There is possibly no greater signifier of the Canadian identity than Tom Thomson’s iconic The West Wind, a canvas painting that portrays a single specimen of the abundant Canadian pine tree standing sentinel at the edge of a vast lake. ln íts dignified poise against a backdrop of white-capped waves and benign mountains on the far shore, the tree’s Art Nouveau- inspired form gently slopes downward to the left as if in a humble nod, and its willowy branches hint at the forces of nature that have shaped them into such a way. While The West Wind was painted in 7977 right before Thomson’s untimely death, the Canadian characteristics of humility, a píoneering attitude, a resolve for continual self-improvement, and a deep bond with the elements that the composition so perfectly portrayed are still buoyant and unweathered today. lt continually shapes the country’s persona on the world stage accordingly. Likewise, on the fashion front, the same qualities are imbued in the approach of Canadian homegrown brands towards their craft. We spoke to six of these brands that have taken Canadian fashion to an international level, to identify what exactly it is that makes something worthy of the respected “Made in Canada” label.

As a vast land of temperate rainforests, endless plains and redoubtable mountain ranges, it hardly comes as a surprise that Canada, the Great White North, has acted as a breeding ground of sorts for brands that consistently prioritize function over form. Borne out of necessity in combating unforgiving winter conditions, heritage brands like Viberg and Canada Goose headed the vanguard of the current corps of brands rooted in technical performance materials. Founded in 1931 and 1950 respectively, Viberg and Canada Goose initially began as workwear manufacturers — Viberg’s first boots were geared to the specifications of workers in the booming logging industry of the Pacific Northwest, and its service boots were later issued to the foot soldiers of multiple nations in WWII. Meanwhile, Canada Goose concentrated its efforts in producing heavy-duty down parkas for the likes of the Canadian Rangers, city and provincial police departments, and municipal workers from the ’70s onwards. To this day, heritage is more than a buzzword for these two brands, but informs their direction as a touchstone atop which they build product. “If you keep the core of what you make since that is your heritage, then you can focus on developing newer product for different markets,” explains Viberg’s Guy Ferguson. “My goal would be to grow out of this heritage brand concept, or workwear brand, and rather be just a boot company that makes beautiful product.”

Thus, with the language of functionality ingrained into the Canadian fashion consciousness by the old guard, the market was ripe for the introduction of the second wave of all-Canadian brands which combined form and function. Arc’teryx, founded in 1989, is certainly among the most visible with its strong international presence — products such as the Arro 22 backpack and minimalist Veilance line can be seen on the backs of nature-oriented trendsetters worldwide. Says Carl Moriarty, Arc’teryx’s design director, “Arc’teryx has always been based on the idea of building a strong visual identity and an understanding that creating an element of lust is the best way to sell new ideas … At the same time, careful attention to detail and quality of craftsmanship have generated an element of desire, which in turn has helped to convince people to adopt the many performance innovations that we’ve developed.” And as the brand has discovered, a minimalist approach to what sometimes can be a market of unwieldy-seeming product has played no small part in Arc’teryx’s worldwide success. “When Arc’teryx launched apparel it was a completely foreign expression of clean apparel design and that aesthetic can now be found around the world,” observes VP Marketing Adam Ketcheson. “More recently the fashion world has started to follow those same technical aesthetics as they follow consumers towards a more casual outdoor-influenced technical product. As a Canadian, I’m proud of the ripple effect Arc’teryx has had around the world.”

Indeed, that minimalist aesthetic has been incorporated along an increasingly lifestyle-oriented thread by younger Canadian brands, of which the more established of the crop is Vancouver’s wings+horns. Having celebrated its 10-year anniversary last year with 10 collaborations with the likes of New Balance, Viberg, Canada Goose and Vancouver-based leatherworker Ken Diamond, wings+horns strikes a decidedly spartan and monotone East-meets-West aesthetic, choosing to strip all extraneous elements to draw attention to its consistently superior materials and the Japanese-inspired construction of its products. Brand designer Tung Vo mentions, “We are putting a greater focus and effort into our outerwear in order to showcase our acute attention to fabric, fit and function. Five years from now, we’ll still be designing and creating deceivingly simple but highly considered products. Products that speak to our customer and are impactful without being loud.”

This new Canadian identity of quiet impact continues into the 2010s, most notably by Reigning Champ. Similarly founded by Craig Atkinson and the crew behind wings+horns, Reigning Champ unsurprisingly follows in the legacy of its sister brand with a restrained design language, but incorporates more of a sportswear slant with a focus on fabrics such as heavyweight fleece and ring-spun jersey. Again, Canadian sensibilities tending towards minimalism and functionality inspire and inform Reigning Champ’s products — as any Vancouver native will tell you, fashion will always take second place to functionality in a temperate rainforest. Marketing Director Doug Barber remarks, “I think Canadians have simple taste. We value quality, functionality and subtle design — characteristics in which we strive to factor into our product.”

Straying away from this minimalist, sportswear-inspired school of thought — 2,300 miles eastwards to Montreal, to be exact — is through-and-through streetwear label Raised by Wolves. As with all the brands mentioned thus far, Raised by Wolves’ products are unambiguously designed and manufactured within Canada, but it has no qualms about its strong visual identity within the world of streetwear. Founded in 2008 by Pete Williams, now editor-in-chief of street and fashion platform Highsnobiety, Raised by Wolves has found that – with the reputation of Canadian quality firmly established by its forerunners, there is indeed space within the Canadian fashion scene to negotiate worldwide trends — given the country’s entry to a certain extent on the world culture stage following the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. “Conceptually it’s about the idea of being raw, authentic, wild … Starting with what you have, where you are and not being afraid to ‘do you,’” says Williams. “At the same time, looking at other Canadian brands who really stick to the pure classics or are extremely performance-driven, I think we stand in a unique place by being a quality-driven label that still pushes the envelope out a bit visually.”

In the same way that nature has shaped the country’s landscape and continues to intimately define the everyday lives of Canadians, the great outdoors is undoubtedly the overarching theme in the national fashion narrative, proportionate to its share of the Canadian imagination. Among our brands interviewed, there is a general consensus that the Canadian natural environment directly informs the proliferation of outdoor-oriented brands, from Vancouver to Saint John. “When I mention ‘design with purpose,’ many of the most successful or globally known Canadian brands are those that focus heavily on technical climate-oriented gear, i.e. Arcteryx, Canada Goose, Reigning Champ and so forth, so in that sense weather is very important to that concept,” says Pete Williams. Such an intertwined connection between product and national identity is rarely found on the world fashion stage anymore, given the extent of globalization and the rampant cross-appropriation of one culture’s motifs by another. To speak of such strong synergy, then, is a common theme that was repeated among the brands interviewed. “This country stands for so many great things that consumers around the world love and respect,” says Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss. “For Canada Goose, the ideology and mythology around ‘the Great White North’ played a big role in our success in Europe — primarily in Scandinavia. They made a quick and logical connection between Canada and making the world’s warmest outerwear.”

Far from being just inspired by nature, the tempestuous weather of these brands’ locales allows — nay, encourages — repeated testing, for its ease of convenience. Underlining this, Reigning Champ’s Doug Barber says, “Most Canadian brands have built their business around product that keeps you warm and dry. Having a climate that allows you to test it everyday makes all the difference.” Nature in Canada is literally at one’s doorstep, as Arc’teryx’s Carl Moriarty can attest to: “It’s hard to separate the fact that Arc’teryx is the global leader in performance rainwear from the fact that we’re based on Vancouver’s North Shore. Our environment and weather constantly inform our product development, but what really underpins it is our desire to be outside and playing in wild places.” Adds Dani Reiss of Canada Goose: “People know the kind of extreme weather we experience in our country, so they trust that we’re going to make a product that will not only withstand those conditions, but help them embrace it.”

Certainly, nature does not inform Canadian design purely in terms of functionality — no shortage of odes have been written to the transcendent beauty of the Albertan Rockies or the almost primordial-seeming pine forests lining British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii islands. “Our beautiful, diverse landscapes definitely play a role in our design philosophy and brand presentation,” observes Raised by Wolves’ Pete Williams. The streetwear brand’s Fall/Winter 2014 lookbook shot in the Rockies by trashhand springs to mind: the model, dressed in a range of graphic hoodies, sweaters and coach jackets, is dwarfed by the ageless landscape that, one century prior, could very well have been the same scenes immortalized by the brush of famed homegrown painter, Emily Carr. The importance of nature in the Canadian imagination, therefore, cannot be overstated enough. It is a muse, a friend, a teacher (of the harshest stripe at times), and a therapist. One would be hard-pressed to find as strong a bond between clothes and the environment anywhere else in the world of fashion.

Sharing its southern border with the dominant nuclear superpower of the 20th century, Canada has continually shaped and reshaped its identity in relation to the United States, so much so that a large part of its national persona can be defined as simply “not being American.” With star-spangled bravado brimming at the rim of the 49th parallel, Canadians have thus constructed themselves conversely as a humble people. “I think we’re less driven by ego. Instead, our primary driver is to produce great product,” says Reigning Champ’s Doug Barber. But the danger of a loud neighbor is being drowned out by their voice, as Viberg’s Guy Ferguson points out. “I would say that, for my own company since we are small, being Canadian is having to work twice as hard due to having USA next door, just in terms of press and getting the brand out there.”

More than the absence of ego in the Canadian mentality, however, humility also means frequent self-criticism and never resting on one’s laurels. “I think the Canadian way of thinking lends well to entrepreneurship in the sense that we are our own biggest critics and will always push ourselves to be better rather than celebrating the first signs of success,” says Raised by Wolves’ Pete Williams. “But more so I feel we’re able to have a strong ‘outsider’s’ look on more global trends and interpret things in our own way, perhaps somewhat more objectively than those who are based in the heart of major fashion hubs where it’s all encompassing.” This vein of being removed both in culture and distance from the hallowed fashion capitals of the world fits in well with the down-to-earth Canadian self-image, where dainty Parisian macarons and the incomprehensible garb of the Harajuku girl find themselves a stranger. “Being outside major global centers, you’re able to focus better and hone in on the product,” explains Dave Pires of wings+horns. “Our way of thinking is product-driven, not hype-driven. The natural environment here is inspirational, and also adds a unique perspective.”

Humility can be said to be one and the same with the quality of integrity, which has undoubtedly been a guiding principle in the history of these brands. Speaking to one of Canada Goose’s most important decisions in its history, Dani Reiss explains that “you can’t make a Swiss watch in China, and you can’t make a Canada Goose jacket in China either. We’ve taken a lot of risks over the years, but we definitely wouldn’t be the successful brand we are today if we hadn’t made the unconventional decision to keep production in Canada. It wasn’t an easy decision — we definitely went against the grain, but it was, and is, the right decision. It sets us apart and keeps us true to who we are.” Combined with the logic of being able to oversee and fine-tune the product directly, it is little surprise that the other brands interviewed have all chosen to maintain manufacturing facilities in Canada. This dedication to quality is reflected in their approach, so much so that, according to Viberg’s Guy Ferguson, “Making good product is more important than making lots of money. If your name is on it, then it has to be the best that you can do.” This mentality is paying in dividends, with Canada receiving international recognition for the unrelenting drive its brands have for second-to-none materials and construction. ”I think people appreciate that we as a whole produce considered design with purpose,” observes Pete Williams. “There’s not a lot of junk coming out of Canada. Or definitely none that really makes it outside the country.”

In many ways, Canadian brands are a product of the unique and singularly monumental entity that is Canada, not only in the political and economic sense of a state, but equally in the nature and history of the land. Much like how the famous pine tree in The West Wind must have started in life as a hardy shoot, so was the birth of the first all-Canadian apparel companies necessitated by the unrelenting elements. But over time, as the brands sent their roots downwards, a steady foundation grown through many a winter allowed the Canadian fashion consciousness to finally flourish to the full extent of its expressive capabilities, while being continuously weathered by forces both local and global. Whether Canadian brands will continue to branch outwards with the same pioneering spirit that has carried them thus far, only time will tell, but here’s to hoping that the three words “Made in Canada” will one day have the same timeless allure as that iconic pine standing sentinel at the edge of a vast lake.

Jeremy Jude Lee
Jordan Caron
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