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How Quebec-based retailers are thriving with a made in Canada approach

Montreal-based retailer Jacob produces much of its clothing in Canadian garment factories.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

This article is the first in a series about responsible fashion.

The collapse this spring of the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh sent shock waves through the garment industry, forcing both the makers and consumers of so-called fast fashion to confront the real costs of today's demand for cheap garb. Rana Plaza, the latest in a string of Asian garment factory disasters, claimed 1,129 lives and threatened the reputations of some of the clothing world's biggest brands.

A number of those labels were quick to promise reparations and improved working conditions for overseas employees, while others have resisted signing on for change. Although the level of consumer interest in where clothing comes from has never been higher, it is still unclear which commercial imperative – the push for change or the protection of the status quo – will prevail.

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In the midst of all this soul-searching, a third group of clothing manufacturers has largely been overlooked, even though it offers an alternative to controversial overseas production. The number of mainstream labels that, out of principle, necessity or both, produce a large chunk of their clothing lines within their home countries may be a small fraction of what it was decades ago, but they exist and many are thriving. And, significantly, a number of them are Canadian, largely Quebec-based.

"Since we started the company 35 years ago, we've been manufacturing in Canada," says Cristelle Basmaji, the marketing and communications director at Jacob, the accessibly priced Montreal-based retailer that was founded by her grandfather Jacob. "We're family-run, we're from Canada and we only have a [retail] presence here, so we really feel like we're close to our roots."

Right now, Jacob manufactures about 25 per cent of its clothing in Canada. A good deal of that is suiting, which is made in two factories – in Montreal and Toronto – that employ just over 200 people.

The remainder of Jacob's product, including jeans and T-shirts, is manufactured in Hong Kong, which has some of the highest labour standards in Asia. "Obviously, it's been tougher and tougher [regarding] prices and competition. We can't produce as much as we would like here," Basmaji says.

Even so, the company saw an opportunity after fielding customer inquiries about where its clothes come from to identify those pieces made in Canada with a stitched-in label bearing a maple leaf.

"We wanted the customer to know about it," Basmaji says. "We wanted to create that sense of pride."

Moreover, Jacob stores will now frequently group the merchandise that's made locally under a Made in Canada banner, drawing customers to those goods. In turn, a number of the mapleleaf-labelled pieces, including skirts and dresses in a double-knit ponte di Roma fabric, have become bestsellers.

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Generally, Jacob's Canadian-made items are a few degrees higher in quality than those made overseas. Prices, however, remain accessible – jersey tops, for instance, sell for $39.90, while cotton dresses are $149.90.

In 2004, another Québécois family business also made a commitment to local manufacturing. As more and more labels were moving their production to Asia, Tristan purchased its own factories – a rare move for a mass retailer – just a few hours away from its Montreal headquarters. Known for well-priced suiting and trend-focused business wear, the company makes most of its tailored pieces – about 30 per cent of total production – at the facilities.

According to Lili Fortin, Tristan's director of business development and the daughter of founder Gilles Fortin, the decision to hang on to local production was as business-savvy as it was forward thinking.

Owning and operating local factories, she explains, allows the vertically integrated company to maintain better quality control and to get lines to market faster.

And given the scale on which Tristan produces, the locally made pieces aren't exorbitantly priced. A jacket, for instance, sells for $175 to $200, roughly in line with the brand's other offerings.

And while customers have responded favourably, the payoff, for Tristan, is more than just financial.

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"We invested in the company just before everyone moved to Asia, before the financial crisis," Fortin says. "But we were proud to contribute to keeping the textile industry here [alive]."

For Charles Le Pierrès, the French-born co-founder of the stylish Montreal-based workwear label Judith & Charles, which he runs with wife Judith Richardson, the decision to produce in Canada was all about business, at least at the start.

For the past 23 years, the label, which until four years ago was called Teenflo, has made a whopping 95 per cent of its goods in Ontario. The only items that aren't produced in this country are knits, which are made in China. (Both Basmaji and Fortin also agree that Canada can't compete with Asia on the price and quality of a T-shirt.)

And although Judith & Charles pieces cost more than Tristan and Jacob items, they are reasonably priced, given the quality of fabrics and extent of local production. Blazers, for example, range from $200 to $600, while dresses start at $300.

"We wanted to control our production and make garments faster," Le Pierrès says, echoing Fortin's comment about speed to market.

His strategy for keeping clothing affordable is keeping inventory low and avoiding overstocking. "If we see one style has a great sell-through," Le Pierrès says, "we can recut it in two or three weeks" with fabric already in-house instead of waiting months for it to be made abroad.

In an unusual turnaround, he adds, his company's approach also suggests that a firm can manufacture locally and still grow on a global scale: Judith & Charles, which now has 10 stand-alone stores in North America, will be opening its first overseas shop this September – in China.

"A company that's made in Canada is opening in China," he says. "How do you like that?"

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