The Big Chill: Canadian-Made Outerwear

A look behind the seams of three Canadian brands that prove you can still look cool while staying warm.

Canadians know cold weather. We swap war stories about winter storms and consider anything above zero T-shirt-appropriate. So when it comes to winter coats that function as more than fashion statements, it only makes sense for us to be at the top of our game. Most Canadians already know the big players: Canada Goose for their Arctic-ready (but Aspen-approved) parkas, Mackage for catwalk designs or Quebec’s Kanuk for their snowy-owl-stamped coats. Now a fresh crop of homegrown brands is creating the next generation of stylish outerwear, reinventing the winter coat using everything from machine-washable leather to English tweed, but all sharing a common thread: substance and style, in equal measure.

Sleet cred

Marissa Freed was born into the garment industry. Splitting her time between Toronto and Winnipeg, the 37-year-old is the fourth-generation owner and president of Freed & Freed, the clothier founded in 1921 by her great-grandfather. The company has been manufacturing garments in Winnipeg for nearly 100 years, beginning with boys’ knee pants (sold through T. Eaton mail order) and employing more than 750 locals in its prime. They’ve made uniforms and outerwear for everyone from VIA Rail to Canada Post and, most recently, dedicated some of their production capacity to an eponymous range of outerwear, FREED – the company’s first line under its own name, designed by Marissa Freed herself.

In 2009, the garment-industry heiress chose snow over sand when she returned to Winnipeg from a career in PR and marketing in Miami’s South Beach. A six-month post at the family business eventually became permanent as she took on more projects, from maximizing efficiency on the production line to chasing new contracts. “In some ways, I lucked out because I had a path laid out for me that had achieved a lot, and a father who had a huge amount of knowledge that I could draw from,” says Freed.

FREED & FREED jacket

FREED & FREED – Founded in 1921, the company’s history is an inspiration to its fourth-generation president.

Even with the family legacy, she had her work cut out for her when she joined. She was the only one of three siblings to work for the family business, and its future was uncertain. At that point it was subsisting mostly on contracts from the Canadian Armed Forces, and the staff had shrunk to fewer than 50 people. This was a stark change from the glory days of a company that went from a 745-square-metre factory in the 1920s to occupying an almost 15,000-square-metre space by 1981, and whose main source of business for decades was producing popular London Fog jackets and overcoats.

But Freed was determined to learn the business and seek out new opportunities, like the contract for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s new dress uniforms that she secured in 2011, the first of many significant partnerships.

The industry is growing patriotic; there is more of an appreciation for ‘made at home’ quality goods.” Marissa Freed, Freed & Freed

With her father, Stephen, retired after nearly four decades at the helm (he joined the company at 21), Freed is, well, free to steer the company into the future. Above all, she feels it is time to introduce the family name as a brand in its own right, recognizing that the company possesses something special that resonates with savvy consumers: its heritage. “The industry itself was growing more patriotic; there was more of an appreciation for ‘made at home’ quality goods,” says Freed. “So I felt we really had an opportunity because of our history in Canada.”

The next step was figuring out how to put a modern twist on the company’s time-tested outerwear. “People were very well-versed in the parka category when we first came out, and we were trying to take them back to wool. We explained that it’s added warmth without the added bulk, and we really focused on luxury. That was our clincher,” she says.

So how do FREED’s coats combat Canadian-calibre winters without the thick down we’ve been convinced is the only defence against sub-zero temperatures? Freed says the answer is a breathable membrane in all their coats that protects the wearer from wind and precipitation “without needing something puffy,” along with an optional snap-in/snap-out down vest that’s included with every coat.

The designs are a deliberate mix of classic and fashion-forward, like the Vancouver coat for women (most styles are named after Canadian cities and provinces), which comes in a classic red and black buffalo check in an exaggerated cape silhouette, with shells made from 100-percent British wool or English tweed. The latter is another nod to the brand’s history in outerwear: It was some 1960s-era English tweeds found in the rafters of the family’s factory that inspired the new design direction.

“We wanted to work with fabric that helped us explain our heritage take on the coats we were producing, so tweed and other wool blends allow us to tell that story,” says Freed. It’s a story that’s resonating with retailers and famous fans alike – the coats have been carried at Holt Renfrew and Pink Tartan and have been spotted on singer Andra Day and television host Cheryl Hickey.

Nobis jacket

Nobis – Founded in 2007 as a response to “parka fatigue” and shapeless, logo-heavy coats.

The lowdown

If FREED’s strong suit is its fierce family roots, Markham, Ontario-based Nobis’ forte is pairing leading technology with sophisticated design. Nobis, which is Latin for “us,” launched in 2007 as an answer to what vice-president Robin Yates describes as demand for an alternative to the puffy parka. Formerly the vice-president of Canada Goose, Yates understands past trends in winter wear and the ensuing parka fatigue – symptomatic of a market oversaturated with shapeless, logo-heavy coats built for northern expeditions, not urban lifestyles.

“[In my former job], I was part of conveying the message that you needed a jacket that could go to the deepest minuses, and that would validate the quality of the jacket. But quite the opposite is actually true,” he explains. “A jacket that is built exclusively for minus-40 conditions doesn’t function at all in the city, because minus 40 is completely arid and dry.”

Which is not to say that Nobis shies away from the fluffy stuff. Most of its coats have a premium down fill (it’s one of the only brands to use exclusively Canadian down, according to Yates) and are windproof, waterproof and breathable – suited not just for extreme cold, but also the slush, sleet and social demands of city life.

The details are where the quality and attention are apparent when slipping on a Nobis coat, as I do at their downtown Toronto flagship store. Tula, a double-breasted, belted dress parka, is a utilitarian take on a classic peacoat that has me feeling instantly polished and ready for after-work drinks. In the Cindy, with its slightly more “expedition” feel – multiple pockets and heavy elastic rib cuffs with thumbhole openings – I’m all set for a weekend at the chalet.

On Nobis coats, magnetic closures replace Velcro on the front, brilliantly eliminating annoying snags on finely knit sweaters. And discreet underarm zips allow for optional ventilation. A breathable free-hanging nylon lining limits the migration of down feathers onto the wearer’s clothes, while removable fur trims – and washable leather sleeves on the premium Sterling collection – provide the option of home laundering. It’s low-maintenance at its most luxurious.

“There was a checklist of things some of my former consumers weren’t that happy about, so this time I wanted to remove the smoke and mirrors and create a lighter, more fitted jacket,” says Yates, something they achieved by investing in the jacket both inside and out. One of those investments is invisible to the naked eye. Most Nobis coats have a laminated membrane called SympaTex, a German technology that uses osmosis (“the diffusion of solvent molecules from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration through a semi-permeable membrane until equal diffusion occurs,” explains Yates) to minimize heat loss while maintaining breathability. “This means that if you’re 90-percent humidity inside your jacket and it’s 10-percent humidity outside, this will breathe almost like a skin until it meets the outside temperature.”

Nobis is now sold in more than 40 countries worldwide, including Harrods in London and New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue, but you needn’t look beyond the snowy streets of Manhattan to spot a Nobis coat on famous fans like Kate Hudson, Charlie Hunnam and Rachel Weisz.

The Wild North jacket

The Wild North – Founded in 2014 with a mission to mix fashion, function and green materials.

Great green North

While Nobis’ raison d’être is the union of fashion and function, the Wild North’s goal is to create coats that are as eco-friendly as they are functional. Based in Oakville, Ontario, the Wild North was founded in 2014 by a group of outdoorsy friends and family led by Janet Han, a petite woman with a background in systems design engineering from the University of Waterloo. Passionate about everything from hiking to snowboarding, Han was consistently disappointed that she had to choose between high performance and style.

I noticed that one can have a fashionable jacket but it’s not very functional, or if it’s functional, it’s bulky and bland.” Janet Han, The Wild North

“I noticed that in the winter one can have a fashionable jacket but it’s not very functional, or if it’s functional most of the time it looks bulky, bland, one-colour and one-material,” she says. So she and a group of equally outdoorsy friends went to work designing coats, with an eye on sustainability from day one. “The Wild North” doesn’t just refer to Canada’s North, it’s also a nod to the wild fur used in many of the line’s designs. The brand consults periodically with Environment Canada and sources most if its fur from indigenous trappers in northern Canada, supporting multi-generational trapping families in the process.

Another choice made in the name of the environment: the use of cashmere and wool in the shells of Wild North coats instead of (much less expensive) synthetic alternatives like Gore-Tex and polyester. “Wool and cashmere are biodegradable and less harmful to the environment when constructed, including producing fewer emissions. Synthetic materials also tend to be less breathable,” says Han.

The Wild North’s focus may be functional and ethically made outerwear, but that doesn’t mean their coats are short on style. The brand cemented its fashionable status early on, showing its designs on the spring 2015 runway of Toronto and Men’s Fashion Week (where they sent the models down in coats and skivvies only) just a year after launching. “What it comes down to is, we wouldn’t have to forsake fashion, or choose between comfort and warmth,” says Nobis VP Yates. And Freed agrees: “Warmth is of the utmost importance, but beyond that it’s got to be stylish, because we spend six months in some form of outerwear.”

The only choice that remains, for chic but chilly Canadians? Which coat to buy.

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