From summer camp to the Olympics, a look at the Canadian clothing company's spirited 40-year history
What do David Bowie and a sporty varsity jacket have in common? Roots. In 1987 America's Libraries tapped the music icon and reputed reader to pose for a literacy campaign, and Bowie was shown reading in a signature Roots jacket. But a look through the archives at their Toronto headquarters reveals it's not just the rock legend who's become a fan over the years; co-founders Michael Budman and Don Green's personal photos show a wide range of friends and supporters. Prince Charles, President Clinton, Dan Aykroyd, Billy Idol, Toots Hibbert, Katy Perry, Karl Lagerfeld, the Jacksons, Paul McCartney, numerous Olympic teams and more have all become part of Roots' extensive history.
While the laundry list of recognizable names is in part due to Budman and Green's role in the '80s as publishers of "Paris Passion"—a coveted English-language magazine that highlighted Paris' high-profile creative community—it also really speaks to who they are as people. Both grew up in Detroit during the days of Motown and attended summer camp at the massive Algonquin Park north of Toronto, where they grew an affinity for the Canadian outdoors (and still have cabins on Smoke Lake). Although they're serious hockey nuts (among other sports), they're both equally into art, architecture, music, food and travel, and the culmination of their genuine interests and slight paradoxical nature are reflected in the Roots brand. A mix of casual fleece and quality leather, Roots keeps a close eye on what's kicky while remaining completely laid back.
Now, 40 years after the two friends originally opened shop on Yonge Street, it's apparent that not much has changed except the size of their inventory. A pair of passionate dreamers, Roots was founded out of Budman and Green's desire to recreate a shoe they liked called The Negative Heel. Over a casual lunch at Budman's art-filled home, we hear the story from Roots' Leather Director, Karl Kowalewski, whose father made that very shoe for them back in December 1972. Because the Kowalewski family was working mostly with fashionable snakeskin at the time, they had named their small outfit Boa Shoe Company and—due to its early alphabet presence—Budman and Green just happened to stumble upon it first when searching the phonebook for local shoemakers. The duo brought their model shoe to the elder Kowalewski, who told them not only could he make it for them, but he could make it even better.
Roots quickly grew from making seven pairs a day to 1,500 in the first year, with the shoes being the backbone of their business. In 2013, Roots is still working with Kowalewski, who oversees all of their leather goods—from boots and bags to jackets—which are all made by a combination of hand and advanced machinery at their Toronto factory. This is also where they stitch all of the detailed patches that adorn their varsity jackets, keeping as much of the process in-house and avoiding waste whenever possible.
Beyond Roots' remarkable marriage of athletics and elegance, the biggest coup they pull off is keeping the prices accessible. Thanks to their lengthy manufacturing history, Kowalewski has built solid relationships with many of the world's most sought-after tanneries, which allows Roots to obtain exceedingly high quality leather at a cost that allows them to make affordable goods. One of the skins they use exclusively is hand-sanded at an ultra-modern Italian tannery. Kowalewski asked the tanner why they didn't use a machine for this, to which he replied, "The eye can catch a repetitive pattern and I wanted it to be authentic." Kowalewski proceeds to tell us, "I thought, 'Now there's a tanner who's like an artist. He'd rather do it by hand so it looks authentically vintage than use a machine.' That's when I thought, 'You know, I've gotta get this leather; this is really good stuff.' And it's our number one leather, it's always different and it's just amazing."
They also work with one of the same tanneries Hermès does, and they provide Roots with incredible, thick hides from French bulls—the most premium type of natural grain leather out there. "The price of leather is going up almost daily, because leather is a byproduct of the food chain," Kowalewski tells us. "People are not eating as much meat, so then there isn't as much leather yet the demand has never been higher. This [French bull] type can go for $8 to $20 a square foot. So it's very competitive now. I think as time goes on, leather is going to become more and more premium, unless you start eating more steaks."
Our visit to the Roots HQ was intended to focus on its leather factory, but as a family-oriented company that epitomizes the term "lifestyle brand," it was impossible not to see all of the "roots" that have influenced Budman and Green over the years. From their love of Jamaica to their penchant for mango gelato pops, to their wives and the larger circle of people creating Roots on a daily basis, it would be difficult to find two entrepreneurs whose passion and commitment is still as strong and curious as it was 40 years ago. In words they live by; they just "Keep on keepin' on."
Look out for the forthcoming Roots XL collection, a new blend of fleece based on their classic workout sweats. Made entirely in Canada, the XL pieces will feature five-needle flatlock seams, heavy rib cuffs, reinforced stress points and a special vintage wash. Purchase Roots leather goods online and in their stores around the world, and Roots enthusiasts can also pick up their fascinating 40th Anniversary book from Amazon for $30.
Photos by Karen Day