In 1973, their Negative Heel leather shoe became the first of many Roots fashion sensations. Since then, Don Green (left) and Michael Budman—business partners, BFFs, and the brand’s co-founders—have become as intrinsic to the Canadian identity as lumberjacks. In celebration of Roots’ 40th b-day, we visited their leather factory to talk Swinging ’60s, sweat pants, and why a pot-smoking Olympian is a good guy to have in your hat.
Let’s start at the beginning—how did you two meet?
Don: That goes way back to high school in Detroit in 1962. We were in the same fraternity and then we both went to the same summer camp in Algonquin Park, Camp Tamakwa, which is where we really got to know each other.
Do you remember your first impressions of each other?
Michael: I remember Don as a great, great athlete. The director of our camp, Lou Handler, was an ex–professional boxer and he got in the ring with Don a couple of times. I think he hit [Don] pretty good.
D: Michael was already on staff when we met. He was one of the leaders and definitely hung out with the coolest kids at camp.
And today you both have cabins in the Algonquin area?
M: Yes, we both lease cabins in Algonquin Park. They’re swimming distance apart.
D: It’s our sacred haven. When we go up there we totally disconnect, which is quite easy since the cellphone and internet signals are weak. It’s totally different from our city life and our business life. It’s a great balance.
Was it always the plan to start a fashion label?
M: Don and I really wanted to go into business together. We started looking at different alternatives. Our idea was to bring something great to Canada that wasn’t here.
D: We had a friend who told us about this shoe designed in the early ’50s by a Swedish yoga teacher. There was a man in New York who was importing it. Originally, we were going to work with him, but when that didn’t work, we decided to manufacture our own version here in Canada. That’s how we ended up in business with the Kowalewski family, who have been manufacturing our leather from the beginning. Probably the two biggest breaks we ever had were hooking up with them and deciding to name the company Roots.
How did you come up with the name?
D: We had been throwing around options for a few weeks. One day, I happened to see the word roots in a friend’s textbook. It made total sense because we were getting into the shoe business—being connected to the ground and all of that. These were very earthy, hippie times.
Were you guys hippies?
D: Sure, we wore bell-bottoms and had the long hair and were radical. We were anti-war. We would join campus protests at Michigan State.
Would there be any files on you?
D: No, there’s no dirt there. We probably would have come to Canada if we had been drafted, but thankfully, we were both excused. Michael, because he was a teacher, and me, because the year I turned 18, Richard Nixon created the lottery system—my birthday was way in the back.
Hypothetically speaking, if the entire catalogue of Roots was on fire and you could only save one item, what would it be?
D: For me, I think it would still be that first Negative Heel shoe. That’s what started it all.
M: I’d like to save this factory. It’s the real DNA of Roots. People don’t realize that there are still companies that produce things in Canada.
I can remember when I was about 12, I would have killed a man to own the Roots bomber jacket with the white leather sleeves.
M: That’s the Awards jacket. It’s been a great success. We’ve done so many different styles. We made one for Wayne Gretzky during the Vancouver Olympics. He was given 23 jackets and he only wore ours for the entire week.
Ross Rebagliati was wearing the iconic Roots poorboy hat when he was chewing the medal. And then later, he was smoking the pot. Was that a good thing?
M: It was fantastic! First he won the first gold medal in the history of snowboarding, which was the hippest sport. He was on the front page of every newspaper in our hat, and then a day later, he was in jail and on the front page again. And then a few days later, he got out, got the medal back, and was on the [front page] again. It was a pretty good PR play. Ross is a terrific guy, though, and marijuana had no legal standing in the Olympics. It was not illegal.
Well, Don mentioned that you guys used to be hippies. So maybe…
M: …we were with him that night after he got his medal? Some people think so…
Care to comment?
M: Ha. He’s a great kid. But no [we weren’t there].
Roots was one of the early companies to explore the symbiotic relationship between celebrities and fashion brands.
M: It’s gone way over the edge these days. We attract talented people who come to Canada to make films and, sure, we love to expose them to our product, within reason. But I’m not big on gifting lounges and all that stuff.
Speaking of celebrities, I gather you used to throw some pretty epic TIFF benders back in the day. I read about the famous “White Nights” parties…
M: You’re going back too far. But yeah, we’ve been involved in some of the greatest parties. Those were in the coach house back behind the store on Pears Avenue.
True or false: Jack Nicholson showed up there for a late-night dance party.
M: That’s true. I just saw Jack Nicholson on the weekend in the Hamptons. He looks great.
1973: Roots is founded in Toronto.
1988: Jamaican bobsled team is given Roots jackets.
1996: Celebs like Jason Priestley wear Roots sweats in ad campaign.
1998: Canada’s Winter Olympic team wears Roots uniforms exclusively.
2002: British and American teams are also wearing Roots.
2009: Zach Galifianakis’s character defends his Roots satchel (“It’s not a man-purse”) in The Hangover.