Earlier this month, when the honours were handed out at the 2013 Canada’s Most Powerful Women event in Toronto, Kathy Cheng stood proudly among the top 100 female executives, all of them leaders in their fields.
As president of Toronto-based clothing manufacturer WS & Co. Ltd., founded by her Chinese immigrant father 25 years ago, and creator of Redwood Classics Apparel, a division of the company, Ms. Cheng was recognized for entrepreneurship in the Canadian fashion industry.
Her business, located in Toronto’s east end, is one of just a few full-service apparel manufacturers left on Canadian soil. Over the decades, its clients have included Holt Renfrew, Polo Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and Gap. WS & Co. has also produced Olympic apparel for both Roots and Hudson’s Bay Co.
“Designers and consumers are choosing to do business with local producers over offshore factories because of the added value brought to the partnership,” Ms. Cheng says.
Among her clients are Toronto indie fashion label Preloved, headed by designer Julia Grieve, and two-time CFDA Fashion Award winner Todd Snyder, who designs for the U.S.-based athletic wear label Champion.
“I have worked with the best factories all over the globe, but I prefer to work with WS & Co. for three reasons: quality, delivery and integrity,” says Mr. Snyder. “They are the best.”
Sweatshirts, which are WS & Co.’s specialty, are made using antique flat-lock sewing machines. “It’s what allows them to produce a very flat seam,” Mr. Snyder observes, “the way it used to be done in the ’50s in the U.S.”
For Michael Budman, co-founder of Roots, WS & Co.’s reputation as a quality sweatshirt manufacturer is why the factory gets their repeat business. “Any work we can give them we do. It’s mostly athleticwear. They are one of the best sweatshirt makers in the world, and at Roots we live in sweatshirtville.”
While pleased to be singled out for producing a quality product, Ms. Cheng believes that what is actually praiseworthy is that she continues to make ethically produced, made-in-Canada products at a time when most domestic apparel manufacturers have decamped to Southeast Asia in search of lower production costs.
The irony is that she is a native of Hong Kong who immigrated to Canada at age four. Her grandfather had been a manufacturer in China. One of his sons, Chak Wai Cheng, followed in his footsteps after immigrating to Canada in 1978, settling in Toronto.
In 1988 the senior Mr. Cheng, together with some of his siblings, started the family-owned business Wing Son Garments Ltd. At the time, the talk was of free trade, and Canadian-made goods were considered expensive by Americans.
“Made-in-Canada wasn’t a trend, so my father took a big risk by opening a factory with just a few seamstresses and sewing machines,” Ms. Cheng says.
At the height of its success, Wing Son employed about 500 people. But the 2008 recession led to job losses. “The whole industry was cutting back, so we had to restructure and downsize,” Ms. Cheng says. Adopting what she calls an innovative business strategy, she retrenched by cutting staff and moving the company to a smaller location.
She also became her father’s business partner in 2009. She rebranded the company, and Wing Son emerged as WS & Co., with the addition of product lines designed in-house, including the private label Redwood Classics, which recently launched a retail line called Heritage Collection.
“There’s always a risk in starting a private label, but we want to communicate and demonstrate the quality and value of made-in-Canada clothing to Canadians and to the industry,” Ms. Cheng says.
WS & Co. has not only weathered the recent financial storm, it has regained some of its pre-recession strength. Recently she announced that her company, which now employs about 100 people, will more than double the size of its factory to 56,000 square feet, from 26,000.
“Each generation has been innovative in its own right – my grandfather in China, my father and his siblings when they first started in Canada, and now me, doing my best to modernize an otherwise old trade, using technology whenever I can, while firmly adhering to our tradition of well-constructed garments,” says Ms. Cheng, who today is the mother of 10-month-old Xavier and 29-month-old Zooey and wife of Ted Pun, a developer at CI Investments.
“I am a crusader for Canadian garment manufacturing and its artisans.”