Dani Reiss, CEO of Canada Goose, is well aware that the vast majority of people who wear his company’s products will never visit the North Pole.
Just as most people who drive Land Rovers don’t do a lot of off-roading, and most people who wear TAG watches don’t deep-sea dive. In fact, some of Canada Goose’s most enthusiastic markets are in countries that rarely see snowfall. Still, the underlying importance of product leadership, says Reiss, is how his company has remained fad-proof. “From the beginning, we’ve built Canada Goose as the best, warmest, most functional product in the world.”
Long before earning the adoration of celebrities at Sundance, Canada Goose was the brand of choice for mountain climbers and Arctic Circle expeditioners, dogsledders and heli-skiers. In the early years, Reiss made sure his products were on the backs of bouncers and scalpers who faced harsh temperatures in an urban environment. Cold-weather film crews were also early adopters. “They view our product as equipment,” he says, and it’s clear that this fact makes him happier than all the pop culture kudos in the world.
Another proud papa moment came when Kate Upton famously wore Canada Goose’s white bomber (and not much else) on the cover of Sports Illustrated while shooting a fashion photo spread in the South Pole. “It wasn’t the plan to have the jacket on the cover,” says Reiss, revealing the authentic backstory behind the now iconic moment. “She put it on because it’s cold in Antarctica.”
That shoot was five years ago, shortly before the then-private company took a $250-million infusion from Bain Capital to support expansion into the U.S. and other foreign markets. A lot has changed. This March, Canada Goose Holdings Inc. made its first public offering in Toronto and New York with a $340-million IPO, trading up more than 25% on the first day. That success reflects years of strong growth by the company, whose revenue has boomed by 393% over the past five years, earning it the No. 171 spot on the 2017 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest Growing Comapnies.
Meanwhile, after decades of selling through select luxury retailers and online, the company opened its first Canada Goose retail location in Yorkdale Mall in Toronto last fall, and another in New York shortly after. Locations in Calgary, Chicago, Boston, London and Tokyo are on deck (Reiss says the plan is 15 to 20 stores by 2020). Product-wise, Canada Goose has evolved from a single signature parka into a line of 2,000 products, including hundreds of jackets, winter accessories, spring-focused outwear and, most recently, a tentative foray into knitwear. The common denominator, says Reiss, is functionality. “We have turned down offers to do women’s jackets that include more frivolous details or design features. We really don’t see ourselves as a fashion brand.”
Canadian fashion expert Jeanne Beker endorses that positioning: “There is something about Canada Goose that is no BS,” she says. “It’s sending the message that you’re not trying too hard to be in fashion. It’s anti-fashion fashion.” Which is, of course, the best kind. Reiss may not see his company as style-focused, but certainly Canada Goose’s no-frills aesthetic falls in with major fashion movements of the past few years, from normcore to athleisure, utilitarian to unisex and, of course, authenticity. Beker says Canada Goose’s organic Canadian roots are also a major boon: “The spotlight is so on Canada right now. The fact that they actually have ‘Canada’ in their name is an incredible bonus.”
That was not the case in 1957 when Reiss’s grandfather Sam Tick founded Metro Sportswear Ltd. in a small warehouse in Toronto. When Reiss’s father, David, joined the company in the 1970s, his major innovation was a down-filling machine that gave the company a new focus (world-class parkas) and a new name, Snow Goose. In the mid-nineties, while selling the jackets at a trade show in Germany, Reiss noticed the affinity European consumers had for his home country. More than that, he saw how the fact that the parkas came from Canada resonated with consumers. The name Snow Goose was already trademarked in Europe, so the younger Reiss—who assumed the CEO role in 1997—morphed it into Canada Goose, which was to be an ethos more than a name.
In the early 2000s, when other Canadian companies like Roots and Arc’teryx moved production to Asia chasing cheap labour and higher profit margins, Reiss decided to be the exception. As the company grew, Canada’s dearth of skilled sewers provided yet more reason to consider relocation. Instead, Reiss launched sewing schools—first Winnipeg and now in Toronto and Montreal as well. Today he is proud to directly employ more than 2,000 Canadian workers, and it’s more than just an exercise in good karma. “We have a great legacy of craftsmanship, of being made here in Canada, and we felt that was an asset worth protecting.”
Being made in Canada is one of the reasons for Canada Goose’s significant price tags. The signature Expedition parka retails for $995, with many options running well into the quadruple digits. People ask Reiss all the time whether there is a saturation point. He says the idea of a finite market is part of a small-scale mentality that limits Canadian businesses in particular. “In Canada, we often think too small. Canadians are often small-c conservative, risk-averse. There are benefits to that, but it causes us to miss opportunities.”
Reiss points to Canada Goose brand awareness in America, currently at just 17% (compared with 76% in Canada). In those potential consumers he also sees potential repeat customers, which is the other half of the company’s growth strategy. “A lot of our customers want to update their look, or they like a new style or a different colour.” Reiss has always had a knack for stoking demand. “We don’t intentionally starve the market,” he says, “but we’re not afraid to be sold out.” Limited-edition collections and collaborations with prestige labels like Marc Jacobs and Drake’s OVO do a good job of keeping things fresh.
But could $600 sweaters be a step too far for a company known for outerwear? “You run the risk of saturating the brand, never mind the product offering,” says Sandy Silva, an independent luxury retail analyst. Retailers or manufacturers, she says, need to recognize the core essence of their brand. “For Canada Goose, their tried, tested and true heritage is the Expedition, so they need to make sure everything else can tie back to that.”
Reiss says his team worked for several years to ensure the knitwear reads as a logical brand extension. “My hope is that a customer walks into one of our stores and their first thought is, of course that’s a Canada Goose sweater.” His point is that it’s not just about creating a beautiful sweater or a cool sweater but a sweater that feels authentic to the brand. The new collection of subtle, classic, ski-culture-inspired sweaters (featuring the same thermal mapping technology found in Canada Goose outerwear) seems to achieve that goal.
One notable difference is that the knitwear is not made in Canada but in Italy, “because that’s where the world’s best knitwear is made,” Reese explains. He says it’s important to be transparent. (“You see companies playing all these games—designed in one place, made in another.”) More than that, though, it goes back to being the absolute best in class. “Brands that make the best products defy trends.”