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Dani Reiss, chief of Canada Goose (Jennifer Roberts For The Globe and Mail)
Dani Reiss, chief of Canada Goose (Jennifer Roberts For The Globe and Mail)

MAVERICKS

Canada Goose chief wears authenticity on his sleeve Add to ...

Dani Reiss revels in his rebel status. A couple of years ago, given the opportunity to address Toronto’s TEDx conference, the chief executive officer of Canada Goose Inc. had one main piece of advice for young audience members hoping to run a business some day: Don’t be afraid to be different, like me.

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He showed a picture of a salmon swimming upstream. The title of the speech: “Going Against the Flow.”

It’s a theme he returns to when asked about his pivotal decision more than a decade ago to keep in Canada the outerwear company founded by his grandfather and run for decades by his father. Most apparel companies were outsourcing production to Asia to save money, but Mr. Reiss decided to stay in Canada – and champion that fact.

“It was an unconventional decision at the time,” he says. “If we had followed that trend [to move offshore], I don’t think we would have had any point of differentiation. I don’t think there would have been anything special about our product.”

At the same time he decided to concentrate the company’s energies on its Canada Goose brand and halt all the other private-label manufacturing it was doing.

Mr. Reiss believes that Canada Goose has become a Canadian success story because the company won’t mess with its strong, “authentic” brand. “Our jackets are functional. We’re not straying from function. It’s the uniform of anywhere that’s cold.”

When Mr. Reiss took over as president and chief executive officer in 2001, Canada Goose had revenue of less than $5-million and employed fewer than 40 employees. Today, the 39-year-old heads a company with revenue of $150-million, with more than 400 employees around the world. The Canada Goose line of parkas and outerwear is sold in 50 countries – including places that don’t see a lot of winter, such as the Middle East and India – and at high-end retailers in North America such as Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Sporting Life, Holt Renfrew and Harry Rosen.

Ken Wong, a marketing professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says Mr. Reiss has succeeded doing what few Canadian firms attempt: creating a brand that leverages the things that make Canada distinct. “We’re a cold-weather nation and the world knows that. You can’t call yourself Canada Goose if you aren’t made in Canada. No one who owns a Canada Goose coat will ever argue that they’re cold. It all fits.”

Most of all, he says, Mr. Reiss knows that creating a real brand isn’t just about advertising. “He really buys into the notion that your brand makes a promise and your organization should keep the promise. The business, long before they got into branding or doing impressive marketing, started with the fundamental premise of a great product.”

For Mr. Reiss, that means following certain mantras. Don’t jump on other people’s bandwagons – a policy that doesn’t just extend to producing in Canada but also to supporting charities such as Polar Bears International and Canada Goose Resource Centres in the north, where the company distributes fabric and hide scraps, buttons and zippers to allow locals to make their own outerwear. Also, don’t follow fashion trends. The company, he says, won’t sign licensing deals that would see its distinctive logo put on cheaper, inferior products. And it won’t put out a product that looks good but won’t keep you warm.

“When Hollywood uses Canada Goose jackets in films that take place in cold places – to us, that is the ultimate compliment of our authenticity,” Mr. Reiss says.

But even he can’t deny the trendiness of the brand right now, such as when model Kate Upton wore a Canada Goose jacket over a bikini bottom on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue earlier this year. (Mr. Reiss says it was a surprise, but adds it was appropriate since the fashion shoot was done in Antarctica and “everyone who works down there” wears Canada Goose.)

The magazine cover was a great boon to Canada Goose, Mr. Wong says, but the company would be successful anyway because it’s a performance brand that “just happens to be benefiting right now from also being the favourite fashion statement.”

Alexandra Weston, Holt Renfrew’s director of brand strategy, says that Mr. Reiss’s success in the fashion world – she says it’s hard for her stores to keep Canada Goose in stock – stems from his ability to keep on message.

He has a good story to tell and he has done a good job telling it, she says. “Funny enough, I think he broke into the fashion world by not losing the performance message because that’s what became sexy.”

Once the company did break through, she says suddenly everyone in Hollywood and New York seemed to be wearing Canada Goose.

“It was unbelievable. You just saw it happening,” she says. “It was just genius.”

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