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The Great White North aesthetic has won over eager consumers and created a “global luxury brand,” three words repeated by the firm and its CEO like a mantra

Geneviève Caron /The Globe and Mail

If you wanted to start a Dani Reiss drinking game, you could take a shot of premium Canadian rye whisky every time he utters the words “global luxury brand.” In 2018, Canada Goose became the first company from this country to land on Deloitte’s annual Global Powers of Luxury Goods list, alongside players like Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel and Rolex. The achievement now feels like a pivotal moment in the history of the “global luxury brand,” three words repeated by the firm and its CEO like a mantra.

Reiss’s origins aren’t exactly humble—his maternal grandfather founded the business as Metro Sportswear Ltd. in 1957—but when he took over in 2001 at the age of 27, no one could have predicted a formal entree into the world of LVMH and Hugo Boss. “It’s impossible for anyone to imagine being a company the size and scale we are today,” Reiss says. “The bigger we got, and the bigger the vision gets, it’s a step-by-step thing. It starts with making amazing product and deciding to continue making our product in Canada.”

Canada Goose has long been proud of its corporate social responsibility initiatives, which continued through a remarkable international expansion that now sees the firm selling its signature outerwear in about 50 countries. “Who would have thought, 20 years ago, that a company like us could become the only Canadian global luxury brand ever?” says Reiss. “We have defied the odds by doing our own thing.”

Reiss has proven to be a true sage, not only by recognizing and shaping the growth potential of a business selling highly niche outerwear for Arctic scientists and rangers but also in the promotion of a very specific kind of Canadian mythology connected to the cold.

“Even early on, Dani had a vision for the business as opposed to just making coats,” says Harley Mintz, a senior business advisor at Deloitte, who has had a 20-year working relationship with Canada Goose. He credits Reiss’s purposeful, focused and adaptable management style. “[With] many other people, the business goes where the business goes, and they go with it,” Mintz says. “Dani set out his path and decided what he wanted it to be: the iconic Canadian brand when there weren’t any.”

The Great White North aesthetic has won over eager consumers worldwide—tapping into ideas of opulence even in places where it never snows. The notion of cold itself is linked to luxury, according to a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Researchers cited marketing literature from around the globe, which used statements like “icy steel Swiss watches” and “cool silk scarves.” And Canada, as an idea, also has a bit of luxury sheen. It often tops the charts for positive global perception, according to the Reputation Institute. “People think about our nature and the polar bears and aurora borealis,” says Reiss. “It’s a very aspirational country for people all over the world.”

In 2013, Canada Goose sold a majority stake to Bain Capital Private Equity (Reiss remained a minority shareholder) and used the proceeds to kick off a period of expansion. Last year, the company opened its own stores in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Its products are also available in India and Dubai. “Oftentimes, people think it’s only cold-weather markets where we do well, but we do well in all markets,” says Reiss. He makes the case that cold is relative—women in Hong Kong have been known to break out fur coats when the evenings drop below 15 C. But regardless of their location, Canada Goose stores fully embrace the cold, both physically and conceptually.

In Hong Kong, the company occupies a unit in the luxurious IFC Mall, where nearby streets are landscaped with palm trees and blossoming hibiscus. The boutique’s walls are covered in memorabilia, including Inuit art and a photograph of champion dogsledder Lance Mackey, hanging alongside his preferred parka and an inspirational quote: “It’s better to do what you can, to the best of your ability, than to not even try at all.”

Hong Kong’s weather ranges from sort of warm to extremely hot, so there’s also a “cold room” in the store, where prospective customers can try on Canada Goose’s down-stuffed parkas and imagine they live somewhere else. “I love that store, because people can experience sub-zero temperatures for the first time in their lives,” says Reiss.

Reiss says his firm aims to hit a sweet spot in markets abroad: retaining the core brand messaging and culture while integrating local elements. “You have to have consistency across the world, but it also has to feel appropriate at a local level,” he says. At the Milan store, which opened in September, the aesthetic is in line with other outlets (perhaps with a more liberal application of marble) but with a regional twist, including elements inspired by famed furniture designer Gio Ponti and a partnership with Italian street artist Alice Pasquini.

In a nod to the growing importance of the Asian market, Canada Goose has also introduced “fusion fit,” an alternative sizing framework based on the analysis of over 16,000 Korean, Japanese and Chinese physiques. Twenty-six key body measurements were analyzed to produce coats with smaller hoods, narrower chests, and shorter sleeve and hem lengths.

And the company has also entered into creative partnerships abroad; a recent capsule collection with Korean highbrow street wear designer Juun.J produced oversize unisex parkas and minimalist black hoodies.

But even as Canada Goose tinkers with the brand to make it relevant abroad, its “made in Canada” bona fides are as important as ever. Certain product lines, such as knitwear, are now manufactured in places like Italy and Romania, but Reiss is committed to producing the company’s core products in Canada. “It’s not about the lowest cost environment; being a luxury brand, it’s about finding the best place for the best product,” he says.

In February, Canada Goose announced the opening of a new Montreal factory—its second in Quebec and eighth manufacturing facility overall—which is expected to have over 600 workers when operating at full capacity by the end of 2020. Canada Goose employs more than 3,400 worldwide, and Reiss estimates the company hired 1,000 people in just the past year.

The commitment to manufacturing at home, says Reiss, was made in 2000, right around the time he took over as CEO. It was prompted, in part, by the feedback he received while pushing products internationally. “In the early days, it was people abroad who really taught me how important ‘made in Canada’ is and how central it is to our brand and product,” he says. “We took the risk and decided to invest here. Undeniably, we wouldn’t be around today if it weren’t for that. I think Canada has always been viewed very favourably around the world, and it’s as strong today as it’s ever been, if not stronger.”

The association with Canada doesn’t offer complete insulation from fluctuating international sentiment or geopolitical strife. Late last year, there were reports that the opening of Canada Goose’s Beijing store was delayed because of threats of protest and a boycott caused by the arrest of a Huawei executive in Vancouver. But concerns about politicization didn’t prevent lineups from forming once the store did open in late December.

Aligning with a country over, say, an individual celebrity, is a great strategy, says Patricia McQuillan, president and founder of Brand Matters. (No country has ever made a sex tape.) “It’s smart to be tied to something that has a bigger reputation,” she says. “And look at Canada’s track record. We’re known as a very honest and friendly country. There aren’t a lot of negatives with association—other than we’re too polite.”

The idea of the Great White North has also been central to Canada Goose’s corporate social responsibility and outreach efforts. The company recently invited journalists on two press trips, one to Churchill, Manitoba, in partnership with Polar Bears International, and the other to Nunavut, in order to showcase work being done with Inuit seamstresses. Reiss says sustainable philanthropic programs have long been built into the Canada Goose business model. “We’ve always believed that doing good is good for business,” he says. “As I look to the future, it’s important to continue to rewrite the book on how companies can not only be good for themselves, but good for shareholders and for the world. That’s the direction we want to go in.”

Reiss was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2016. The citation recognized both his entrepreneurial success and “his commitment to the preservation of Canada’s North.”

Positioning itself as a responsible corporate citizen has also helped raise the feel-good profile of Canada Goose. Countless celebrities—including Daniel Craig, Morgan Freeman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Emma Stone and Drake—have been photographed out and about in its parkas, signifying the brand’s evolution from cold-weather essential to status symbol.

Reiss resists the idea that Canada Goose has become a fashion-first brand—perhaps because being “in fashion” connotes the idea that one might fall out of it. “I realize many of our consumers are fashion consumers and many of them shop at fashion locations,” he says. “But we can be both classic and extremely differentiated at the same time. The fact that they have become coveted products around the world is a testament to our unique way of doing things.”

That unique way of doing things has catapulted Canada Goose into a once-unthinkable stratosphere of global sales. But Reiss says there’s still a lot of room to grow—particularly when comparing Canada Goose with some of the other names on that Global Powers of Luxury Goods list. “Now that we are this size, we can look forward and see that there’s a lot of opportunity,” he says. “We want to keep rewriting the book on what it means to be a company that’s good not only for shareholders and employees but for the world. We want to be a company that is here for generations, and we think that is very much our future.”