In September, we traveled to Montreal to visit KANUK, to see their work and hear their story firsthand.
We weren’t surprised as we approached the KANUK storefront at 485 Rue Rachel in Montreal. It’s in a commercial neighborhood. Someone said it reminded them of Portland. Someone else said D.C. Buildings a few stories tall packed together with shops and restaurants.
I’m not sure what we expected. We knew KANUK had been making premium winter outerwear in Montreal for over 50 years. We’d handled their jackets, felt the quality, seen the clean lines, the bold bright marketing images, so the floor-to-ceiling windows made sense. The doors opened to a spacious seating area. Their latest products hung on rails. Large photos from their FW22 campaign were mounted on the walls. The space expanded away from the doors with bright white walls and minimal track lighting. In the center of the space, the rails were mounted from the ceiling, so their voluminous coats seemed to float above the white tile floor.
Soon, Alex and Laurent greeted us. Alex runs sales. Laurent, ecommerce and marketing. They smiled easily welcoming us in that warm earnest Quebec way that our New York sensibilities found startling and foreign. They asked if we should start the tour in the factory upstairs.
“Upstairs?” I thought. I knew we were supposed to do a factory tour but assumed we’d take a car.
All our coats are made on the third floor, they said.
On the third floor, there were several rows of desks facing one direction (almost like a very large classroom), and each desk had a Brother sewing machine built into it. Piles of insulated coat parts sat next to the desks waiting to be made whole. Laurent walked to the front of the room to explain our presence in French to the sewers. Alex talked to us about the importance of every role because if one person isn’t there, then the entire production line comes to a halt. They told us how, by keeping manufacturing in-house, they’re able to guarantee a level of quality that would be much harder to monitor were they to attempt manufacturing oversees. Laurent told us how, despite significant headwinds like increased costs of materials, they’ve been able to give all their craftspeople significant raises over the past couple years.
We rarely hear sales reps or marketing directors talk about factories with the care and pride that Alex and Laurent took in the people who made KANUK’s garments. As less and less manufacturing happens in-house and as less and less manufacturing happens locally, fractures of this kind are bound to occur. But it does make a holistic operation like KANUK’s feel very special.
Next, Alex and Laurent led us downstairs to a small room where temperature and humidity were carefully regulated. In the middle of the room, we found a large metal box about the size of two refrigerators with blue and white panels and a large pill-shaped window through which we could see the box was full of down. Facing the window, a woman at a desk tapped on a digital screen. She then held empty baffles over a long nozzle as the nozzle fired blasts of down into each baffle. (Baffles are the often horizontal segments in your down coat that keep the down in place). KANUK uses only Canadian Hutterite White Duck Down (90% net down). One of the most sought-after downs in the world, Canadian Hutterite Down comes from free-range ducks raised to feed Canadian communities, which is to say that the down used in KANUK jackets is ethically sourced, traceable, and a byproduct of the food industry.
Most of the second floor was the atelier where patterns were drawn, and fabric was cut. The fabric cutting fascinated me. The person doing it used what looked like a distant relative of a jigsaw to cut multiple layers of fabric at once. With one hand moving the saw, the other wore a chainmail glove and held the fabric in place.
The last stop was a conference room where Alex and Laurent talked us through what else makes KANUK outerwear different. They offer jackets with different kinds of proprietary synthetic insulation: KANUK Thermo+ and KANUK Thermo+ Comfort. KANUK says their Thermo+ is their warmest insulation especially in humid conditions. Thermo+ uses a continuous fiber network for greater loft and increased rigidity for an especially durable insulation. Thermo+ Comfort is offers less rigidity for more flexibility while maintaining its insulating properties when wet.
When we arrived at 485 Rue Rachel, we knew KANUK made excellent winter outerwear. But when we left, we knew KANUK was a brand that we could be proud to carry, that their allegiance to making excellent products was at no risk of being undermined by profit-seeking or ambitions to expand.
KANUK has been making garments in Montreal for decades. We’re want to make sure they’re there for decades more.