Birds of a Feather Flock Together: Canada Goose Jackets

by Jaden Young | 1/17/18 2:20am

A new bird has migrated south for the winter, settling in snowy Hanover: Canada Goose. The Canadian outerwear brand’s parkas are the coat of choice for many Dartmouth students braving the harsh New Hampshire winter. While warmth and practicality may seem to be the clear drivers of this trend, the high costs of these parkas may lend new meaning to their popularity.

The company traces its origins to 1957, when it was founded as Metro Sportswear Ltd. In those early days it outfitted Canadian police departments and municipal workers who worked outdoors often. In recent decades the company has seen massive growth as it has shifted its business model to provide high-end, Canada-made outerwear to the public.

Its coats have been seen on celebrities from model Kate Upton to rapper Drake, and their reliable warmth has made them the brand of choice for people from Arctic researchers to Hollywood crews filming on location in cold regions. The first Canadian to summit Mt. Everest, Laurie Skreslet, did so wearing Canada Goose. And for anyone who’s walked across the Green in the last few months, it’s clear the brand’s popularity has spread to Dartmouth.

To art history professor Jane Carroll, these popular parkas lie at the intersection between fashion and function. The brand’s signature blue, white and red “Canada Goose Arctic Program” patch mimics the branding of companies like Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana. The logo is meant to communicate something about who the wearer is, Carroll said.

“In a sense you become a billboard for them,” she said. “You become that person that shows ‘I have taste,’ and it’s a mutual agreement between you. You carry or wear these things and it shows the taste and culture that you want to portray, and at the same time, you are supposed to, in your élan and the way you put yourself together, enhance the brand that you are wearing.”

But Canada Goose, she said, does branding slightly differently.

“Canada Goose is fascinating because it has that big patch on the arm, so you always know who’s wearing it, but wearing it, I think, brands you as practical, which is the most interesting, non-fashion way of thinking of branding,” Carroll said. “This is saying, ‘I understand cold, I am coping with it, and I have spent a lot of money to cope with it.’ So, what this does is it labels you as spending your money on practical things, but still, spending a lot of money.“

The easily recognizable branding, according to Carroll, is only part of the Canada Goose phenomenon. The coats carry with them very specific connotations.

“There’s a long tradition of using coats— something that you wear out in the open, not just with friends, so it’s seen by a wider crowd rather than those cognoscenti in our inner circle,” she said. “The trench coat, for example, which dates back to World War I, was worn only by officers, and had connotations, therefore, of both practicality and elitism. I think the Canada Goose comes closer to the trench coat than it does to branded designer garb.”

Ruben Gallardo ’18 has had his red Canada Goose parka since December 2016, when he needed to replace a winter jacket he had outgrown.

“I decided to get it because I liked the practicality of it,” he said. “It’s really warm, so that’s number one. It’s forever trendy, if you think about it; it’s simple enough that you can wear it everywhere, and it’s also simple enough that you can’t really see it falling out of fashion anytime soon.”

For Gallardo, the versatility of the parka’s simple design placed it in a category above similarly warm coats from other outdoor retailers.

“If you need to go somewhere super cold, you can just throw this jacket on and it looks pretty fly,” he said. “That’s what made me get it. It’s very simple. The quality of the jacket speaks for itself.”

The warmth and reliability of his parka is vital to Gallardo, who is no novice when it comes to winter weather — he hails from Chicago.

“It was like -30 [degrees Fahrenheit] when I left home in the beginning of the year,” he said. 

Hannah Wilczynski ’20 purchased her parka four years ago, before the trend was in full force, to combat the cold.

“I went to a school in Connecticut — a boarding school — so a lot of people had them, and it’s like Dartmouth, super cold there,” she said. “I needed a good winter coat and that was what my friend recommended to me.”

Wilczynski’s parka is black, and despite it being a very common color, she prizes the parka’s versatility.

“When I was choosing mine I didn’t know if I wanted black or red,” Wilczynski said. “But, I went with black because it’s kind of like an investment piece, if you will— I use it year after year.

Wilczynski isn’t alone in viewing the pricey parkas as investment pieces.

“Once I leave Dartmouth I’m probably going to keep using it until it falls apart, which hopefully is a while from now,” Gallardo said.

This stylish outerwear, however, is not without controversy. Animal rights activists have taken aim at the brand for its use of animal products; most of its signature parkas are filled with duck down, with hoods lined with coyote fur.

And with the exorbitant costs of their parkas, Canada Goose outfits a very particular clientele.

“When they first came on the scene, which was a couple years ago, people really didn’t know right away what the cost was,” Carroll said. “They looked like well-tailored, extremely well put-together coats that were practical, and it was only as the information sort of seeped through the campus and society at large that I think it was understood that these coats are also extremely expensive, and that put another spin on them.”

With prices ranging from $450 to nearly $1,500, the cost of Canada Goose parkas makes them an unrealistic luxury for many.

At Dartmouth, a school where roughly half of students receive no financial aid, these recognizable jackets may be a highly visible reminder of real class divisions — to some, a status symbol.

Carroll suspects the high price, paired with the parkas’ ubiquity, may be the root of the attraction for some students.

“It’s the very exceptional student or young person who has the money to invest into clothing that is not accepted in one way or another within their peer group,” she said. “The groundbreakers are few and far between. It is the people where money is not a problem who can afford to buy a piece of clothing that doesn’t help them establish who they are — [students are] all trying to find [their] identity at this point — and can also live through the ridicule if they misstep. So, investing in more expensive clothing like the Canada Goose, for a student, it puts you into a rarefied group because of the money, but it doesn’t take you too far out of the norm and allows you to be part of a community as well.”

According to Gallardo, there’s only a small subset of those who are aware of the brand who give him a hard time about it.

“They think it’s elitist, given the cost of the jacket,” he said. “I think it’s worth the money. If I ever go on an expedition to Antarctica I’m going to use this jacket.”

Wilczynski, likewise, isn’t much concerned with the parkas’ reputation.

“I guess because I’ve had it for so long, I didn’t ever really think about it as a status symbol, though I could definitely see how it could be perceived as such,” she said.

While the brand’s workwear origins have transitioned to its new, celebrity-fuelled high-fashion aspirations, for Carroll, the jury’s still out on just what Canada Goose parkas represent.

“The trench coat talks about leadership, mystery, action, practicality ­— all of the above — from its long history,” she said. “The interesting thing for me is I don’t know if there is a long enough history of the Canada Goose brand for it to have those kind of connotations. I think they’ll build over time if it lasts, but at this point it’s still in the process of becoming what it’s going to be.”