Viva Canadiana!

Joanne Laucius
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Pack some patriotic punch with iconic Canuck symbols

There are few things as Canadian as a handmade wool curling jacket. Unless it's a curling jacket that features the image of David Suzuki instead of a leaping bass or a mallard duck.

Designers are taking the nation's icons, from lumberjack plaid to famous Canuck faces, and are giving them a wearable and sometimes ironic twist. Anything with a canoe, beaver, moose, Mountie, loon, polar bear, totem pole or maple leaf on it, as well as the retro brand symbols for CP Rail, the RCAF, Avro Aircraft and even the CBC's 1970s-era "exploding pizza," is fair game.

Canadian designers are borrowing iconic images from Canadas past as inspiration for new patriotic products. Photo by Thinkstock.com

There are few things as Canadian as a handmade wool curling jacket. Unless it's a curling jacket that features the image of David Suzuki instead of a leaping bass or a mallard duck.

Designers are taking the nation's icons, from lumberjack plaid to famous Canuck faces, and are giving them a wearable and sometimes ironic twist. Anything with a canoe, beaver, moose, Mountie, loon, polar bear, totem pole or maple leaf on it, as well as the retro brand symbols for CP Rail, the RCAF, Avro Aircraft and even the CBC's 1970s-era "exploding pizza," is fair game.

It's part nostalgia, part history lesson and part sartorial celebration of all things Canadian. The Scottish guy on the Canadian Tire money and the Canada Safety Council's mascot, Elmer the Safety Elephant - in his nerdy 1950s incarnation, at least - can't be far behind.

Toronto-based Red Canoe, for example, has agreements to produce hats, jackets, shirts and luggage featuring a broad range of Canada's historic businesses and organizations.

Among the most popular items are jackets based on Second World War RCAF jackets, canvas aviator kit bags and vintage-inspired reporter bags featuring CBC logos from the 1940s and 1970s.

"The idea is to create things that look like you found them in your grandfather's attic," says founder and creative director Dax Wilkinson, who previously was involved in a company that produced vintage-inspired NHL apparel before it was bought out by Reebok.

Wilkinson, who grew up in Sudbury, was bitten by the bush plane bug, watching the planes coming and going on Lake Ramsey.

He thought the imagery associated with Canadian aviation could sell as fashion and started Red Canoe (redcanoebrands.com) in the basement of his home in 2002.

Even actor and aviation buff Harrison Ford has been snapped wearing Red Canoe gear.

"Bush planes are like Canada's Harley-Davidson," says Wilkinson. "There's so much romance and history."

Ai Hirano of Granted knitwear in Richmond, B.C., came up with the idea of producing a curling sweater with Suzuki's face on it.

When Ai and her brother Minoru joined the hand-knitting company their parents Noriko and Toyo founded in 1978, the younger Hiranos wanted to update curling sweaters and give the genre a hip new twist.

Granted has already scored a hit with a playful curling sweater design that features a pair of leaping deer. Ai thought Suzuki's avuncular, bespectacled face, probably one of the most well-recognized in Canada, would work well on knitwear.

She designed and donated one of the sweaters to the David Suzuki Foundation. Granted is now ironing out a deal to use the sweaters as a fundraiser for the foundation.

Canadian-style curling sweaters are already a hit in Japan, says Ai.

"We look at what's going on in Tokyo and put Canadian themes to it."

Wearable Canadiana performs two functions: it's practical, and it gives rein to the Canadian penchant for irony.

"Grandma's living room, but with a modern wink," says Regine Paquette, who owns the Ottawa-based Victoire stores (victoireboutique.com) with her friend Katie Frappier, of the Canadian "rock 'n' roll tea party" look favoured by her customers.

"The cottage look. The grandpa cardigan," she says.

Paquette and Frappier opened their first shop four years ago and opened a second store earlier this year.

They asked a friend in Toronto to design some T-shirts for the store. Current offerings include a vintage-inspired "Maple Leaf Forever" design and another with an image of the Dionne quintuplets.

"We're fascinated with Canadian pop culture," says Paquette.

Toronto designer Jules Power's new fall line is themed "Canadian Cool" and features wool plaid tunics, heritage plaids and cosy sweats.

Her slouchy French terry sweatpants are already a hit in downtown Toronto and cottage country, and will be available at Victoire in August.

Power, who worked at Roots for eight years, took what she learned there along with cues from nostalgia and the Canadian landscape, plus the eternal need to stay warm without getting too sporty or cottage-y.

"My brand is about Canadian lifestyle and how we enjoy life here," says Power. Her spring line for 2011 looks at Canada's multicultural experience, layering African and Indian textiles with Canadian fabrics.

Even social historians have taken note of the role wearable Canadiana has played on our collective psyche.

Catherine Carstairs, a professor at the University of Guelph, wrote a paper on "Roots nationalism" for the Journal of Social History that reflected on the popularity of the Roots Athletics sweatshirts of the 1980s.

The shirts capitalized on Canadians' concerns about Canadian identity and the Free Trade Agreement and became ubiquitous status symbols on Canadian campuses, she says.

While Canadian companies such as the CPR had focused on True North imagery in their advertising in the past, Roots was the first to score a commercial success making Canada a wearable commodity, says Carstairs.

The sweatshirts were a status symbol of outdoorsy, upwardly mobile Canuck leisure life.

"Roots Canada spoke of beaver and maple trees - a Canada where everyone went camping (or at least the cottage) on weekends and had an intense need for rugged khakis and warm fleece."

Roots founders Michael Budman and Don Green, Americans both, did a magnificent job of selling Canada to Canadians.

"They came to Canada as outsiders. It helped them see Canada," says Carstairs.

Roots has sold more than 100,000 of its Roots Athletics sweatshirts since 1984. They were so popular they spawned parodies and imitators that used other Canadian symbols.

Carstairs, who was a high school student in Winnipeg at the height of Roots Athletics popularity, owned one of the Roots sweatshirts herself.

To the politically-aware teen, it didn't matter that she wasn't familiar with cottages in the Muskokas, let alone aspiring to own a million-dollar-plus piece of real estate. The sweatshirt was about being proud to be Canadian.

"I couldn't dream of owning a cottage in the Muskokas. But at the same time, it allowed you to cover yourself in this thing that was particularly Canadian," Carstairs says.

"The beaver was so cute. And so obviously a symbol of Canada."

Organizations: Roots Canada, CBC, CP Rail Canadian Tire Canada Safety Council NHL Harley-Davidson David Suzuki Foundation University of Guelph Journal of Social History

Geographic location: Canada, Toronto, Sudbury Lake Ramsey Richmond Japan Tokyo Ottawa Maple Leaf Winnipeg

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