“Our job is to keep free people from the cold, right?” Spencer Orr, VP of design & merchandising at Canada Goose, says, sitting in the front office of their Toronto HQ, adjacent a foyer lined with famous people wearing famous jackets. There’s Laurie Skreslet’s pink expedition jacket he wore in the first Canadian ascent of Everest, sitting opposite a photo of Kate Upton on the cover of the 2013 SI Swimsuit Edition in bikini and a white Chilliwack bomber. “Of course,” Orr adds, “cold is relative.”
Canada Goose, manufacturers of hearty outerwear from The Great White North, obsess a lot over this word, “cold”, and creating its opposite, “warmth”. The battle of body heat versus nature runs deep in their blood, their land, their company history. For starters, Canada Goose manufactures every jacket on native soil, a land that’s half covered in permafrost and spends a good part of the year frozen. As for industry roots, the company, which began in 1957, introduced in 1972 a very special tool that triggered a monumental shift in the production of warm-weather wear: the down-filling machine. David Reiss, the father of CEO Dani Reiss, invented it. These days, Bain Capital’s invested in the majority stake of the company, and Canada Goose has expanded their internationally distributed line from Arctic expeditions all the way down to something to keep you dry on your next rainy-day walk. As Orr explains, “You can be cold when you’re wet.”
That’s the plain Xs and Os of Canada Goose: keep people warm despite the elements. But a better way to understand the company, from a perspective that’s closer to their heart, is to look at their pièce de résistance, the Snow Mantra. The parka has a penchant for showing up near the poles, and it’s been standard issue at McMurdo Station in Antarctica for years. It’s a down-filled beast equipped with a removable coyote fur ruff on a 3-way adjustable tunnel hood. The coat’s base settles somewhere mid-thigh. It has shoulder grab straps and reflective stripes and high-pile fleece to protect against wind. It’s known as the warmest coat on earth. It’s also arguably the toughest.
Rows of seamstresses sit with jackets under the needle. Off to the side fabric is cut, separated, organized, and tagged. The down room fills interior panels with feathers and clusters, all calibrated to the jacket’s use.
That, Orr says, is the pinnacle, and everything else trickles down from there. This is a utility apparel company, whose first clients happened to spend most their time in sub-zero temps. All Canada Goose jackets live in this industrious vein, from the award-winning Hybridge Lite (first developed for endurance runner Ray Zahab’s run through Siberia) to Upton’s Chilliwak (originally not for supermodels, but rather for northern bush pilots, who needed warmth on near-Arctic flights).
The heart of all these products is the company’s new Toronto facility, a joint office, showroom, and factory. After a flood delayed a grand opening for six months, the factory officially opened doors mid-October 2014, allowing design and manufacturing to work under the same roof. “You design a jacket, you build a spec package, you walk it back to the pattern maker”, Orr says. “My design department and my innovation department have one of every machine. So if we want to do seam sealing here, if we want to do dye cutting here, we can actually do it here.”
“Here” means through a set of double-wide doors at the end of a short hallway. That’s where the front office’s cubicles and flatscreen monitors stop and the sewing machines begin. Rows of seamstresses sit with jackets under the needle. Off to the side fabric is cut, separated, organized and tagged. The down room fills interior panels with feathers and clusters — all calibrated to the jacket’s use. As Orr says, “Matching the right ratio with the right fabric for the right intended use is more important than saying,
‘what is the fill power?’”. With a compressed air hose, finished jackets get cleaned and inspected. In a normal day’s work, the factory will hand-produce 300-400 jackets. Operators works under white fluorescent lights and the scene has the quiet hum of people good at what they do, getting the job done.
“We were only a whopping six kilometers away, and it was hell. It felt like the heart of the brand was gone. You need to be next to the factory.”
The jacket-making process is intensive and the skills needed are precise and calculated, from cutting to sewing to filling, back to sewing, to cleaning, and then finally to packaging. But before they even get to the line is when the the bulk of the work is done; development can take up to two years. Canada Goose was the first jacket company to begin using thermal mapping, using a mannequin rigged with sensors to determine where the jacket provided the most warmth (and where more warmth was needed). That mapping process also resulted in Canada Goose’s Thermal Experience Index, a quick assessment of what weather the jacket will perform best in. It’s a single digit, easy to comprehend version of how cold a jacket can go while keeping its wearer warm. When what you’re battling is relative, as Orr says, this is the best response: to quantify.
But if that link between tangible product performance and abstract research and design is severed, the cold tends to creep in. During the flood that delayed its opening, the new factory resumed work before the office could move back in. Orr spent time commuting the between a downtown Toronto office and the new West End building. “We were only a whopping six kilometers away, and it was hell. It felt like the heart of the brand was gone. You need to be next to the factory.” And so Orr has planted himself a small pebble’s toss from the line, allowing him an indispensable resource for crafting the quality and performance that the company holds as its main claim. And, if he’s ever concerned about whether the jackets he’s designing are holding their weight in material form, all he has to do is pass through the double doors and enter the factory. “It’s the heart and soul, right? To go in the back and be like, this is where it’s made. It’s not some random corner of the world that you don’t get to see. It’s actually here.”