(Bloomberg View) -- Not long ago, I dashed off a quick email to Mickey Drexler, the former chief executive of J. Crew and perhaps the greatest merchant of his generation, to ask him if he had any thoughts about why Canada Goose overcoats had become so popular.
You know the coats I mean, don’t you? Those big winter coats, usually black or blue, with the circular red, white and blue arm badges that say “Canada Goose Arctic Program." The ones that cost upwards of $1,000. In New York, you see them everywhere, even now in April, with weather still nippy but hardly cold enough to require arctic gear.
I’d been curious about Canada Goose ever since I’d started seeing the overcoats in New York about three years ago. I didn’t really understand why they had become so ubiquitous. Not only were they ridiculously expensive, but you couldn’t really call them stylish either.
The Italian company Moncler SpA, which competes with Canada Goose, also makes expensive winter wear. But many of its styles are designed to look good as they keep you warm. By contrast, Canada Goose’s basic coats are bulky, almost shapeless.
While they may be perfect for Antarctica, the coats seem a bit over-the-top for the U.S. Northeast. I asked the company for a loaner this winter so I could better understand their appeal, but it didn’t really help. Although I certainly liked wearing it on the very coldest days, I found it almost too warm. Whenever I wore one in the subway, I emerged drenched in sweat.
When I spoke to Dani Reiss, Canada Goose’s 44-year-old chief executive and the grandson of its founder, the word he kept using to explain why the brand was so hot was “authenticity.”
“Authenticity is everything for us,” he said. “We’ve never believed in fancy ad campaigns. They are not authentic.”
Well, maybe. But as I began to learn about the company, I discovered that Reiss may not use fancy ad campaigns, but he’s one heck of a marketer just the same.
Canada Goose Holdings Inc. — its original name was Metro Sportswear Ltd. — was founded by Sam Tick in Toronto in 1957. The company didn’t really find its niche until the 1980s, when Reiss’s father and Tick’s son-in-law, David Reiss, created a parka built specifically to keep scientists warm at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. (His key innovation was a special down filling machine he invented.) In 1982, the company scored its first marketing coup, when Laurie Skreslet wore a custom-made Canada Goose parka en route to becoming the first Canadian to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.
By the time Dani Reiss became CEO in 2001, at the age of 28, the company was in the process of conquering its second niche market: Hollywood.
“With pockets to store gear, scripts and other essentials, and warmth that’s designed to endure the chill of long production days,” (as Canada Goose says on its website) film crews began using it when they had to do a shoot in cold weather.
Reiss took the next obvious step: product placement. “Manchester by the Sea,” “X-Men 2,” “Money Monsters” — actors in all those movies have worn Canada Goose coats.
What seems to have set Reiss apart from his father and grandfather was his ambition. “When I started with the company in 1997,” he told me, “I thought I would use the job to make some quick cash and then travel and write.” Instead, he became smitten with the coats his predecessors had created — and determined to make them better known.
His father and grandfather had built a company that made high-performance gear for small groups for whom such coats were not a luxury but a necessity. Reiss decided he wanted to sell Canada Goose coats to people for whom it was not a necessity but a luxury.
He began building the brand in Europe, starting with Stockholm, a city that can be chilly in the winter. It was almost all word of mouth. Because Canada Goose still had limited manufacturing capacity, there were often shortages, which Reiss soon realized was an odd sort of blessing: it made customers want the product all the more. On more than one occasion, people lined up to get a coat, knowing that a new shipment had just arrived. Suddenly, spending $1,000 on a winter coat didn’t seem any more outrageous than spending $1,000 on an iPhone X.
That logo on the sleeve was part of it too. Reiss says that people are forever approaching him to say that they noticed a Canada Goose logo for the first time the other day. “Now I see it everywhere,” they say. “What the hell?”
The key modern moment, though, came when Reiss realized that turbocharging the company’s growth would require a big infusion of capital. So in 2013, he sold a majority stake to Bain Capital Private Equity, which allowed him to expand the company’s manufacturing facilities in Winnipeg and Toronto, among other things.
The expansion went well enough that four years later, Canada Goose did a successful public offering, raising $255 million. The stock jumped 25 percent on its first day of trading and kept right on rising.
Now Canada Goose has also opened boutiques in New York, Toronto, Toyko and a handful of other cities. It once had 20 styles; it now has 200. A few months ago, it hired a new chief financial officer away from the high-end shoe retailer Jimmy Choo. It promotes and supports a group it calls “Goose People” — a champion dogsledder, an extreme adventure athlete, a polar explorer. You get the idea.
Still, Reiss will never stop talking about authenticity, and you can’t blame him. He revels in his company’s Canadian-ness, and its roots. As he put it a few years ago:
There are a lot of brands out there that try to attach a story to their product, but it's not real. But we actually are the real story. We’re the Land Rover of clothing. We started in Northern Canada, and the coats were the uniform of the high Arctic. They were made for people working in the coldest places on Earth.
On the other hand, when I walked into Canada Goose’s New York store recently to return the coat the company had loaned me, I saw rows of lightweight jackets and vests. It was the new “spring line,” I was told. I thought to myself, “They’re not wearing these clothes in the arctic.”
Which, of course, raises the question: Are people in New York and Toronto and Tokyo really wearing Canada Goose coats because that’s what scientists wear at McMurdo Station? Or are they wearing them because, thanks to Reiss’s clever marketing, they now confer almost the same status as a Bottega Veneta handbag or a Cartier watch?
In 2015, during a warm spell in December, WWD deputy editor Arthur Zaczkiewicz suggested the answer: “It’s warm out, but the fashionistas are all wearing their Canada Goose,” he said. “Fashion trumps the weather.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the co-author of "Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA."
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