The Party Upstairs: How Canada Is Giving the USA a Run for Its Money in Streetwear

Canada's streetwear culture has been on a meteoric rise in the past few years.

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Image via Complex Original
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Written by Chris Danforth.

For as long as street culture movements have existed, there have been particular areas that personify progression; climates of growth, development, and maturation. These meccas are places we look to in identifying emerging creatives—the SoHos, Harajukus, and Shoreditches, which have always spawned first-movers. In a somewhat unexpected turn, recent years have seen several areas in Canada emerge in the fashion landscape, resulting in an increased focus upon a country that is being looked to more and more by the streetwear world.

Gear from the Great White North is being embraced by kids around the globe, and it’s no coincidence if you’ve been following along; there are more than just flannels and toques (see "beanie" if American) being churned out. The phenomenon is twofold: relevant clothing brands and top-tier boutiques, with Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal acting as the major hubs in this cultural shift. Each of these cities offers an engagingly different flavour and approach to style, yet there is no shortage of commonalities from West to East. Canada has stayed stunting in recent memory, despite all the bad press we’re getting from crack-smoking mayors and dipshit pop stars.



While Vancouver’s natural landscape cannot be captured with mere adjectives, having the ability to snowboard and surf in the same day sort of gets the message across. Locals tend to be quite active, given all the greenery for hiking, cycling, running, and everything in-between, and tying into this is the stereotypical uniform of Gore-Tex and synthetic materials. The hub of Vancouver’ retail presence is Gastown, which flaunts the stereotypes. Even though the old ALIFE space has been turned in to a lingerie store, the Gastown area still boasts an on-point selection of boutiques that purvey goods from a broad range of avenues; Japanese streetwear, heritage apparel, and European high fashion are all easily accessible.

Vancouver also enjoys a number of big names setting up headquarters in the city, where characteristically West Coast qualities punctuate many of the brands that have been picked up on an international level. Try on mostly any piece from Reigning Champ or wings+horns, and you’ll quickly understand what type of city-wide mindset provided the inspiration for its creation.

The correlation between the wearer with their environment is paramount, and this parallel exists with many labels hailing from Vancouver, where wearability is king. Both of these brands are coveted across the globe for their design. Few fabrics are more Canadian than heavyweight fleece, and as such Reigning Champ churns out tons of gear using this textile, while being aware enough to not slap branding all over the place.

The appeal is global, and Reigning Champ designer Kenta Goto explained how his label and other Canadian brands are making waves in Asia and separating itself from American names. He told us that, “During recent visits to Tokyo and talking with our distributor and PR agents, the Japanese press have been loosely throwing around a new term: ‘Kana-Kaji.’" This new phrase refers to Canadian casuals, a new term that goes alongside “Ame-Kaji,” shortened for American casuals.

“With the more recent influx of Canadian players in the garment industry breaking ground in the Japanese market, this term has been starting to circulate a little bit in the Japanese press,” Goto said. But it’s more than geography that necessitates a new term. “Kana-Kaji is seen as quality product and under stated aesthetics that exemplifies the character of Canadians,” according to Goto. High praise from a vaunted land hailed as the apex of the same qualities.

Roden Gray, in the heart of Gastown, is a boutique that has provided an uprise in awareness of trends in contemporary men's fashion. Owner Rob Lo also has a hand in wings+horns, so it made sense to pick his brain on the subject of how Vancouver is perceived on an international scale.

“In certain areas like Gastown in major urban centres like Vancouver, there has been a real growth in the awareness of men's fashion and a willingness among men to try new and different things.” But while the increase in interest is there, Lo still thinks there is a sizeable gap between Canada and other powerhouses. “In terms of success in streetwear, Canadian brands such as Reigning Champ and wing+horns have garnered some international attention, but in terms of contemporary designers, Canada still falls short of any recognition from the fashion world,” Lo lamented.

His comments seem to ring true, as Canada does indeed lack high fashion pedigree, drawing up a donut when coming up with names that could be compared to American counterparts like Thom Browne or Mark McNairy. However, catch a five hour flight from Vancouver to Toronto, and another side of Canada’s menswear game opens up. 



Toronto. The big city. Unlike the West Coast, this part of the country is actually pretty cold. While Biebs and Rob Ford have had a monopoly on recent press stemming from Toronto, and Drake did some stuff too, Canada’s most populous metropolitan area offers true depth when it comes to street culture, significantly adding to the noise around names coming out of the North. Amongst the requisite first stops in T-Dot is Nomad, a boutique on Queen Street that hosts an impressive array of designer labels, and is also on a relatively short list of camps to collaborate with the #BEENTRILL# collective. You may have caught a glimpse of Yeezus jovially swinging from the rafters in Toronto’s Hoxton nightclub wearing a hockey jersey-inspired Nomad x #BEENTRILL# shirt, whereafter one dude scored overnight Instagram fame when every blog posted his video.

Nomad’s buyer Jesar Gabino has been at the nexus of Canadian fashion and design since its early days, and if anyone can provide a considered and contextualized view of the recent phenomenon, it’s the Winnipeg-born Gabino. “Globally I think there has been a bit of noise with up and coming designers coming out of Canada,” he affirmed.

So what took so long? “Ultimately, there is a level of conservatism that comes hand in hand with living in Canada but I see that changing and influencing the designers and brands that originate from Canada as well as the clientele. It's difficult when designers don't have an audience in their hometown.”

Thankfully, that seems to be changing, even if there’s an extra step thrown in that constitutes more time for things to take hold, according to Gabino. “Sometimes I feel like its a trickle back effect like designers have to be legitimized and appreciated outside of Canada first before people take notice of the talent in Canada. But like I said there's change happening within the industry so that's positive.”

Toronto is also home to a Stussy flagship space, an early recognizer of the city’s desire and readiness to become a streetwear power. Midori Mukai, the manager of Stussy Toronto, provided clarification on why the Canadian image matched that of Stussy's. In Mukai's eyes, "the company's affluence has been the number of voices which have spawned off from Stussy. Stussy's international appeal has played a large role in it's vitality."

It was only natural, then, for Stussy and Canada to form a natural and vibrant relationship. "Our country has become a destination for so many different cultures," Mukai continued. "It's given us the advantage. We are well received internationally, it's given us the ability to easily assert ourselves. Toronto and Vancouver have always been at the forefront of Canada's design field, it was only natural to have the two chapter stores located in these cities."

Logic dictated Stussy establishing itself in Toronto and Vancouver. But it's the intentional swerving away from proven sensibilities that allow a third urban powerhouse of Canada to prosper within men's style.



Head a few more hours northeast and you arrive in Montreal. MTL is an interesting case, and you may as well be entering a new country when visiting the city, due to the overtones of French culture. The language and everyday life are definitely influenced by the Old World, and the French values placed on aesthetics and fashion aren't lost in Montreal, either.

A European lotus-eating mentality is embraced in the city, especially in younger age brackets. Bars are open later, lines to the washroom are longer; the culture here promotes a perceivably different lifestyle that emphasizes the here and the now. It isn’t uncommon to stumble across high end boutiques in the areas of NDG, Saint Laurent Boulevard, or on rue Sainte-Catherine, while a strong selection of labels also call Montreal home turf.

Raised by Wolves and Dime are amongst these labels, both possessing an exploratory vision that has resonated far outside of the city they both started in. As a leader in the home-grown Canadian streetwear world, Raised By Wolves' co-founder Pete Williams gave the full scoop on why MTL's laidback vibes have created a hotbed for creativity.

“We have people that care less about getting dressed up and more about the overall lifestyle," Williams explains. In various areas of the city, people are creating "incredible DIY that doesn't go past its respective neighborhood, and sometimes they don't care, it's just for them and their friends. I would say people from Montreal care less about what's trending and more about who they are themselves. It's more about really living. True culture versus consumer culture."

Dime, another Montreal-based label that has been secretly blowing up, can probably be best described as “the Palace of Canada”. Owner Vincent Tsang may not fully agree, but the parallels between the two labels are hard to ignore. Dime has been embraced dually as a core skate label, while having strong ties to influencers such as Virgil Abloh and Montreal’s own JJJound. Tsang’s unassuming and intelligent designs were even scooped up by Supreme to be sold in-store.

“People generally appreciate our approach to building the brand by being true to our core skateboarding customers, not trying to be something we aren't," Tsang explained. "The fashion community has been very supportive, which is a big boost for Dime." But, like Williams said, there's no trend-chasing or pandering done here. Tsang summed up Dime's winning formula, saying "we work at our own pace, not trying to abide to anyone's rules or whatever is trending by keeping our pieces simple, fairly priced for anyone to enjoy them and an overall non-seriousness that anyone can relate to."

And in case this wasn't obvious, every brand and individual creative is supportive of one another up north. "I feel I hear a lot about Reigning Champ when I travel," Tsang said, "which is awesome because as a Canadian, that is a company I really look up to." And please believe the current newcomers know exactly who to thank when it comes to laying the foundation for the country's current prospering. "I think something about Goodfoot, Nomad, and United Front has to be mentioned as they really helped give cultural exposure in Canada from fashion, design, and music standpoints," Tsang concluded. "Not to mention helping shape an entire Canadian generation of cool guys.” 

And those cool guys keep it in the fam. Naked & Famous, a name that is widely pervasive among denim heads, is run by Montreal native Brandon Svarc, who to this day operates decades-old factories in Quebec. Astonishingly, the eccentric creative has kept the operation of his business to within an extremely small circle of family and other individuals, all while building an empire for his daringly wonky designs. 

While considering the global appeal of Canadian brands, Svarc mused, “Certainly different regions perceive Canada differently. I visit Japan two or three times a year and many people I speak to there perceive Canada as a snow covered nature wonderland. Perhaps that’s why they love heavyweight outerwear, denim, boots, and other tough and winterized apparel that’s Made in Canada."

But no regional industry can succeed based on perception alone. "Canadian companies have to innovate to stand out," Svarc knowingly pointed out. "We don’t have the sheer size of a giant American conglomerate, and many contemporary Canadian brands actually focus on their product quality instead of on Hollywood glamour and ads. I think it’s that need to innovate and product quality that has led to success for some Canadian menswear brands.”


Oh, Canada!

Regardless of what specifically should be attributed to Canada’s uprise in menswear circles, ‘Murica is still stealing our best minds like Seth Rogan, Sloan from Entourage, and Chris Gibbs of Union Los Angeles, who has his own theories on the matter. Born in Ottawa, Chris would go on to establish one of today’s best-regarded boutiques in the USA, which places him in an interesting position to understand what is happening on both sides of the line. Believe it or not, Gibbs believes it all started in elementary school.

“Remembering my 5th grade political science classes, Canada is called a 'modified free enterprise system.' What that means is that economically Canada sits somewhere between American capitalism i.e. free enterprise, and European socialism," Gibbs explained, flexing a mind that clearly isn't confined to clothing.

"I believe that both those systems have kind of run their own respective courses and that they are both struggling right now and I think Canada might just sit perfectly in between the two, taking the best from both systems. The best of both worlds." 

Moving on from geopolitical economic systems, Gibbs believes that "Canada has a unique perspective of American pop culture, being that we are right next door we pretty much have full access to it, but no matter how close we are to it, we still aren't American." The influence is direct, but the perspective is different, "kind of similar to how streetwear developed in Tokyo via their fanaticism for Americana, only to build a whole new segment of the market." What this means, according to Gibbs, is that, "As the US reaches it's critical mass in fashion, Canada is poised to offer an alternative to the norm.” 

So yeah, that’s what we are learning about in 5th grade here in Canada. Part of the equation is Canada sitting in a fairly good position to observe American lifestyle, thereby taking the right cues and applying them to our own renditions. Moreover, as many brands would, Canadian ones have looked to the culture and climate around them for inspiration, allowing genuine product to emerge. Our streetwear, menswear, and other avenues reflect an aesthetic and a commitment to quality that is slowly but surely being recognized around the world.

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