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turning point

Dani Reiss wasn’t sure he would join the family business, but a realization about the now-iconic Canada Goose jackets gave him an idea.Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

When the film industry descended on Park City, Utah, in January, hundreds of people got one. When the hosts of BBC's Top Gear drove to the magnetic North Pole, they each wore one. Model Kate Upton wore one, too – though barely – when she posed in Antarctica for the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

Canada Goose Inc. parkas are designed for the toughest Canadian weather. But anyone who has walked the streets of Toronto, Stockholm or even Milan knows they are more than just a jacket: The company has leveraged function to become a champion of form. It made nearly 400,000 of its iconic, down-filled, fur-trimmed, badge-adorned parkas last year. Available in 44 countries, they are as much a global fashion statement as a shield from the cold.

After joining the company in 1997, Dani Reiss slowly transformed from skeptic salesman to parka evangelist. By the time he succeeded his father as president and chief executive in 2001, Mr. Reiss had an idea planted in his head: By focusing on the made-in-Canada, used-in-Canada story behind the coats, people would clamour for them.

The strategy worked, and the company's sales have grown more than 3,500 per cent in the past decade. Growth for this fiscal year is forecast at nearly 40 per cent with sales close to $150-million.

Earlier in his life, Mr. Reiss was unconvinced he would join the family business that his grandfather, Sam Tick, founded as Metro Sportswear Ltd. in 1957 to make coats for Canadians working in the Great White North. Mr. Reiss changed his mind when, while working to earn money for travel, he made a discovery.

"I realized the brand was real," Mr. Reiss says. "That there were a lot of stories behind the brand, and that people who use the product – people who live and work in the coldest places on earth – are authentic and real. And I realized that there was actually some meaning to this product line. It wasn't just stuff."

He saw consumers who craved products with authentic backstories. Much like desert-crossing Land Rovers finding a home among city dwellers, Mr. Reiss realized, Arctic-quality parkas could convincingly become urban chic.

But a few things had to change first.

The company's bread and butter had long been manufacturing coats for other brands, but that work was headed for cheaper shores overseas. Meanwhile, its proprietary jackets were split under two brand names: Canada Goose in Europe and Snow Goose everywhere else.

While the jackets were identical in all but name – the result of licensing issues in Europe – the inconsistent branding was holding the company back. In Europe, however, consumers were showing interest in coats that were designed, manufactured and worn in wintry Canada. Mr. Reiss saw where the company needed to focus.

"We picked Canada Goose because of the affinity that people have for Canada," he says. "Not just in Canada, but around the world. We're lucky that we live in a country that people love and romanticize."

People are drawn to garments that declare a sense of authenticity. "They want to buy something that's authentic because it means that they're authentic," says Rohit Deshpandé, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School whose research has focused on country-of-origin branding.

Authenticity is often tied to place. "What would Armani be without Italy? Brands use the country of origin as a way of differentiating themselves, and simultaneously giving the message of authenticity," Prof. Deshpandé says.

But "it's not enough to say, 'We are a high quality product and we come from Canada.' You've got to have a compelling brand story," he says.

These are the stories that pulled Mr. Reiss into the brand in the first place. "We tell the stories of the people who actually use our products. ... People who live and work in the coldest places on earth, like Antarctica and Northern Canada, our original market."

The company is not without detractors. The use of hood trim made from coyote fur has drawn numerous protests, including most recently from an 11-year-old girl who hoped to ask Mr. Reiss to offer an alternative material. Still, people worldwide will shell out hundreds of dollars for a Canada Goose jacket.

Mr. Reiss's customer base has effectively doubled during his time at the top. Canada Goose jackets originally came tailored only for men, but the company noticed that, particularly in Sweden, extra-small sizes were selling out. It started investing in women's wear and better-fitting designs; today, that makes up half their sales.

The Canada Goose brand resonates not just with consumers but with the company's employees, who have gone from dozens a few decades ago to more than 1,000 today. "When I walk outside and see people wearing these jackets, it's a nice feeling," says cutting-room department supervisor Nick Fava, an employee of more than 25 years.

When Madalena Arruda started working for Metro Sportswear nearly 38 years ago, she was one of 42 staff. Now she's the in-house manager of more than 100 at the Toronto factory. She has watched the world take notice of its Canadian expertise. "Being made in Canada has made a big difference," she says.

Canada Goose's factories are an easy measure of its made-in-Canada success. Just this week, Mr. Reiss flew to Winnipeg for the opening of a new factory that will more than double its production in that city. The midtown Toronto factory, already the size of a Canadian football field, will move into a neighbouring facility that's 50 per cent bigger by December.

"Deciding to stay in Canada and become a champion in Canadian-made products is something that was really, really important to us," Mr. Reiss says, "and fortunately something we were able to succeed at doing."