Interview: Robin Yates, Nobis and Woods Arctic Brand
Canadian, Robin Yates, is a man who knows his way around a down parka. He took the Canada Goose from gosling to global brand, established his own, hugely successful outerwear brand, Nobis and, now, is turning his attention to one of Canada’s oldest outfitters, Woods.
We’re chatting at Pitti Uomo about the return of Woods and how it fits into his growing outdoor empire. Woods Arctic Brand, to give it its full name, was established in Canada in 1885. The original Canadian outdoor supplier, it started by supplying cotton canvas cloth and moved into items of clothing with the beginnings of the Canadian Klondike gold rush at the end of the 19th century.
“I just feel the story needed to be told and it wasn’t being told fairly or accurately. History is not something you borrow, you either buy it or you tell the truth, and that’s not what’s been happening,” says Yates.
“I never thought Woods was anything but a giant and next thing you know they’re finished.” he says. “I want to reposition the brand’s rightful place in history. It was aspirational for me, but I didn’t have the means to enjoy the Woods products other than the few occasions I actually borrowed them to do expeditions. So, it was the more expensive brand,” he says talking about how it was the premium outdoor brand during his formative years.
Yates has bought the Woods Arctic Brand, outside of Canada and the US, from its previous Japanese owners. The North American part of the company is owned by CTC, Canadian Tire Corporation, through their Forzani Group, FGL Sports Ltd., Canada's largest national retailer of sporting goods.
“As the original Canadian brand, it was one of the first Canadian companies to have a facility outside of Canada in Regensburg, New York.” says Yates. “It was a conversion house for the cotton canvas, so they could land it in Canada in a less expensive way, and it ended up being a boys' club as well,” he says.
Woods lost its outdoor crown, a few years ago, in no small part thanks to Yates’ success in growing the fledgling Canada Goose. Canada Goose was originally called “Snow Goose”, a brand owned by Metro Sportswear, which was also a third party manufacturing facility for Woods. It took inspiration from styles in Woods’ archive to grow their own brand.
“I really felt the disruption in the history of Woods was always a concern,” says Yates. “Metro Sportswear was the third partner manufacturing facility for Woods and most of the styles, style numbers and brands were borrowed by that company to begin its journey,” he says.
Snow Goose eventually became Canada Goose due to trademark challenges in some international markets.
“At the time, Stockholm, Sweden, was the only market of any value and they thought we were one of the biggest brands,” says Yates. “There was North Face and Canada Goose and we continued to roll out from there. I left unceremoniously in 2006,” he says.
The following year, 2007, Yates established “Nobis”, latin for “Us”. The premium outdoor brand was created to offer function and style.
“The foundation for the brand was based on my former consumers’ challenges with the lack of functionality in the product experience.” he says. “They bought a jacket they thought they could conquer the world in, and they found out quickly it wasn’t waterproof, they had to dry clean it, it wasn’t colour fast, it didn’t fit particularly well and they were heavy.”
Latest sales figures for Nobis suggest it is selling well above 100,000 coats a year at £600-£700 each. Made in Vietnam and China with premium Canada down, the technicality of the coats for the price points has hit that outdoor sweet spot.
“My normal day in the winter is driving my snow mobile at 210km/hr in -40 degrees on a frozen lake for three hours."
Yates lives the Canadian dream while trying to avoid polar bears. “My normal day in the winter is driving my snow mobile at 210km/hr in -40 degrees on a frozen lake for three hours. I have a home in the middle of nowhere and they call my house 'Near Narnia', and 'Outer Narnia',” he says. His recent winter break was in an ice camp on 3ft of ice on a frozen lake.
“The arctic parka replaced an indigenous jacket made entirely fur. The last element that you can’t replace, today, with a technical and functional component is the fur ruff.
“The fur ruff is part of a snorkel hood on a wire frame that allows you close it up see through the cross hairs. What happens if it’s not a genuine fur, of either wolf, wolverine or coyote, to my knowledge, is the condensation off your breath when it hits that fur and meets the outside air, it starts to bead up, ball away and expose your face.
“I can tell you, first hand, there is no product you can put directly on your face, in sub minus 50s, that will protect you. You need that environment. If you don’t have that, you freeze.” he says. “I’ve been at minus 72 before windchill and that’s not a place you want to go. That’s just too cold.”
Relaunching Woods comes at a time when we’re asking whether the market can sustain another arctic parka brand. What has been a highly lucrative segment has become crowded with brands fighting to offer their own "luxury" take on the outdoors.
“Somebody has got to die,” says Yates. “I think the brands that don’t do what they say, don’t do what they perceive they’re going to do, will be the first ones to drop. I’m adamantly confident, we started at a much lower margin than competition, dramatically lower, but in a healthy way.”
"Everybody wants to be a down parka company. Not everybody has the expertise, but ultimately the consumer is going to decide."
“One day it’s got to tighten up, there’s too many brands out there and more everyday. Everybody wants to be a down parka company. Not everybody has the expertise, but ultimately the consumer is going to decide.” he says.
The Woods Arctic Brand produced the world’s first waterproof cotton canvas. Heritage American outdoor retailer, LL Bean, used to buy Woods’ canvas for their jackets.
“They were just selling fabric, almost like a Zegna.” says Yates. “Why I love their shit is because they are a fabric first company.”
Woods Arctic Brand has already entered a few doors in the UK, but 2019 will see a significant roll out. "We’ve had a tremendous reaction to this collection and some of the top retail brands on the planet are taking Woods in the UK.” says Yates.
Woods is priced lower. “We did it by design and, strategically, to create an accessible heritage line that had all the chest fluffing you want from a classic heritage brand, but, I didn’t want it to be limited. It’s still priced far above The North Faces, but it’s slightly under Canada Goose, and certainly under Nobis.” says Yates.
“I wanted to create accessibility. I really wanted people to be able to rock something that performed well and feels right,” he says. “The reason for me, Woods was a brand I could never have when I was a kid, I didn’t come from much, I came from the right side of the wrong side of the tracks. I want the most amount of people possible to be able to access it.”