When the phone rings at Canada Goose, they never know who will be waiting on the other end of the line. Sometimes it's a professional dogsledder. Today, it's a Hollywood starlet.
Emma Watson's people have called the Toronto-based maker of heavy-duty, goose-down filled parkas with an urgent request. The 19-year-old British actress (who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies) has been coveting one of the company's distinctively Canadian jackets. It has to be blue, and it has to be a specific cut.
No problem. A few years back, when Canada Goose began to receive calls from stars and dignitaries expressing an interest in its arctic attire, the company designated a person at its Toronto headquarters to cater to them exclusively.
It was a watershed moment for a 64-year-old company that had built its reputation outfitting polar expeditions, oil riggers and police departments throughout the world-people far less concerned with how their clothing looks than whether or not it might save their lives. The outerwear manufacturer had long boasted that it made the warmest jacket on the planet (an untested claim); now Canada Goose was actively embracing the idea that its jackets might also be the most stylish on the planet. The question is, how long would it last?
Depending on who you ask, Canada Goose jackets have been credited as the breakout trend in the world's fashion capitals for the past seven or eight years. In that time, the highly-technical survival apparel has been migrating from the shelves of outdoor apparel stores to the racks of high-end clothing retailers like Harry Rosen and Holt Renfrew in Canada, Harrods in London and Colette in Paris-places more often associated with designer labels like Comme des Garçons and Dior Homme. In tandem, stylish urbanites have been showing up on the streets of the fashion capitals clad in the parkas with the circular red, white and blue "Arctic Program" patch. Today it's not uncommon to walk into a bar or café and see a half-dozen of the coyote-fur hoods draped over the backs of chairs. It's no accident. The rise of Canada Goose is the result of one of the savviest campaigns in marketing history.
At a modest plant in an industrial neighbourhood in Toronto, Canada Goose churns out 250,000 parkas a year-a rarity in the textile industry, where much of the actual construction of garments is often completed half a world away. An in-house fashion designer cuts the fabric, and dozens of seamstresses assemble the various pieces-sleeves, shoulders, backpanels-in a brightly lit room the size of a gymnasium. Canada Goose has been manufacturing its outerwear this way since 1946; some of the staff have been with the company for more than 30 years.
In an adjacent room, two men operate the machines that blow the company's namesake down into the unfinished recesses of the parkas. From the beginning, the company aspired to make its name synonymous with quality, especially the quality of its goose down, sourced from Hutterite farmers in rural communities across Canada.
Hutterite farmers eschew mass production, preferring to keep smaller flocks and allow the geese to mature before being plucked. This means the down itself is larger, creating more pockets in which warm air is trapped. It also means Hutterite down is more expensive, which is why few jacket makers are keen to use it.
By the time Dani Reiss, grandson of company founder Sam Tick, took over the company in 2001, Canada Goose had already earned its reputation as one of the world's foremost suppliers of arctic gear. The jackets were standard issue for participants in the United States Antarctic Program and the company's assertion that its parkas could withstand -70 C temperatures was enough to sell tens of thousands of parkas a year. Reiss, just 28 when he took the top job, believed he could take the brand further and set his sights on making an aggressive move into the fashion market.
As a way of making average weekend warriors familiar with the brand, Reiss started giving away jackets to anyone who worked outside: bouncers at nightclubs who could give the brand credibility with young adults, and even ticket scalpers, who could raise awareness with the sports-going crowd. "It was very much consumer-driven marketing and guerrilla marketing, no ad campaigns," Reiss says. "We would go to people who worked outside who were very visible. People look at what these people wear because they are the coldest guys out there."
Almost a decade later, Canada Goose is still adding new recruits to its army of pedestrian billboards. A recent deal with Fairmont Hotels means doormen and valets will greet guests in Expedition parkas. As well, the company launched a program called the Canada Goose Coat Check at Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors games, offering fans the chance to try on the parkas while checking their own garments.
"That idea came to me while sitting watching a hockey game with my jacket on my lap," Reiss says.
But perhaps the most successful relationship for Canada Goose has been with film crews, who, according to Reiss, have put Canada Goose onto Hollywood radars. The company doesn't pay stars to wear its product, but plenty have chosen to on their own: Matt Damon, Hayden Christensen, Maggie Gyllenhaal and teen-idol Hilary Duff have all been photographed wearing the company's jackets in public. They've also shown up onscreen. Nicolas Cage wore a Canada Goose parka in National Treasure (2004), Jessica Alba appeared in one in Good Luck Chuck (2007) and, most recently, Kate Beckinsale donned one for most of Whiteout (2009).
However, when Canada Goose finally went looking for an official brand ambassador, it didn't venture south to Holly-wood, it looked north to champion racer Lance Mackey, three-time winner of the Iditarod, the world's most famous dogsled race, a nine-day, 1,800-kilometre trek across the Alaskan wilderness. Mackey is to the North what gladiators were to the Roman Empire. Each March, thousands crowd the finish line in Nome, Alaska, just to see him mush past, in his imposing black parka, like Darth Vader on a sled.
In the company's Toronto showroom, Kevin Spreekmeester, a former arctic photographer who is now Canada Goose's vice-president of marketing, shows off the limited-edition Lance Mackey parka, with its extra thick roll of coyote fur around the hood and dogsledding patches sewn onto the body. He describes it as a mix between "NASCAR and an Italian fashion piece." That Canada Goose's jackets have been selected as authorized gear for such esoteric activities doesn't hurt its fashion pedigree, it helps. Canada Goose's most popular models-the Chilliwack, a bomber-style jacket designed for bush pilots, and the Expedition, worn by researchers in the Antarctic-make up the bulk of sales each year, with slightly more than half of the revenue coming from foreign markets.
At the extreme end of this spectrum is the Snow Mantra, a coat that retails for about $900 and is currently selling well in urban boutiques. Mesh pockets inside the liner are designed to accommodate a pair of instant hand warmers that provide extra warmth near your kidneys. A concerted tug at the two zippers on either side of the hips opens the jacket at the seams, allowing easy access to your sidearm (a little design feature that Canada Goose staff jokingly refer to as "BlackBerry access"). Holding up one of the company's masterpieces, Spreekmeester admits that if you were to wear this jacket on public transit, "you would bake."
Reiss figures the key to the company's success is that it courts the most hard-core consumer first, which helps the brand stand out as a premium name in a crowded field. Canada Goose's rivals range from Mountain Equipment Co-op to North Face and Columbia, all of which produce jackets for the masses and most of which sell at much lower prices. What's the allure? "I've been told," Reiss says, "that when you wear a Canada Goose you feel like you're part of a club."
The average Range Rover owner has a median income of $300,000 (U.S.). Few of them will ever get around to driving one across the Sahara, but there is nevertheless a certain pleasure derived from knowing that it would survive the trip. Canada Goose owners have a similar relationship with their parkas, says Douglas Reid, professor of business strategy at Queen's University.
"I'd never heard of Canada Goose until this fall," he admits. When he mentioned to a friend that he needed a winter coat, the pal suggested he get a Canada Goose. "Why?" asked Reid. "I'm not going to go that far north." But therein lies the reason for the brand's popularity: "It's a signal to the world that I can afford a Canada Goose jacket," says Reid, who opted against such a specialized parka in the end. "It's much like buying a very large and visible watch. We don't need watches to tell the time-we can get that off our phones."
He admits that any brand navigating a sudden spike in popularity as large as this runs the risk of overheating. The list of fashion brands that have fallen victim to their own popularity is long. Some will remember there was a period in the 1980s when everyone in cottage country owned a Tilley hat; two decades later everyone showed up in a pair of foam clogs. Companies at the centre of a hot fad have to tread carefully, Reid says, as trends follow a familiar life cycle. "The moment you see a Canada Goose coat on sale, this thing is done," he says. That's when "all the aspects of cachet that drive a customer's willingness to pay up, whether it's affiliation or claims of performance, go out the window."
By the company's own estimation, Canada Goose coats have been riding high for several years now. How have they avoided oversaturating the market? The answer, says Reid, lies in rationing the supply, something that has worked for other lifestyle brands like Harley-Davidson. In the case of
the iconic motorcycle brand, the company deliberately undersupplies the market, says Reid, in order to maintain an elevated resale value. "In Canada Goose's case," says Reid, "they would be keeping the status value high."
Meanwhile, Canada Goose is taking other steps to avoid becoming yesterday's cast-off in the eyes of the notoriously fickle fashion set. At a January trade show in Salt Lake City, Canada Goose rolled out a new fashion-forward coat called Hybridge. The name signifies a sportier take on the down parka with lighter, stretchier fabrics and removable linings. New product names like Tremblant suggest a coat designed for more recreational-and stylish-winter activities like snowboarding and skiing. The goal, says Reiss, is to stay relevant without going down-market.
"We would be foolish not to be concerned about overheating," he says. "But the key is for us to stay authentic. It's important to stay true to who we are," says Reiss, before adding one more piece of cautionary advice, "and not to believe our own press."
DOES IT QUACK LIKE A GOOSE?
"When you think about a watch, you think about a Rolex made in Switzerland; it wouldn't be the same if the Rolex was made in Japan," says Kevin Spreekmeester, Canada Goose's vice-president of marketing. True, but that hasn't stopped counterfeiters in Asia from trying to muscle in on this Canadian-made parka's success. Here's how a real Canada Goose Snow Mantra differs from the fakes
The patch Canada Goose jackets have featured the "Arctic Program" patch since the early 1980s. However, counterfeiters have little trouble replicating the now-familiar red, white and blue motif and not all models feature it. It's buyer beware.
In keeping with its name, Canada Goose fills its coats with goose down. Cheaper Asian versions might be filled with low-quality duck or chicken down.
The collar If the fur's fake, so is the coat. All of Canada Goose's fur hoods are lined with distinctive coyote fur.
The shoulders Grab-loops on the shoulders are "designed to be strong enough if you need to be pulled from an inflatable boat or from a crevasse," Spreekmeester says. "I've seen versions where the straps are sewn right down."
The back A third grab-loop is located between the shoulder blades and features a patch with the name of the model (Snow Mantra, Resolute, Expedition, etc.). If it reads "Canada Goose," it's a fake.
The details Mesh pockets inside the liner are designed to accommodate hand warmers. Few counterfeiters bother with such details.