Made in Canada: The Brand Behind Reigning Champ and Wings + Horns
Made in Canada: The Brand Behind Reigning Champ and Wings + Horns
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date April 29, 2019
In an industrial strip of Vancouver sits a relatively nondescript grey building that is home to CYC Design Corporation. While most people have never heard of CYC, they may very well be familiar with Wings + Horns and Reigning Champ, the two labels that exist under the CYC Design Corp banner. While Wings + Horns and Reigning Champ have become industry-leaders—whether that industry is fleece, minimalist menswear or casual wear—CYC’s story is about much more than its two labels. In fact, neither would exist if not for CYC’s less glamorous roots; roots which go back further than 2004, the year that Wings + Horns was launched. Understanding CYC Design Corp’s history is central to understanding how both Wings + Horns and Reigning Champ were founded and how quietly influential the Vancouver-based manufacturer has been over the past two decades.
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In the 1990s, Craig Atkinson (founder and CEO of CYC) made a living importing vintage Americana to Japan, where he additionally acted as a key distributor for North American brands looking to get into Japanese storefronts. While he may not have been aware, the seven years Atkinson spent importing goods to Japan granted him all of the tools necessary to create CYC Design Corporation, which he officially founded in 1996. Despite Japan being in the midst of a financial crisis in the late-‘90s—so severe that it actually pushed Atkinson to return to Canada—CYC’s initial mandate was to become a “production management company focused on exporting North American goods to Japan.” Atkinson acted as a middle man, producing modern replicas of vintage garments for Japanese brands and stores at factories in Canada and the United States. After witnessing the Japanese market’s thirst for North American-style vintage first-hand, Atkinson was the perfect candidate to help Japanese brands recreate the aesthetic—in many cases, he actually made improvements to what they asked for.
Eventually, Atkinson got the urge to create new silhouettes that honored both North America and Japan. “We were building so much product for other people, and there was a creative energy that I needed to express,” he said to Montecristo in 2012. In order to implement that creative energy, Atkinson founded Wings + Horns. Launched in 2004, the brand’s mission was to marry Canadian craftsmanship with a decidedly Japanese reverence for finer details.
The brand’s inaugural Fall/Winter 2004 collection was a mature offering for a nascent brand, an aesthetic definitely influenced by Atkinson’s knowledge of the Japanese market. One of the standout pieces from that debut collection—as evidenced by its reissue to mark the brand’s 10th anniversary—was the Felted Flight Jacket. The olive drab jacket was made of Canadian military grade cotton/nylon twill, which resembled exactly the type of vintage made-in-America garment that is perennially popular in Japan. Hidden in plain sight though—on the reverse of the sleeves—were patches that read “fuck with the best / die with the rest.” That sly branding and rebellious attitude typified the type of duality that Wings + Horns sought to occupy: ostensibly vintage, however subtly modern and progressive. In short, Atkinson knew exactly how Wings + Horns had to position itself to succeed. The inaugural collection also established how above all, the brand values craftsmanship. For instance, a white shawl neck sweater, the Sherpa Handknit, generously oversized to hit the middle of the thigh, was ingeniously knit from strips of fleece. A wearable work of art, it singled Wings + Horns’ intention to create garments inspired by Americana—or Canadiana, if you will—but that were even more luxurious in nature.
Almost immediately, Wings + Horns was successful in Japan, in large part thanks to Atkinson’s established network of contacts in the country. While the brand’s early collections were produced in entirely in North America, Atkinson was relying on multiple factories to fulfill his orders, which delayed production and most likely hurt the bottom line. In 2005, CYC opened its own factory in Vancouver in a bid to streamline production of both Wings + Horns and the company’s successful white label business. The subsequent years in the mid-to-late aughts were a period of consistent growth for CYC, as the company made a name for itself on three fronts and laid the groundwork for truly explosive few seasons at the turn of the decade.
From 2005 until 2009, Wings + Horns spread from a brand that served a relatively niche—albeit profitable—Japanese market to one that was stocked internationally as well, even collaborating with New York cult-favorite Nom de Guerre. The period surrounding the collab was a high point for the label. Originally slated to drop in 2008, the Nom de Guerre collab was teased in 2009 and ultimately only released as part of the Spring/Summer 2010 collection. Building off the success of the hype, Wings + Horns implemented an “archive and research” initiative as part of its seasonal collection building on the brand’s core mission—to do something new, without breaking too much from the past. Certifiable gems emerged from this period, like the wool peacoat with black leather raglan sleeves from the “research” portion of the Fall/Winter 2010 collection, which typified Wings + Horns’ ability to offer inimitable twists on vintage classics.
During the same period in the late aughts, CYC Design Corporation’s white label business was earning plaudits and the company was supplying some of the industry’s most well-respected brands with Canadian-made fleece. The likes of Arc’teryx and Supreme (to name a few) turned to CYC for their fleece. By the time 2010 rolled around, streetwear heads were talking about the fleece manufacturer on online forums. CYC’s role in the shadows was one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets, but it helped to bolster the company’s credentials as one of the world’s foremost purveyors of fleece.
Much like how Wings + Horns was born from CYC’s production for the Japanese market, Reigning Champ was created in 2007 to offer what were essentially branded-versions of the high-quality fleece that CYC was producing for other companies. While Wings + Horns has always been geared towards a more menswear-savvy customer, Reigning Champ has catered to an idyllic vision of traditional sportswear, with simple crewnecks, hoodies, raglan-sleeved T-shirts and sweatpants making up the brand’s core DNA. Still, looking back on the brand’s inaugural Fall/Winter 2007 collection—one punctuated with pinstriped hoodies with buttoned collars—reveals that Reigning Champ has always fostered a desire to add a bit of Wings + Horns’ menswear DNA to its own athleisure. Eventually, though, the brand found more success with its stripped down basic sweats and has built a business around quintessential North American sportswear—“the kind of gear you picture Rocky training in” [said]((http://strategyonline.ca/2016/10/05/strategys-brand-to-watch-2016-reigning-champ/) Doug Barber, the brand’s marketing director. Still, each seasonal collection features a new color, silhouette—or even material—that ensures Reigning Champ continue to evolve.
During Reigning Champ’s first few seasons, the brand was only stocked by a handful of independent North American retailers, predominantly streetwear boutiques. Today, the company is monstrous in comparison, carried in over 100 doors worldwide, including premium department stores. If Atkinson and CYC Design Corporation grew incrementally over the ‘00s, then the 2010s represented a period of explosive growth—and evolution—for Reigning Champ, Wings + Horns and CYC at large.
With new designers at the helm, Wings + Horns slowly moved away from some of the Canadiana-inspired designs—thick, heavy-gauge knits—towards more minimalist casual tailoring and infused color into collections which had been, for the most part, composed of greys, blacks and olive greens. Meanwhile, Reigning Champ had become a veritable force in the industry and the brand’s product range was rapidly expanding. The seasonal collections continued to vary, but the brand introduced a “Sea To Sky” range that sought to offer minimalist weatherproof athletic wear. No longer just making its core terrycloth crewnecks, items such fleece biker jackets and lightweight windbreakers became a core part of Reigning Champ’s offering.
While both brands evolved aesthetically starting the Spring/Summer 2012 season, each remained unwaveringly committed to craftsmanship and quality. The vast majority of Wings + Horns and Reigning Champ’s production is handled at CYC’s nondescript factory in Vancouver, with only an estimated ten-percent outsourced to a few select factories. Both Wings + Horns and Reigning Champ have become synonymous with a certain attention to detail over the years and the brands are every bit as famous for flat locked seams and textile innovation as they are for a specific look. After all, as Tung Vo—former creative director for both Wings + Horns and Reigning Champ—said to Sharp, “Craig [Atkinson] is a textile connoisseur [so] the garment starts at the fabric stage.”
By the mid-2010s, CYC’s reputation preceded it and while its understated takes on menswear and loungewear were certainly well-liked, the corporation’s commitment to quality is what left a lasting mark on the industry. Wings + Horns became a top tier collaborator, working with Steven Alan, the Ace Hotel and nanamica, New Balance, adidas, Porter, Canada Goose and Viberg—all brands that, like Wings + Horns, championed refined-yet-casual luxury.
Reigning Champ, for its part, has focused on sportswear collaborations with brands like Everlast, and Mitchell & Ness, sports teams like Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy and Portland Timbers and even the estate of Muhammad Ali. Like Wings + Horns, Reigning champ worked with both New Balance and adidas as well, but unlike its upmarket sibling, these collaborations primarily focused on performance, utilizing Von Miller and Kyle Lowry as brand ambassadors, respectively. Even Reigning Champ’s choice in footwear, the Alphabounce and Ultra Boost—as opposed to Wings + Horns use of the Stan Smith and NMD—reveal the former’s clear athletic bent.
Regardless of aesthetic differences, the CYC brands shared production facilities ensures that each is one of the foremost purveyors of quality fleece and textiles in its respective domain. The CYC duo may not fit in with the rest of a contemporary Canadian menswear market that is heavy on hyped streetwear brands—Dime, Atelier New Regime, Saintwoods—but, on a global scale, each has rightfully earned its acclaim. Indeed, when Atkinson set out to create CYC he did not have the Canadian market in mind. His primary concern was not “made for Canada,” but rather “Made in Canada.”