‘Made in Canada’ or bust: Standing on guard for Canadian men’s wear
The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Jun. 30, 2016 4:04PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Jun. 30, 2016 4:04PM EDT
Six days a week Glen Viberg works the line at his Victoria factory, stitching leather, trimming soles and inspecting each pair of boots bearing his family’s name before they’re boxed and shipped. When Glen’s father, Ed, started making logging boots here in 1931 there was a thriving garment industry in Canada, with factories across the country cranking out everything from parkas to underwear. As anyone who has read the tag on a T-shirt or a pair of sneakers in the last few decades can attest, this is no longer the case. Now, thanks to free trade, cheap overseas labour and an ultra-competitive fashion market, made-in-Canada men’s wear is becoming a rarity. For Viberg and a handful of others, however, the Canadian men’s-wear industry may be a shadow of its former self, but it’s nowhere near dead.
“There are only two ways to do it,” says Brett Viberg, Glen’s son, who took over as CEO of Viberg Boots in 2008 and was faced with the challenge of boosting stagnant sales. “Either you do mass production and try to price compete with offshore,” he says. “Or you revamp your factory into a higher-end product.” Brett chose the latter route steering the company away from selling boots to lumberjacks and welders and reshaping Viberg as a high-end fashion brand. It would have been more profitable to move operations overseas, but aside from the fact that it would have put his dad out of a job, Brett Viberg’s pride in the family business prevailed. “If you’re going to try and make something that has your name on it there’s no way you’re going to put it into somebody else’s hands,” he says. “It’s a choice from the get-go.”
Viberg isn’t the only one who sees past the obstacles of producing Canadian-made men’s wear. When Meg Sinclair co-launched the brand Muttonhead in 2011, she had to fight against the prevailing wisdom that producing clothes in Canada didn’t make sense. “A lot of people said that it wasn’t really possible,”she says from Muttonhead’s Toronto studio, “So we wanted to prove them wrong.” Five years later, Muttonhead’s line of hipster-friendly sweats, outerwear and accessories has gained a small but enthusiastic following. All of Muttonhead’s apparel is made in Toronto and Vancouver, from domestic-produced textiles whenever possible. For Sinclair, a Ryerson University fashion graduate, supporting the Canadian garment industry was as important as making sure her clothes were being made exactly as she envisioned. “People who are making things overseas, they’re talking through middlemen, so there’s no real guarantee that the product you sent for production is going to come back what you wanted,” she says. “It’s a 20-minute drive for me to go and make sure things are being done to our specifications.”
For all of their idealism and commitment to quality, Canadian makers nonetheless find themselves in a difficult position: Customers love the idea of a shirt or a pair of boots made in their hometown, but they’re often unwilling to pay a premium for it. As a result, designers who produce their clothes here do so with the understanding that it doesn’t make a whole lot of business sense. “If a brand’s guiding principle is profit, domestic production is not a path that will deliver the highest returns,” says Alan Yiu, who studied apparel manufacturing management in Los Angeles before founding performance-outerwear brand Westcomb. The minimum daily wage in British Columbia, where all of Westcomb’s jackets and parkas are cut and sewn, is about $84. Compare that to China, where it’s $27.50 (U.S.) or Vietnam’s $6.70 (U.S.) and it’s not hard to understand why Yiu’s competitors choose to manufacture overseas. “Our retail prices aren’t more than double our competitors’,” he says. “As a result our profit is considerably less.”
Despite this, Yiu and a small cadre of like-minded entrepreneurs persist, keeping a close eye on quality and stoking the embers of Canada’s once-mighty garment business. While it’s unlikely Canadian men’s wear will ever exist on the same scale it once did, there is plenty of evidence that it will endure. Muttonhead will open a second retail store in Toronto this summer and has been featured in magazines like GQ and Nylon. After three years of steady growth, this year Westcomb is staking its future on a shift to a direct-to-consumer model, selling exclusively online.
When Brett Viberg took over his dad’s factory they were producing 6,500 pairs of boots. This year they’ll ship upwards of 9,000, produced from a new, larger facility and sold alongside top luxury brands at boutiques around the world. The brand is growing, but Viberg, like his compatriots, isn’t particularly motivated by growth. “Ultimately the payout is long term,” he says. “My dad says the same thing. He wouldn’t care if there were only three people working here, it doesn’t matter. What’s in your control is making stuff. Whether it’s big or small, it doesn’t change the way you think.”