If he’d had his way, Dani Reiss would be writing short stories in Southeast Asia. Instead, he’s the reason why the Canada Goose logo has become synonymous with winter in Toronto. Meet the reluctant mastermind behind Canada’s international parka empire.
When Dani Reiss roamed the halls of Forest Hill Collegiate Institute in the late 1980s, no one would have voted him “Most Likely to Run an Incredibly Successful (Verging on Frighteningly Ubiquitous) Global Fashion Brand.” Now 39, and the president and CEO of outerwear monolith Canada Goose, he’s in the middle of a fiscal year when revenues are up by 40 per cent—totalling more than $150 million—and still feeling the afterglow of the kind of winning streak that normally resides only in the fanciful dreams of company heads.
In January, Canada Goose became the official outerwear sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival, ground zero for attractive Hollywood celebs trying to look cool in sub-zero weather. It’s now standard practice for stars like Daniel Radcliffe to effuse about Reiss’s parkas—he even requested one for his mother. (Harry Potter’s review at Sundance: “Your jackets are impossibly warm and impossibly light!”)
Last month, the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue—not typically known for espousing the virtues of winter parkas—featured the intrepid supermodel Kate Upton posing in Antarctica, wearing a Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber (retail price: $595), a pair of white bikini bottoms, and a come-hither look. It’s a preposterously positive way for Reiss to kick off 2013 and, sitting in a boardroom in his luxe new headquarters near Eglinton Avenue and Caledonia Road, he clearly enjoys reliving the moment he discovered his product was going to occupy this valuable piece of pop-culture real estate.
“Sports Illustrated called and told us they wanted some stuff for a shoot,” he explains. Reiss speaks quickly to begin with, and as he relates the story, he picks up speed. “We didn’t know where it would go, we didn’t know we’d get the cover. We didn’t even know we’d get into the magazine.” In order to generate hype for its mid-winter fantasy, SI waits until the last possible moment each year to unveil the cover on Letterman. “I saw it online, and I said, ‘Get the fuck out of here. That’s amazing.’”
Opened last August in the refurbished former home of Hilroy school supplies, the next-gen Canada Goose offices feel like a combination boutique hotel, ski chalet, and Arctic base-camp—a stylish manifestation of its recent success. As you walk in, a mini timeline (“The Gestalt of the Goose”) traces the company history. There’s a state-of-the-art gym, where the young workforce (nearly half of the 67 office staffers are millennials) can exercise on their own or take a boot-camp class each Wednesday. The dress code is sporty casual—even Reiss is wearing jeans. A 1,300-square-foot showroom features exposed hickory and walnut, and a wall-size aerial photo of Alaskan dogsledding champ/brand ambassador Lance Mackey doing his thing in the snowy tundra hangs in the kitchen/dining area. It’s a reminder of the company’s mantra: Winter can get damn cold, and we make jackets that keep people in the Arctic alive. (So it’s a no-brainer that you’ll at least stay toasty in Toronto.)
“One of my proudest moments was moving in here,” says Reiss. “This is a space that’s representative of the culture, the brand, and who we are in a real, authentic way.” The married father of two says he’s worked obsessively to get to this stage. In the past 10 years, the company’s annual revenue has grown by 3,500 per cent. But back in the heyday of Brian Mulroney, Whitney Houston, and “conspicuous consumption,” the notion of Reiss eventually being in charge of this operation was unthinkable.
For one thing, he had no interest in the product, despite—or, perhaps, due to—growing up surrounded by it. His grandfather, Sam Tick, founded Metro Sportswear in 1957. When Reiss was in high school, the owner-CEO of Metro was his father, David, who focussed his efforts on private-label manufacturing for brands such as Eddie Bauer, L.L.Bean, and Timberland. The down-filled parkas the company made for police officers, oil-rig workers, film crews, mechanics on runways in the north—basically, occupations forced into the cold—were more of a sideline, released under the moniker Snow Goose.
As a teenager, Reiss had part-time jobs in various departments—inventory, packing, shipping, filling the jackets with down—but it wasn’t as though he was discovering his true calling or becoming possessed by the beauty of quality outerwear. There was certainly no parental pressure to take over the family business. In fact, his mother and father advised him to be a doctor, lawyer, or teacher: “My parents always told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do this. Do something else; this is going to kill you.’”
Reiss wasn’t feeling the whole brand thing either, which in his eyes was quite prevalent at Forest Hill. In Grade 11, he decided to transfer to an alternative school at St. Clair and Old Weston Road, where “there were no 16-year-olds driving BMWs.” Reiss also began to cut the alligator labels off his Lacoste shirts. “I never used to be into brands. I perceived it all as marketing and smoke and mirrors bullshit, people just trying to sell you their stuff. The status-symbol thing at the time didn’t resonate with me…which is ironic, given where we are today.”
A few feet above him, emblazoned on the ceiling of his boardroom, is an image of the Canada Goose logo.
Signs of winter in Toronto:
1. Constant anxiety about the Maple Leafs.
2. Passenger panic on the TTC the morning after a snowstorm.
3. The Canada Goose logo.
You see it everywhere: the PATH, dentists’ waiting rooms, Justin Trudeau’s family Christmas card. It’s like a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except the “pod people” are now “goose people.” Even if you’d like to, for some five months a year you can’t avoid the official-looking puck-sized patch: 10 red maple leaves around the circumference, a stylized map of the Arctic, and the authoritative-sounding text, “Canada Goose Arctic Program.” (There’s no such thing as an official “Canada Goose Arctic Program,” but researchers at the U.S. National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica have been wearing the parkas for 20 years.)
The inevitable—if ultimately futile—backlash against the brand’s visibility was given somewhat clever poetic expression in a recently posted, shot-in-Toronto YouTube video called “Goose Goose Duck.” Sample rap-parody lyrics: “Everyone in T-Dot wears the same damn coat / Is it cheap? Nope—800 bucks / It’s Canuck…I go to Yonge and Eg when the sales day’s done, they’ve sold 99 jackets and they’re all the same one.”
This is nothing like the omnipresence of McDonalds or Starbucks. Reiss is selling premium outerwear at upscale outlets like Harry Rosen and Holt Renfrew; in the U.K., the brand is available at Harrods. It’s no coincidence that Reiss’s jackets aren’t found at Walmart, or that the Canada Goose Coat Check, a free service that’s offered at Raptor and Leaf home games—where spectators can try on various designs and find out where to buy them—is offered only in the Air Canada Centre’s Platinum and courtside sections. The product is made in Canada (at a 170-employee factory just a few hundred metres away from the head office, and at a facility in Winnipeg)—so the labour doesn’t come as cheap as it would in Asia. His jackets are filled with duck and goose down often produced in Hutterite communities in Alberta, where the fowl are allowed to mature longer than most. Again, that ups the cost. If you want to join this club, it’ll cost you at least $600.
And make no mistake—it is a club, verging on a cult. The Canada Goose slogan (penned by Reiss) is “Ask anyone who knows.” In theory (and in practice), those who “know” proselytize to those who don’t about the jacket’s functionality, kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory about “connectors”—only those doing the connecting are wearing toasty-warm parkas. And when two people who “know” meet on the street—both of them already sporting the logo—they share their clubby, insider knowledge of what it’s like to be truly, finally warm in the godforsaken cold. “They see the logo, so they talk to each other,” says Reiss. “I think ‘Ask anyone who knows’ still applies, even though way more people know now.”
The kid who scoffed at prestige brands is now the man responsible for creating a full-on status symbol.
After high school, Reiss continued to blanch at the prospect of joining the winter-jacket trade. “I never wanted to have my parents give me a job. I didn’t want to be one of those guys. I always wanted to do my own thing.” An MBA was never in the cards. Reiss spent a year travelling around Europe, living in his car and learning how to drive standard on the Champs-Élysées. (“There are some places where you shouldn’t stall a car.”) After returning home, he worked for a while running a sports-pool stats business with some friends, then wound up studying English at the University of Toronto’s Woodsworth College. He discovered Canadian short stories, especially Alice Munro’s work, and was inspired by the magic realists, most notably Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Reiss’s vague (and potentially not very lucrative) post-college plan to head to Southeast Asia in 1997 and write short stories himself was put on hold when his father suggested he spend three months at the company to save some money for the trip.
“I worked there with the intention of leaving after that,” he says. “Honestly, the first month sucked. I didn’t like it. My dad said I had to wear a suit and show up at 8:30 in the morning.” Reiss’s first task was to solicit sales from various northern airlines in need of jackets for bush pilots. That’s when his 180-degree turnaround on brands—or, more specifically, his father’s brand—happened.
Reiss got up to speed on the competition, and sussed out the industry landscape. “I learned the stories about the people who lived in the north, and the bush pilots, the people who said, ‘You make the greatest jackets, I couldn’t live here without them.’ We get all kinds of letters, and reading them convinced me there’s something real here that means something to people. I’m a storyteller, and I like meaning, and it was there. I used to think my dad’s jackets were like widgets, just things. But they weren’t.”
His responsibilities grew. The three-month gig stretched into four years, and in 2001, his father stepped aside. At the age of 27, Reiss became the company’s president and CEO.
“The reason I wanted to stay is, I got excited,” he says. “I’m the kind of person, when I went to school, I did really well on the stuff I liked, and didn’t do well on the stuff I didn’t like. I saw an opportunity. I saw a world that was full of what I considered to be fake brands. And I saw a lot of people who thought our jackets were awesome.” For the English graduate without any formal business training, that would prove to be enough raw material to write a new kind of Canadian story.
Canada Goose isn’t the first brand to use Great White North imagery to help push product. That tactic stretches from the successful (the classic Hudson’s Bay Company blanket; Roots’s outdoor aesthetic) to the saccharine (hockey-themed ads for Tim Hortons) to the slightly puzzling (CBC’s underwhelming “Canada Lives Here” motto; the tiny maple leaf on the Mr. Sub logo).
But Reiss is remarkably adept at making Canadiana the focus of his marketing arsenal. He understands the importance of selling a story as well as a product, and his narrative revolves—relentlessly—around how “real” and “authentic” the connection is between Canada Goose and its namesake nation: a coat and the infinite Arctic expanse, linked for decades through company history. In practically every interview he does, he compares the provenance of his jackets to the Swiss watch. You want a watch made in Switzerland; obviously, you’ll want a parka made here. If you listen to him long enough, you might actually start to believe that Canada is the only place in the world where a decent parka could be manufactured, and that, in fact, it might be your patriotic duty to buy a coat that costs several hundred dollars.
By the time Reiss assumed control, the company’s private-label contracts had almost completely evaporated; much of that work had gone offshore to Asia. He decided that the way forward was to focus on building his own down filled–parka brand, and keep the manufacturing in Canada—probably not a strategy that would’ve been endorsed in most MBA programs.
“People said that Canadians wouldn’t care, but I knew Europeans really cared about the jackets being made here: They love the mythology of Canada, the Arctic, wide-open spaces, the polar bear. I figured if we could make ‘made in Canada’ desirable, if we could stick around for five years, we’d be the only one left.”
The brand was already known in Europe as Canada Goose. He ditched the “Snow Goose” handle for North America and named the entire operation after the migrating bird that appeared on our centennial silver dollar. He also ramped up the importance of design, melding function with fashion—thereby enabling the jackets to gain traction in urban centres.
And while the company’s ur-myth revolves around Canada, there’s also some savvy guerrilla marketing happening here that has little to do with images of the Arctic or polar bears. When the product launched in Copenhagen, for example, Reiss made sure that bouncers at prominent nightclubs were wearing Canada Goose jackets. Near-hypothermic club-goers waiting in line in the freezing Danish weather would look on longingly.
He doesn’t spend much on advertising, and is adamantly opposed to product placement. “I look at a magazine, and I’m reading it, and I see ads and I know that this company is trying to sell me their shit. Why would I believe them?” Again, it comes back to authenticity: Why spend money to shill when your consumers do the word-of-mouth advertising for you?
In the new HQ, close to the front entrance, sits Hollywood North, a boardroom where the walls are covered with photos of people like Matt Damon, Daniel Craig, and Scarlett Johansson getting their Goose on. (Although he doesn’t have a U.S. passport, cold-weather president Vladimir Putin is included, too.) “Canada Goose, thank you,” reads the message scrawled on a brooding Jake Gyllenhaal headshot.
Even if you’re an über-Canadian company, it never hurts to have American celebrities expressing gratitude and parading your wares. That’s not innovative, it’s just Marketing 101.
But Reiss doesn’t seem especially interested in having personal access to stars, or any fame he might have accrued over the past decade. “If Canada Goose were a person, it’d be a really famous person. I’m not a famous person.”
He gets more energized discussing his plans for the future, which include new-product development, and growth in both existing and emerging markets. Now in 44 countries worldwide, Canada Goose recently launched in South Korea, and Reiss has his sights set on China.
“There’s a certain part of what’s happened that I think is unbelievable. That it’s all happened is very fortuitous, and amazing. We’ve got to pinch ourselves. But the other side of it is, this is what we’ve tried to do. This is by design.”
Grateful, but no false humility. To use a jock comparison, he’s copping the attitude of Canada’s 2010 Winter Olympic team—not competing against the world just for fun, but aiming to win. “I believe that we are a brand at the very beginning of our growth curve, believe it or not. There’s so much runway left.”
The haters might hate; this level of ubiquity isn’t for everyone. But get used to it—that patch is going to be seen on our streets for a long, long time to come.