Roots, a homegrown Canadian label that still produces out of a factory in Toronto, is one of the many reasons it’s awesome to be Canadian (free health care isn’t too bad either).
In Canada, where I’m from, Roots is a household name, on par with something like the Gap; walk down any given street in Canada and you’re bound to see the brand’s beaver logo on a number of passersby. Though the brand has a smattering of stores in the U.S. (a new one just opened in Venice Beach, California in August) and nearly 100 stores in China and Taiwan, Roots remains one of Canada’s best kept sartorial secrets. Until now, so get to know the label, whose anti-consumerism ethos and heritage vibe, is set to conquer America.
With a new store in California, a collaboration with Canadian brand Smythe, and their 40th birthday this past August, the brand can definitely count 2013 as a really good year.
“40 years is a great milestone [but] I like thinking about what I’m going to do tomorrow,” said co-founder Michael Budman. “If you are doing something you love there aren’t enough hours in the day. I love going to our state of the art leather factory in Toronto everyday and working with our artisans and craftspeople. We are surrounded by creative hard-working people. It doesn’t feel like forty years.”
Believe it or not the whole company started with one shoe. In 1973, Budman, along with pal and cofounder Don Green, had the idea for a “negative heel shoe,” a shoe that had a sort of inverted heel, which helped posture. It may not sound like much but it instantly became a huge fad.
“It was a hit in Europe, in Toronto, in the States,” Diane Bald, Budman’s wife Roots’ design director told us over the phone. “Everyone was wearing them–from Martin Short and Dan Aykroyd, to just everyone. Doctors loved them–foot doctors. Then it grew from there-to a positive heel shoe. And we had the original shoe store on Yonge Street in Toronto, which had a line around the block just to get in.” It was actually at that Yonge Street store that Bald met Budman, when she applied to be a shoe saleswoman.
“My best friend worked there and I used to hang out there all the time. It was a happening scene. I remember I decided to go apply for a job and people were lined up around the block [wanting to buy the negative heel shoe.] Denise [Green, cofounder Don's wife] worked there and she said, ‘If you want the job, you have to start right now. You’ll meet the boss later.’” And that was how Bald was introduced to her future husband.
In terms of leadership, not much has changed at Roots since the ’70s. It’s still a privately held company, and Budman and Green, along with their longtime wives, are still very much involved. Most of their leather goods are still produced in Canada at a state-of-the-art factory right in Toronto, managed by the very same Kovalewski family that’s been there since day one.
But their family-oriented, made-ethically-in-Canada vibe, isn’t necessarily why you should buy their products (though it’s a nice bonus). Roots products are just really, really good. Especially their leather goods. Roots uses the same tanneries that supply to Hermès and Prada.
“We have access to the most beautiful leathers and best tanneries in the world and from having such great relationships with the tanneries, they’re constantly developing beautiful leathers for us,” Bald says.
Exquisite leather, stream-lined design, and ethical production practices are where it begins and ends for Bald. “Because the leather we get is so beautiful, it sort of creates the designs itself.”
In short: Their bags look and feel really, really expensive. And while they’re not cheap, per se, they’re definitely affordable. A women’s purse might set you back $100 or $200; while a large gorgeous, buttery leather weekend bag might cost around $400. The most expensive bag they sell is $498–but it looks like it could have cost about a $1,000. Plus, it’ll last you a lifetime.
“We always wanted to create beautiful items that are timeless and non-disposable,” Bald says. “We don’t believe in fast fashion. Our whole business is built on quality and integrity. When you deliver that to people in the end they really appreciate it.”
And that’s the secret to Roots’ success. The label, which started with that one groovy shoe 40 years ago, has expanded to include quality leather goods like handbags, shoes (I’m obsessed with their boots), jackets, as well as heritage-y, Canadiana items such as sweats, socks, hats, and t-shirts. But they haven’t lost their roots. And the founders haven’t lost their passion for the biz.
When asked if her had any advice for budding entrepreneurs Budman told me, simply and earnestly: “Do what you love. What you have a passion about. Surround yourself with talented good people. Listen. Start with a good idea. Stay true to your roots.”