Canadiana Heritage Fashion Brand Red Canoe Looks to Expansion Through Partnerships and Stores [Feature Interview]

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In 1999 Red Canoe was conceived in a bush plane over the pristine wilderness of Northern Ontario.

Dax Wilkinson

Today, the retailer has two locations in Toronto, a growing ecommerce business and increasing partnerships with well-known global brands.

“I started the company in 2002 all by myself in my basement,” said Dax Wilkinson, President and Creative Director of Red Canoe – National Heritage Brands Inc. 

“We design and produce clothing, headwear and accessories. We’re primarily a wholesaler but we also have two bricks and mortar retail stores of our own, online retail and then we have one other retail partner that has a Red Canoe store, almost a franchise kind of arrangement.”

Red Canoe in The Distillery District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)
Red Canoe in The Distillery District (Image: Red Canoe)

The retailer’s two Toronto stores are located in the historic Distillery District and in The Junction, where the company’s head office is also located. The first store at The Junction opened in 2016 followed a couple of years later with the Distillery store.

Product lines have also been created for such well-known companies and organizations as Land Rover, Boeing, CBC, RCAF, NASA.

“(Land Rover) has taken us all over the world. We’re currently selling that product line in the UK, Canada, the US and China. We’re kind of run off our feet. This is one that’s taken on a life of its own,” said Wilkinson.

Red Canoe in The Junction (2989 Dundas St W, Toronto) Image: Red Canoe
Red Canoe in The Junction (2989 Dundas St W, Toronto) Image: Red Canoe

Wilkinson said future expansion is always something on the brand’s mind.

“But we’re primarily focused on high traffic locations and sometimes that means high tourist traffic locations. So if the right opportunity presented itself in those types of places – Banff, Whistler, Victoria, Niagara on the Lake, Mont Tremblant, Quebec City, within Canada – we’d look at different things,” he said.

“Primarily we would like to own the real estate if we were going to get into more bricks and mortar retailing. That’s just part of our model a bit going forward. I think it’s an important long-term way to structure things. So those opportunities don’t come up very often. 

“And at the same time, the rest of our business, online retailing and wholesaling, is growing as fast as we can keep up with. But this franchise concept is yielding around $2,000 a square foot as a concept in a very busy tourist area. Those kinds of numbers are very interesting. Yes we would look at that but I don’t know if that’s the right name for it. We would call them retail partners and they would own and operate a Red Canoe bannered bricks and mortar retail store.”

Red Canoe at the Montreal Airport (Image: Red Canoe)
Boutique Red Canoe in Quebec City (Image: Boutique Red Canoe)

Currently the company has a partner in Quebec with a Boutique Red Canoe store which opened about 2016 in old Quebec City.

“That one has done extraordinarily well. I think there’s an opportunity to figure that out. But we’re run off our feet at the moment. If the right person came in the door, we would do that every day,” added Wilkinson. 

In the past, the company had Red Canoe bannered stores in Montreal and for a while at the Edmonton airport. 

Wilkinson said the company’s icon looks like a shield but is actually a red canoe coming towards you in perspective, in 3D – a canoe with the bough pointing towards you and the stern in the back.

Red Canoe in The Distillery District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)
Red Canoe in The Distillery District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)
Red Canoe in The Distillery District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

“To me a red canoe is just a strong image that connected me to the outdoors of my youth. Some of the historic inspiration that inspired the brand. A red canoe was used for a lot of different things and a lot of different places over the years but primarily from adventure to utility, opening up Canada, the deep northern experience that I grew up in Northern Ontario, it was a touchstone to that,” he said.

“Also a recreational lifestyle, but also the utility, the ruggedness of a canoe trip. The origins of a canoe go back a long way as well. It’s an icon that if anyone thinks about a red canoe they may have a picture in their head of a number of different things but those types of images I think is what we founded the brand on.

“As well, I just love that icon. I love the conciseness of our red canoe icon and I think it’s kind of a timeless piece of design. I’m quite happy with it. It’s worked out well and I think that’s a logo mark that will stand the test of time for us.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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