For Toronto's Northbound Leather, getting into the fetish-wear market started by being in the right place at the right time.
It happened "by virtue of the fact that we were located at ground zero of what was Toronto's emerging gay culture in the '70s," says George Giaouris, the owner of the leather and fetish apparel retailer and manufacturer.
This year, Mr. Giaouris is celebrating his business's 30th anniversary, but it's really just a celebration of the current incarnation and name of the family business that got its start in Greece in 1961. Mr. Giaouris's father was making metal closures for small leather goods when he saw an opportunity to expand into making the whole product – things like leather handbags, briefcases and globes.
A few years later, the family moved to Canada and, by 1970, the business had settled on Toronto's Yonge Street. It was there that the store, which had started catering to hippies, found it was getting interest from a new market.
And so it began to cater to a new market: alongside the leather jackets Northbound makes and sells appeared items like leather pants, shirts, chaps and corsets. Other products, like restraints and the category euphemistically referred to as "percussion" are aimed uniquely at a kinkier customer.
"We were taken by the hand and led down the Yellow Brick Road," Mr. Giaouris says. But that didn't present a problem for the family business. "We were a very liberal family, very non-judgmental."
Northbound remains a manufacturer, with a workshop above the store, and also sells online – its website was one of the first commercial sites in Canada when it launched in 1994.
The company is still a small business, co-owned by Mr. Giaouris's wife, Anna, and employing 18 people, including their son.
Finding a niche can be a good strategy for a family business, says Jose Lam, a professor at The Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies family businesses.
"Typically, with family business and small businesses in general, they tend to do better if they target a niche market; it could be a niche segment or a niche customer," says Dr. Lam. Value-added products also tend to do well for family businesses, he says. "The value actually creates a competitive advantage."
For Northbound, its niche has allowed it to keep manufacturing most of what it sells. "Specialization made it possible to maintain manufacturing here, with Canadian wages and fair labour practices," Mr. Giaouris says.
While he considered off-shoring in the past, he says his small business wouldn't have been able to compete on volume and price.
"Successful Canadian manufacturers had to specialize in order to keep from losing and being put out," he says. "So this niche that we found, at the time that we found it, was still plain-brown-wrapper-type stuff and it still had a stigma to it and most larger companies didn't want anything to do with this sort of thing, so that allowed us a window to prosper."
While there is more competition these days, Mr. Giaouris says his approach has been to go upmarket.
"Things that are widely available elsewhere, we tend to drop in our offering," he says. "As soon as it goes mainstream, we carry only certain elements of the particular type of product and only the best available."
Custom pieces are a big part of the company's business. Mr. Giaouris says he'll make anything a client requests, in leather or suede, as long as he's able to do it. Making something for a customer that they can't find anywhere else is the best part of the job, he says.
While fetish wear is a major focus for Northbound, leather outerwear makes up around 60 per cent of the company's sales, Mr. Giaouris says. It too is a high-end offering.
Mr. Giaouris says his businesses didn't see any impact when Danier Leather, once the market leader in leather, went out of business last spring. He says he's targeting a different customer, one that's willing to pay a lot more.
In Canada, the consumer market for leather and faux leather outerwear is worth $217-million, says Tamara Szames, a fashion industry analyst at market research firm NPD.
That figure, which doesn't include luxury products, is growing. Consumer leather purchases are up 15 per cent from a year ago, she says – an increase driven by rising prices.
Ms. Szames says baby boomers are willing to pay more for leather, while millennials are more price-sensitive. In the luxury market, leather still plays a big role, she says, and there's "still a massive opportunity."
For Mr. Giaouris, with his business's 30th anniversary coming up, he's planning to celebrate with a fetish-themed fashion show later in October. Originally intended as a one-off event to celebrate the store's 10th anniversary, the fashion show became an annual event and is now in its 20th year.
He says he thinks that leather has something of a primordial appeal.
"From a very young age, I got into leather and I started to appreciate what people saw in it on a sexual level and understood what they were asking for," he says. "It had to feel right, it had to fit correctly, it had to have the right smell – all of this is important."