Made in Canada? No way. WAY.

November 28, 2008 · Print This Article

Jack’s feature in National Post “Elevate” Magazine

Recognize any of these “Made in Canada” brands? Nomis? Sandbox? Ursus? In a world gone big box, small labels target niche markets. And that’s just the way many winter sport companies and their status-conscious customers, predominantly young male devotees of board sports, like it. Until deep-pocketed transnational players like Helsinki-based Amer Sports, the world’s largest manufacturer of sporting equipment, or second-ranked adidas of Germany, come calling, of course.

A decade ago, brands like Option, West Beach or Arc’teryx would have drawn blank stares had you name-dropped them into an après-ski conversation. Fast forward at light speed. These days, whether standing in a lift line at St. Moritz or skinning up in the Colorado backcountry, you’re as likely to see these brands as Burton or Descente.

At first glance, the sea change in global appreciation for our manufacturing cred wasn’t so apparent to the Canadian buying public. Namely, that the “Made in Canada” label had developed a powerful currency when selling into the world market. Thanks to a commitment of excellence by a core group of homegrown designer-builders, the True North now enjoys a monster reputation for quality. That’s indisputably true in the winter sport industry. Ask a Swiss ice climber about Vancouver-based Arc’teryx’s Quiver, a three-point assault pack designed for lapping up the backcountry. The response would likely be, “This product is extremely high-standard, of course, because it’s made in Canada.”

It’s been a long time –– maybe never –– since there was such a proliferation of Canadian companies manufacturing winter outdoor gear. Hands up. Who remembers when Seattle-based K2 skis were crafted this side of the 49th parallel? Those Made in Canada-labelled sticks featured revolutionary fiberglass-wrapped wooden cores –– maple, naturally. Such were the pre-NAFTA glory decades.

These days, you don’t have to scratch too deeply to find homemade brands. One such national label is the 2.8 million-member-strong Mountain Equipment Co-op brand. Last year, 30 per cent of MEC products were sourced locally, with 37 per cent from China, and the remainder spread between 14 countries worldwide.

An example of a more recent micro-scale market entry is Nomis. Just as form is an extension of content, the cut of these clothes is an extension of the designer’s lifestyle: relaxed fit for uninhibited movement. Just ask Simon (Nomis spelled backward) Chamberlain. Three years ago, the Squamish, British Columbia-based snowboarder began carving a name for himself, particularly in Japan. Encouraged by fans, he and brother Mat decided to cash in on the burgeoning niche apparel market. No drab browns and beiges for these rippers. Bring on the plaid. The madder the better. Chamberlain’s reward? California-based, alt-sport media king Transworld Snowboarding magazine just chose Nomis as one of this winter’s “Nine Looks for 09.” Watch for the Nomis one-piece (!) snowsuit due out later this year.

Herewith are a downy mitt full of west coast maple leaf manufacturers. Give a cheer for the True North strong and fleecy.

1. Evolution in action: Arc’teryx Equipment

Harness your brand and hitch it to a 150 million-year-old star. That was the thinking in 1989 when two North Vancouver climbing partners, David Lane and Jeremy Guard, founded what swiftly evolved into Arc’teryx Equipment two years later.

Fresh out of the blocks, the duo’s debut offering, a climbing harness device hang-tagged the “Skaha No Slip Buckle” garnered influential Climbing magazine’s top rating. Successive gear awards for everything from form-fitting snowsport backpacks to fleece hoodies pillowed up like snowdrifts. The company’s logo, the fossilized image of an ancient archaeopteryx, the first bird species to evolve from the dinosaurs, quickly gained broader recognition.

After securing shelf space nationally in Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) stores, as well as in a string of smaller but no less influential retailers across Western Canada, such as Whistler’s Escape Route and Banff’s Monod Sports, success followed in the US market, where North American outdoor industry wars are won or lost. Further triumphs came in Europe and, more recently, in Asia. Last year, Arc’teryx’s sales pie split four ways: 15 per cent here at home, 45 in the US, 30 in Europe and 10 in Asia-Pacific countries.

Whether producing high-end harnesses or all-weather, all-season outdoor gear, the company’s credo has remained consistent: evolution in action. Current president Tyler Jordan, a self-described deuce-of-all-trades guy, joined Arc’teryx as an administrator in 1993. Today, at a spry 38 years of age, he heads a staff of 400 spread between the head office in North Vancouver and a manufacturing facility in nearby Burnaby. Jordan insists that Arc’teryx’s aim was never to be in the marketing business. “Branding has always been part of our strategy,” he says. “However, that branding was accomplished through R&D and making the best products for the core user, as opposed to the pure marketing/style play some other companies choose.” Feedback from a team of 150 core users ensures it remains true to its roots as a product performance company.

Left alone to chart its own course after being taken over earlier this decade by adidas-Salomon and, more recently, by Amer two years ago, Arc’teryx, the little company built on ripstock fabric and taped seams, returned to its Vancouver North Shore roots in 2006. Long holed up on a franchise-heavy stretch of highway in East Vancouver, Arc’teryx headed home to where the spirit of the mountains first inspired Lane and Guard. It helps that just about everyone involved with the West Coast outdoors industry, from longboard to sit-ski companies, lives, works and breathes the same high-octane ambience of North Shore ocean breezes, evergreen forests, and snowy peaks.

As the alpha leader of our maple leaf survey, Arc’teryx gives as much respect as it gets. Alliances with kindred outdoors groups, such as the US-based Access Fund, the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and the Alpine Club of Canada, don’t just bear fruit of the warm, fuzzy kind. Such partnerships yield valuable feedback on the merits of new products, such as the Naos backpack, acclaimed by Backpacker magazine as the most pioneering design seen in decades.

Jordan is quick to tender his respect to other industry leaders, like MEC, whom he especially lauds for their social agenda, as well as the small retailers who showcase what the outdoor recreation industry in Canada can do. These are the folks who cater to those who squirrel away their loonies to buy high-quality equipment for use close to home. Can Do, indeed.

2. Make like a snowboard and split: Prior Snowboard Manufactory

Gear doesn’t get more core than a backcountry splitboard. It took veteran board shaper Chris Prior, reigning Canadian national windsurfing champion, to build one. Then build a company –– a manufactory, no less –– whose decks have tweaked the way snowboarders adventure in the white world –– specifically, in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. This only makes sense, given that Whistler Mountain’s west bowls beam down on Prior headquarters in the resort’s industrial-strength ‘hood, Function Junction.

Small wonder that Prior’s main challenge is not simply recruiting skilled staff but keeping them in the shop on big powder days. All in the name of R&D. One can hardly fault the lads for being passionate about their product. This is one company that doesn’t sponsor a team –– the dozen-strong staff, anchored by Chris and general manager Dean Thompson, are the team.

The splitboard embryo hatched when Utah-based ski binding manufacturers Voilé began promoting an idea only visionary gear heads could wrap their minds around. Slice a snowboard in half lengthwise to create a pair of touring skis. Mount adjustable plate bindings on them. Apply skins. Pole uphill, then securely latch the skis together as one. Voilà! Your snowboard awaits.

Far-fetched as the concept sounded, Prior demonstrated it actually worked. Big time. As proof, the first board they made is still on display in the shop. Subsequent models of split and regular boards have flowed out the company’s doors ever since. Dealer orders from a dozen countries keep production humming in the off-season. When snowflakes fly, direct orders fill the company’s inbox. Though the US is by far the strongest market, email requests have arrived from over 50 countries, such as Russia and Poland, since going online in 2000. There’s a good chance that even if riders haven’t come eye-to-eye with the company logo –– a regal lion’s head –– globally they’ve heard the name Prior.

As the pursuit of fresh tracks in the backcountry continues to lure freeriders, splitboards offer an alternative for snowboarders who, until the dawn of the splitboard, snowshoed or trekked uphill in their boots to bag fresh tracks. Longer, heavier and stiffer than most snowboards, splitboards are designed for deep powder. Some Prior models feature a swallow-tail design that allows for even smoother handling. In view of continual diversification, the binding system fits plastic mountaineering, telemark, randonnée, or other types of crampon-compatible boots.

First came splitboards. Next up? Wait for it –– skis. Crystal ball or not, it would have been hard to see this seismic shift coming. What drove snowboarders to give skis a chance? It helped that some of Chris Prior’s long-time friends, such as legendary Canadian downhill racer Rob Boyd, were skiers first, snowboarders second. Then came the post-modern, twin-tipped ski revolution kindled high on British Columbia’s Blackcomb Mountain’s summer glacier camps in the late 1990s. There was no surer sign that skiing had become cool again than a snowboard maker like Prior beginning to market a line of skis specifically designed for big mountain conditions.

What’s next? Prior just forged an alliance with the Canadian Snowboard Federation’s boardercross squad. A prototype board was road-tested by the team while training in Chile this fall. The challenge to come up with new shapes, different side cuts and nose designs is clearly what keeps Prior’s creative drive alive.

3. Building skiing’s future through action and design: SMS Clothing

During the freestyle ski explosion of the 1980s, John Smart of Lions Bay, British Columbia, was one of the kings of the mountain. Since 1992, the two-time Olympian and Canadian Ski Hall of Famer has run Momentum mogul summer ski camps on Blackcomb Mountain’s Horstman Glacier. That’s where budding stars, like Jennifer Heil, honed their mogul-handling skills. Momentum camps also happened to be the crucible for the new-school style, led by coaches Mike Douglas and Shane Szocs, that swept skiing back into the realm of global cool in the late 1990s.

Like all revolutionaries, Smart saw a need to draw attention to these new technical skills with eye-catching outfits. As one of the first Canadian companies to design clothing for the freeride market, it’s no coincidence that by 2000, SMS began staking out a niche on the front lines of ski culture. Then, as now, the company’s strength has been in creating designs that appeal to youth –– no easy feat. And since the tastes of young consumers hold an overarching influence on a much broader demographic, it was no surprise when the SMS brand attracted everyone from tweeners to aging boomers.

From SMS headquarters in Whistler, Smart oversees a team of five, plus a dozen regional sales reps. He’s quick to credit house designer Charles Bedard as the most important person on staff. During its formative years, SMS was content to manufacture a limited line of goods in Vancouver purely for Momentum’s coaches and campers. Inspired by the fashion sense of fellow Canadian manufacturers Orage and tech-savvy Arc’teryx, Smart gambled that SMS could take outerwear to a higher level. The company’s millennium-era credo became: building skiing’s future through action and design.

As much as he saw major players like The North Face and Helly Hansen begin marketing to the new-school ski crew, Smart’s confidence grew as he realized SMS styles were just as readily poaching converts from the ranks of snowboarders. As proof, former Canadian Olympic snowboarder –– and long-time Burton rider –– Darren Chalmers joined freeride-movement legend Vince Dorian on the SMS team.

Beyond Canadian slopes, SMS apparel now competes with the likes of DNA and Spyder for market share in the US, Sweden and the UK. Core materials are typically two-layer, breathable nylon/poly in an exuberant range of colours: from bright lime with a collage of brain-teasing images scribed everywhere to orange and teal Congo prints. About as far from the mountains as you can get.

Quick. Grab your Vuarnets. Neon can’t be far behind. This time around, though, all those tweeds and linens won’t be stitched together. In 2009, SMS will roll out a new outerwear line featuring sonic welding: seamless seams with a seam tape underside. Standard features this winter include a snooker table’s worth of pockets, cuff squeegees for wet mountain conditions, insulated pant seats for chilly days on the kickers, pod and cell stashes, ripcord pant savers, even a Star Wars-inspired Vader Vent, a collar vent designed to prevent goggles from fogging up. Seeing clearly is critical, especially when you’ve taken responsibility for building skiing’s bright, made-in-Canada future.

4. Free your heels, free your mind: G3 Genuine Guide Gear

Free your heels, free your mind. That’s the mantra of both telemark and alpine touring (AT) skiers. It’s also the exact crew North Vancouver’s Genuine Guide Gear –– better known as G3 –– caters to. Oliver Steffen founded G3 in 1994. Since then, the former Palmer Jarvis advertising executive has patiently established his company’s reputation for manufacturing bombproof gear, first with probe poles, then bindings, and now skis.

As a kid, Steffen honed his ski skills in Quebec’s Laurentians. After graduating from McGill University with a commerce degree in entrepreneurship, he headed west. Lean times prompted him to seek low-cost thrills, so he backcountry toured on telemark skis. A fateful visit to Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) set him on a new career path. Shocked by the price of European-made avalanche probes, he hand built one from a set of Easton hard-anodized aluminium tent poles. In a blindly naive moment, he approached MEC, whose buyers ordered 250 on the spot at half the cost of the imports. Today, G3 makes nine different types of poles, including a newly-released carbon fibre model. Steffen estimates his company sells the most probes of any North American company.

As crucial US market support surged, Steffen seized the opportunity to develop new products for the burgeoning backcountry ski market. Steffen knew reliability issues in the backcountry were critical and that being stranded because a cracked or broken part wasn’t just unacceptable, it was catastrophic.

With an eye for quality, he identified bindings as the sport’s Achilles. Plastic shell boots, first introduced in the early 1990s and designed for both telemark and alpine touring, boosted levels of control and power.

The amount of energy these new four-buckle boots could put into a ski was considerable. Steffen began tinkering with a rock-solid binding that could withstand the increased pressure from newer boots. Designed with aerospace-grade aluminum and stainless steel, his Targa bindings made their debut in 1997 and proved to be the answer. Aggressive skiers quickly found that no matter how hard they pushed the high-tech product, it wasn’t going to break. That’s the unspoken part of freeing your mind.

These days, the market for G3 gear is no longer limited to telemarkers. Those who head into the backcountry, whether on snowshoes, snowboards or AT skis, typically come prepared for some serious hiking. Climbing skins are invaluable. Avalanche probe poles, shovels, and assorted safety gear are must-haves. To that end, G3 currently employs 15 front line staff and a production team of 25 technicians.

In 2004, Steffen determined the time was ripe to introduce skis to the G3 quiver. He recruited renowned ski and ski boot developer Paul Parker, a backcountry savant with a knack for innovation and excellence. Together, they designed a line of big mountain, freeride skis featuring a smooth, round solid flex, with both AT and telemark skiers in mind. This year’s lineup features eight different models, characterized as responsive and reliable, solid and predictable, wide yet versatile in all types of snow.

Despite a recent softening in the telemark market, alpine touring is experiencing rapid growth. With sales doubling annually, G3 remains one of the most respected names in the business. In September, Steffen headed south to Argentina to test drive the latest edition to the company portfolio: an alpine touring binding. Due out in January 2009, this will be the first AT binding to be produced in North America, set to challenge current models, such as Swiss-made Fritschi, for market share.

Although only a relatively small number of skiers pursue telemarking and AT, G3 has prospered by manufacturing and marketing over 150 products, all of which appeal to this select group. As Steffen enjoys pointing out, if G3 makes gear good enough for the guiding community, many of whom spend upwards of 300 days a year on snow, the public will genuinely like it too.

Vancouver based writer-broadcaster Jack Christie ( is the author of 17 adventure guides, including The Whistler Book (Greystone).


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