Northern exposure

Aritzia's shop in Soho, New York

Canada has many assets – commodities, natural resources, space, poutines – but most people would not count fashion among them. Indeed, despite the fact that it is in better economic shape than most developed western nations, Canada is rarely mentioned when brand discussions turn to potential growth markets.

Yet this spring an 18,000 sq ft gauntlet is being thrown down on Fifth Avenue in New York courtesy of Joe Mimran, the Casablanca-born/Toronto-raised entrepreneur behind Joe Fresh, a low-priced men’s and women’s line of colourful separates and outerwear. It is just the beginning of what will turn into a tide of nearly a half dozen fashion brands from the north arriving or expanding south of the border before turning their sights across the ocean.

Yes, the Canadians are coming. And no, it’s not all lumberjack shirts and ice hockey jerseys. Their arrival marks a sense of maturity for retailers on both sides of the border. A decade ago, Canadian brands entering the US had a 20 per cent success rate, according to Wendy Evans, president of Toronto-based Evans & Company Retail Consultants. “But today’s companies are far more confident and smarter at competing against American retailers,” she adds. With the American retail landscape stuck in a downturn – and Canadian companies armed with cash – the time is now right to put this knowledge to use.

“Despite the current economic difficulties, American consumers remain hungry for something new,” says Mimran. “With fewer new players entering the market it’s actually easier to pierce consumer consciousness.” Especially when your currency is at record highs and US commercial real estate remains relatively inexpensive. Of course, with brands such as Club Monaco (which Mimran founded in 1985 and sold to Ralph Lauren in 1999) and Roots operating in the US for nearly two decades, Canadian fashion is hardly new to Americans. What is new, however, is the range of the current Canadian offering, its positioning and price.

Brands such as Joe Fresh and Aritzia, Evans explains, also understand that price alone won’t convert US consumers. “American brands will always beat Canadians in terms of cost, but these companies have a strong sense of design,” she says. “They are far more focused on doing what they do well – and my guess is that this new wave will be very successful.”

Joe Fresh was originally developed in partnership with Loblaw, the big Canadian retailer, and for its first half decade was sold exclusively at Loblaw-owned supermarkets across Canada. In 2010, the label branched out into branded, free-standing mega-boutiques – including a 14,000 sq ft Vancouver flagship – the better to showcase its $49 cashmere sweaters and $29 jeans. Then there’s Montreal-based M0851, whose new, 1,800 sq ft flagship in SoHo, New York, showcases the brand’s high-quality leather and woollen luggage, jackets and accessories in a white-walled, gallery-like space. And though Toronto outerwear specialist Canada Goose may be already sold in department stores such as Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue, it is expanding its offerings via partnerships with luxury cashmere king Loro Piana and Japanese designer Yuki Matsuda. The dense-wool coats, parkas and vests embellished with zippers and snaps in bright colours and subtle herringbone patterns start at $550 and quickly rise.

Between Joe Fresh and Canada Goose is Aritzia, the women’s wear company from Vancouver that opened a US flagship last summer following a more modest test run on the West Coast. Decorated with clubby leather chairs and raw wooden walls, the 10,000 sq ft SoHo space stocks contemporary casual and sports wear priced between $50 and $300. And finally, from Newfoundland, comes Rigor, which has recently added a capsule collection of leather accessories and heavy alpaca wool sweaters to its weather-resistant, waxed-cotton coats and jackets specifically to target US consumers. Like Canada Goose, Rigor is designed and made in Canada, with products priced between $55 and $750. Based on the same fabrications used to create traditional fisherman’s clothing and trawler sails, Rigor designs “come with roots, with a story that consumers can appreciate,” says founder Karen Pottle. “They give the buyer an immediate sense of ownership.”

As to whether such narrative will have resonance south of the border and beyond, both Canada Goose and M0851 are already available in Europe, where the former’s fur-trimmed, parka-like Arctic Program products are its bestsellers. At M0851, meanwhile, marketing director Faye Mamarbachi says the brand, which is available at department stores such as Galeries Lafayette and Japan’s Takashimaya, plans to open 24 international shops in the next few years. For his part, Mimran views Joe Fresh’s American debut not just as a means to court US consumers but as a way to cultivate a true international following from the retail world’s highest-profile launch pad.

“We want to grow in an aggressive manner and we’ve already received interest from many potential international partners,” says Mimran, whose slim cords, faux shearling vests and silk skirts have proven particularly popular in the US. “New York provides immediate international exposure. That’s the power of this city; it’s much easier here than in Toronto.”


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