Coast to Coast: A Look Inside Canada’s Unique Sneaker Landscape
In many ways, Canada’s outward perception is rooted in the outdoors. The Great White North’s demanding conditions from coast-to-coast have informed our pastimes, cuisine, art, and the clothing we wear. There are a number of legacy brands that clearly speak to Canada’s reputation for hardy outfitters: Canada Goose, Roots, Arc’teryx, and Eddie Bauer. These purpose-built brands exist at the intersection of workwear and outdoor gear. In fact, Canada’s ‘Uncle Sam’ is probably best imagined as a broad-shouldered, flannel-clad, axe-toting lumberjack. But that’s only one side of the toonie.
Above the border, you’ll find so much more than ice hockey, Tim Hortons, and flannel workshirts. Between Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto, Canada is home to a set of unique designers, brands, and makers that are making sure Canada is consistently part of the conversation happening today. And just like New York City, Tokyo, London, or the cultural hubs of streetwear around the world, what’s happening in Canada has changed and evolved a lot over the last two decades.
If you visit Vancouver today, you’ll find everything from European fashion to Japanese streetwear and sneaker collaborations in a walkable quarter of the city between Chinatown and Gastown. Roden Gray, Livestock, and HAVEN are generally considered the city’s leading retailers today, but to understand how Vancouver’s retail landscape has changed, you really need to talk to one person: Raif Adelberg.
Opened in 2002, his shop Richard Kidd was ahead of its time in every way. The space mixed names like COMME des GARÇONS, Supreme, Rick Owens, and UNDERCOVER, housing the forward-thinking brand mix in a two-story, glass-vaulted cathedral on Water Street. Adelberg also operated a space named Made Gallery, where he hosted a KAWS exhibition in 2002. Once the exhibition was finished, without giving it too much thought, Adelberg simply painted over KAWS’ original pieces that had been scrawled directly on the gallery's walls.
Following Virgil Abloh’s recent Louis Vuitton Air Force 1s, Adelberg’s name came back into the news. Many cited the Canadian designer’s custom Air Force 1s – featuring a leather Louis Vuitton Swoosh circa 2001 – as the true genesis of Virgil’s collaboration.
A shop widely considered the keystone for sneaker culture in Canada, Livestock first opened up in Vancouver’s Gastown district in 2003. The name Livestock is obviously a play on deadstock, and a light-hearted dig at collectors, as one of Livestock’s founders, Garret ‘GMAN’ Louie, mentioned to local publication The Georgia Straight in 2004 ‘Let's call it Livestock. Let’s wear the shoes: skateboard in them, b-boy in them, wear them to the club.’ Another of Livestock’s co-founders, Gary Bone, explains how their intention in opening a shop was not to play into any trends, ‘Back then we just did what we wanted to do without thinking too much about risk or consequence. At the time, coming from the West Coast of Canada, most of the culture was about skateboarding. Style has always been a huge part of the skate scene, and the community was massive. Even to this day, if you come to one of our events in Vancouver, you will see people from all the different scenes, and skateboarding is still a big part of it.’ Sneakerheads will certainly be able to recall Livestock’s ongoing Consortium collaborations, which include three-striped silhouettes like the UltraBOOST, Samba, and Equipment Running Support 93.
Another Canadian fixture, Reigning Champ, is known for its high-quality basic sweats and active gear, but the label also maintains collaborations with brands like ASICS and adidas. Reigning Champ is all about respecting the details and mastering simplicity. ‘That is always in our heads with everything we do. We ask how we can make something the best it can be from a quality standpoint, with timeless design language,’ explains brand director Mike Belgue. Looking back on Reigning Champ’s history of sneaker collabs, Belgue remarks, ‘I think the two most representative of both our material story and palette and our very classic point of view, are our Converse project from 2012 and our ASICS GEL-Lyte III project from 2016. Both of those silhouettes are two of the most iconic sneakers in history, and for both projects, we were able to bring our actual signature fabrics into the finished product in unique ways.’
A mere five-hour flight across the country from Vancouver, Canada’s most populous city of Toronto has also left an important mark on the country’s streetwear landscape. Retailers GoodFoot and Nomad, plus streetwear brand Ransom, made up a veritable streetwear compound on Richmond Street. This first-mover group was led by Matt George, the man who brought Stüssy up to Canada and has since pivoted to CEO of Yeezy. Sidebar, much of Stüssy’s creative is still handled from the brand’s Vancouver office. Fans of adidas will also remember GoodFoot’s inclusion in the 2008 ZX collection, when the retailer dipped the ZX 8000 in a green and grey colourway, with GoodFoot’s signature ‘G’ insignia stamped on the tongue. Adorned with the same letter logo on the crown, GoodFoot’s range of fitted caps is also a huge part of the retailer’s legacy and a nostalgia shot to the gut for any Canadian streetwear enthusiast who was around at the time. At the height of its popularity, GoodFoot operated doors not only in Toronto but in Calgary and Vancouver as well. HAVEN also operates a space larger space in Toronto to complement its location in Vancouver’s Gastown. HAVEN co-founder Arthur Chmielewski tells me, ‘We were lucky enough to travel in the years before opening HAVEN. We were really impressed by retailers in Europe and were completely blown away by the level of retail spaces in Tokyo. After building our relationships with Japanese brands, we were able to stock WTAPS, NEIGHBORHOOD and visvim, and this is when things really started to take off for us, and we were put on the map in North America and globally.’
HAVEN has since expanded into the world of cut and sew, introducing an in-house label. Chmielewski explains, ‘When we started HAVEN, the ultimate goal was always to create our own collection. Canada is a pretty harsh environment, and we wanted to bring our unique perspective that emphasized functional and comfortable garments that will help you move through your day while also looking good.’
Pre-dating most other streetwear-adjacent retail in Canada, NRML opened its doors in 1997 as a mixing pot of influences from graffiti and music, and it’s still the city’s leading sneaker outpost. NRML was also one of the earliest to stock first-wave streetwear brands like LRG, Freshjive, and Crooks&Castles. Founder Yann Darevic tells me that much of the early influence for NRML came from booking music acts in the Canadian capital, who would bring out-of-town looks and styles with them. ‘I was really into UK drum and bass. When we booked Goldie or Shy FX in Ottawa, he was wearing Evisu,’ Darevic notes, ‘so we started looking into Evisu and other Japanese denim brands.’ Toronto’s now-shuttered VICE retail store on Queen Street (a relic of the publication’s heyday) was also a big inspiration for NRML. ‘The VICE store was managed by a graffiti writer named Skam. He was the first guy I met who had 500 pairs of shoes,’ Darevic remarks.,
Much of the scene in Montreal touches retailer Off the Hook, which has served as the city’s local watering hole for sneakers and streetwear since 1999. Raised by Wolves was one of the earlier names to come from Montreal, a brand that focused on streetwear through a lens of made-in-Canada quality. More recently, skate label Dime has been making waves abroad, collaborating with brands like Vans, Reebok, and New Balance, while also annually hosting their unhinged and utterly awesome Dime Glory Challenge featuring Jackass-style skate stunts. Talking about the origins of Dime as a brand, Dime’s Vincent Tsang notes ‘At the start, we didn’t want to have a skate team. We wanted it to be kind of like a Thrasher, where everyone was able to wear Thrasher and not be bound to contractual limitations from their sponsors. This is why we didn’t make boards. We wanted everyone in the skateboarding community to be able to wear our stuff. In the sense that Phil and Antoine came from a very core-skate community while I grew up more in the art and fashion space. We meshed really well and brought different things to the table that made it work.’
Speaking about their sneaker collaborations, Tsang continues, ‘When it’s with a skate company like Vans or DC, we’re much more performance-driven in the sense that we always make sure the model we are working on is a shoe that skates well. That has to be the first priority. When we work with non-skate companies like New Balance or Reebok, we’re always trying to tap into cultural icons of the past, present, or future and tell a story that has a Dime twist to it.’
Montreal also claims an unexpected link to the world of Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, and Been Trill. Dime’s Vincent Tsang, JJJJound’s Jeremy Saunders, and other Montrealers like techwear designer Jeremy Karl were all part of a consultant crack squad that would cook up graphics for Been Trill and larger concepts for Abloh and West. While Saunders first became known for his behind-the-scenes work with West, his own label, JJJJound, has also been one of Montreal’s biggest style exports over the last several years. In many ways, JJJJound is a near-perfect intersection of modern tastes with Canadian values and aesthetics, culminating in products like the brand’s collaborative Eddie Bauer vests, flannel shirts, and basic sweats. His recurring collaborations with New Balance and Reebok have also been fixtures in the sneaker release calendar.
For those with a taste in couture, retail behemoth SSENSE sits in Montreal as well, and operates a sleek flagship space there for all your Rick Owens, Dries Van Noten, and Thom Browne needs.
That completes our peek inside the party upstairs and an overview of what’s going down across the Great White North. Our heritage of hard-wearing apparel and footwear has served as the foundation for the value-driven designs that are being embraced around the world.
Check out a full list of sneaker retailers in Canada below.