightweight down. I’m not saying we wouldn’t consider other categories, but our filter is very fine: we have to make sure that whatever we make is made in Canada, and that it’s a best-in-class product.” Reiss admits that this strategy could mean slower growth, but also thinks it will “help keep us pure. Many brands choose to license their names right away, but I think many of the best focus on one category and do it really well.”

Though many people perceive Canada Goose to have exploded onto the scene in the last few years, it has in fact been a household name in Europe for about a decade, and strong in Japan for the same amount of time (though the business there has doubled over the last year). One of the original problems with expanding in North America was the price. “I can’t tell you how many people said, ‘Dani, I can’t sell a down jacket for more than $399. If you get it down to that price I’ll buy 5,000.’ But we couldn’t do that in Canada and pay the people fairly who have worked in our factories for decades. So the only other way was to create consumer demand. We took it on not only to convince retailers to buy our product, but to convince the end consumer.”

How has Canada Goose managed to create this demand in such a weather-dependent category? Reiss doesn’t let fluctuating temperatures ruffle his feathers. “Regardless of the weather, outerwear as a category has been growing for a number of years, and our market share is gaining.” But he admits that a lot of careful planning is involved in the brand’s success. “Because of our infrastructure and the heavy inventory we must carry, it’s a capital intensive business.”

Reiss remains tight-lipped when it comes to specific plans for 2013, but says to expect “significant” line and style extensions, as well as brand collaborations to be announced early next year. Previous partners include NYC-based streetwear brand Alife, Yuketen/Monitaly designer Yuki Matsuda, Parisian boutique Colette, men’s store Concepts in Cambridge, Mass. and hip hop artist Drake. “All collaborations have a different purpose, but the common goal is to help you reach a different audience. We’re careful to stay true to who we are, but it’s great to work with someone who has an interesting take. Drake is from Toronto and so are we; it’s nice to join forces with people you’ve known since we were all unknown. We don’t do major glossy ad campaigns; we stick to sponsorships, product placements, social media. We’re very consumer focused and we do a ton of PR.”

In addition to its many (unpaid) celebrity devotees, the brand champions ‘Goose People’ who wear its products, like dogsledding champ Lance Mackey, winner of multiple Iditarod and Yukon Quest races, and Jordan Romero, the youngest person ever to successfully climb the Seven Summits.

Last year the growing company, which remains 100 percent family owned, acquired a second factory in nearby Winnipeg, and also has contracts with a number of other Canadian manufacturing facilities.

Also in 2011, Reiss received Canada’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for turning a made in Canada brand into a global success. “I can honestly say I did not expect to win, but it was a great honor for everyone here to be recognized on a national stage. These days authenticity is becoming more important, and we’re proud to be one of the brands who helped lead the movement towards bringing manufacturing back to North America.

“Like the U.S., Canada views the apparel space as a casualty of globalization and our government has focused on creating other kinds of jobs. Over the last 20 years there really haven’t been any new government programs to encourage apparel manufacturing,” Reiss admits. “That said, our Canadian government has been a big supporter, maybe not financially, but they’re big believers in what we’re doing.

“We’re proof that the right product made in Canada for the right reasons actually matters to consumers.”

The Down Deal

Down is not actually feathers, but the undercoating of waterfowl, consisting of millions of light, fluffy filaments growing from a central quill point. These stringy filaments interlock, creating a three-dimensional structure which traps air and gives down its insulating ability. In fact, it’s the world’s warmest insulator—natural or man-made.

“Many people think fill power is most important, but it’s much more than that,” insists Reiss. “It’s more about pairing the right blend of down with the right fabrics according to intended use of the jacket. The same is true for the mix of down and feathers. You need some feathers to help give a jacket structure, but the ratio is dependent on the fabric you’re using.”

As hood trim on its coats, Canada Goose uses coyote fur, also known for its protective qualities: it doesnʼt freeze or hold water, and the uneven hair lengths stop wind, protect exposed skin and help to reduce heat loss from the face.

Share / Print

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Print

Speak Your Mind