The Flight of Canada Goose
The Flight of Canada Goose
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date March 27, 2018
Unless you have an arctic scientist, a Northern Canadian police officer or dogsled champion in your life, you probably hadn’t heard of Canada Goose until the last decade or so. But, out of nowhere, around 2013, the brand became ubiquitous: The brand’s black parkas suddenly became a favorite of any actor, model or CEO who happened to venture into a cold climate.
It may seem like Canada Goose came out of nowhere, but this sudden explosion was the result of decades of development. The brand known today as Canada Goose came into being in the 1950s, when it was known as Metro Sportswear Ltd. Founder Sam Tick moved to Canada in 1950 and less than a decade later, he founded the company that initially specialized in professional cold weather wear like woolen vests, raincoats and snowmobile suits.
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For decades, Metro Sportswear would cater heavily to a professional class of customer, selling wholesale to police departments, research teams and others who spend the bulk of their time in frigid outdoor conditions. It was in the spirit of serving this base that Tick’s son-in-law David Reiss would invent a volume-based filling machine that would allow the company to pack more down feathers into the company’s products. With this 1970s breakthrough came a new label, “Snow Goose,” which would eventually evolve into the Canada Goose name we know today.
It was this volume-based filling technique that would allow the company to pioneer its flagship product—incredibly warm parkas, stuffed with down and punctuated with a fur-lined hood—that the company is known for today. Shortly after this breakthrough, contracts with Canadian governmental organizations like the Ontario Provincial Police, the Ministry of the Environment and Canadian Rangers followed. During this period, the company also subcontracted the production of coats for L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, but they eventually learned that the strength of the brand and the quality of the product would be better served by only producing under the Canada Goose banner. This decision wouldn’t be made, however, until 1993.
In the 1980s, Canada Goose partnered with scientists at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station to develop a jacket that would hold up in the most inhospitable elements. This coat, known as “Big Red” would come to define the company. The connection between Canada Goose and Arctic exploration that would come to define so much of its legacy was forged.
Choosing the name Canada Goose would prove as important for the long term success of the brand as this reputation for adventure. For years, Snow Goose was the North American name for the label, but (due to patent restrictions) in Europe the brand was known as “Canada Goose.” In Europe, the coats started to appeal to the luxury market as well as the professional cold weather class, a phenomenon that began among Stockholm’s fashionable yet weather-conscious fashion elite. Even though the price tag was steep, customers in Europe had no problem paying top dollar for a Canadian brand. CEO Dani Reiss compares this phenomenon to the way that Americans relate to Rolex or scotch. He told Entrepreneur, “For [Europeans] a Canada Goose jacket made in Canada was like a watch made in Switzerland. Rolex is not going to move its production to China.” This led to the decision to united the entire brand, globally, under the increasingly popular Canada Goose name.
This inextricable connection to Canada has led Canada Goose to make significant commitments to keeping its production in its home country. More than just in name, the company maintains major production facilities in Toronto and Winnipeg. Toronto is the site of the company’s global headquarters, which include a 96,000 square-foot factory that employs over 100 workers.
The company has also made a commitment to sourcing the material for its coats from Canada. The Hutterites, a Canadian religious sect often compared the Amish or Mennonites, provide the particular goose down found in Canada Goose coats. Anabaptists raise large, free-range herds of geese and ducks in prairie fields, producing flocks that yield down that boasts two million filaments of interlocking fluff per ounce. The feathers of these geese are unparalleled in terms of insulation.
The hoods are lined with coyote fur, and though the fur meets the standards of the Fur Council of Canada, there is evergreen controversy between the company and animal rights activists over this production decision. Despite being a customer favorite, the fur is often a target of groups like PETA.
As Canada Goose’s brand identity as the coat of the Great White North grew, the company leaned in to its growing reputation. The company has always been quick to highlight the adventurers who have worn the brand. When Laurie Skreslet became the first Canadian to conquer Everest in 1982, he was wearing a Canada Goose jacket. More recently, Lance Mackey was wearing Canada Goose when he won his fourth Iditarod, as was Ray Zahab when he entered the Guinness Book of Records for his 2009 un-supported trek to the South Pole, which was completed in 33 days, 23 hours, and 55 minutes.
The current CEO of the company, (and the founder’s grandson) Dani Reiss, saw the strength of the brand when he took the reigns of Canada Goose in 2001, and quickly executed on a vision of global growth. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, Canada Goose sales grew an astonishing 3,500 percent.
Reiss took advantage of his brand’s newfound strength with aggressive advertising pushes and concurrent business expansion. One of the biggest wins under his tenure has been identifying the coats with Hollywood. Canada Goose has sent gear to film and television sets across North America for years, as well as securing product placements in films like The Day After Tomorrow and National Treasure. Perhaps the most successful inroad into the film industry came when Canada Goose set out to make its products standard issue at Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals via full-on brand partnerships. In short, if you’re going to sponsor an international film festival or two, then you’re certainly going to end up on the backs of a few A-listers. Fast forward a few years, and now its coats are ubiquitous on cold weather locations, whether it be on projects like Game of Thrones or James Bond.
The era of the Canada Goose’s full court press on the entertainment industry culminated in Kate Upton’s 2013 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover, where she was wearing a Canada Goose coat… and little else. The shoot, which took place on a boat off the coast of Antarctica, solidified the brand’s place in many an American mind.
This advertising blitz was accompanied by a plan to increase supplies in anticipation of the coming spike in demand. In 2013, Bain Capital, known to Americans as Mitt Romney’s private equity firm, bought a majority stake in Canada Goose, setting the company up with a quarter billion dollars of additional cash. By 2015, annual sales were topping $300 million.
Because of the massive influx of the brand’s profile and the stories of sled racers and explorers in its past, Canada Goose has been able to act like a legacy brand in recent years despite having a shorter history than many of its peers. Like Pendleton and Patagonia, Canada Goose has made a move into brick and mortar retail spaces. Flagship stores have opened in six major metropolitan hubs, and the company hopes to expand to several dozen worldwide. Concurrent with these plans, the longtime privately-held family company went public.
As with many other brands in the legacy space, Canada Goose has also looked to high-end collaborations. In fall of 2016, Canada Goose was seen as a major part of Opening Ceremony’s well regarded, politically-charged “pageant” show. Vetements Spring 2017 collection— which incorporated over a dozen well-known brands including Reebok and Juicy Couture—featured oversized reworks Canada Goose outerwear. In the last few years, the brand has also collaborated with Pendleton, Levi’s and Drake’s OVO.
Now that it is enjoying the status of a high-end legacy brand, Canada Goose is also navigating the pitfalls that come with that kind of status. With popularity comes copycats, and the company has already gone to lengths to help shoppers suss out counterfeits and reproductions. Will the $800 coats smash into an oversaturated market once every stylish person in New York, London, Toronto and Stockholm seems to own one? Will public investors and venture capitalists force the company to compromise its “Made in Canada” promise and commitment to quality?
It’s hard to tell, but the reputation of Canada Goose and the leadership of the Reiss family has rarely faltered, and its management blueprint has brought Canada Goose sustained success. As we look ahead on the horizon, there’s nothing in the company’s down-warmed DNA to suggest that the reputation of Canada Goose’s legendary parkas will be heading south any time soon.