The coronavirus pandemic has forced people outdoors and that is good for business for Winnipeg work wear manufacturer, Tough Duck.
Not only did it release its largest catalog of products in the family-owned Winnipeg company’s 82-year history, it’s also launching a new line of high-end contemporary outerwear to start competing with the likes of Canada Goose and Moose Knuckles.
The new limited edition line – called the Tough Duck Black Label Luxury Collection – features stylish parkas for men and women that also include the kind of durability the company has built its reputation on.
Tough Duck has grown its market share with an increasing number of items that include healthy splashes of high visibility 3M reflective material, a look that is now ubiquitous on work sites and increasingly on the streets as well.
Its new Black Label line gives a nod to the Tough Duck heritage with a sprinkling of reflective material.
"But instead of a big X on the back we’ve added beautiful little bits of reflective elements," said Gavin Rich, the third generation of the Rich family to head up the company. "It is very subtle and beautifully placed."
Rich said there’s no doubt it is a challenge to launch a new line during a pandemic, but the company’s brand acceptance has been growing and even some of its traditional lines are showing up in fashion boutiques in Japan.
"Our customers are giving us the permission to expand the Tough Duck brand," he said. "It has elasticity. That’s what we’ve found."
Its customers are buying $11.99 hats and gloves, and Rich believes the brand has the strength that they’ll be willing to pay $1,199 for women’s parkas.
"We’re really, really encouraged," Rich said. "We just launched the line and, to use an industry term, we have already shipped repeats. There has been a great response."
Not to say the pandemic has caused a coming of age for the brand, but the company is also in the process of re-branding the name of the entire company from Richlu Manufacturing to Tough Duck.
"That’s just starting. It’s a 2021 project," said Rich.
The Richlu name might still be on the front of its heritage head office in the West Exchange but for instance the company email address has been changed and the process will continue.
In the past, Richlu pumped out product featuring more than 20 different brands, producing special labels for one retailer so as not to be in direct competition with another retailer who may have had their own Richlu line of product with a different brand.
"In those days it was better having a stable of labels. Today it is a very much a brand world," he said. "Resources the way they are now, you want to focus on that one awesome brand."
While the heavy duty work wear like jackets, bombers and bib overalls and pants continue to be the company’s bread and butter – "Our core business is the Canadian and American worker. We are not going away from that" – building high end outerwear is nothing foreign to the company.
Over the years its Winnipeg sewing shops produced fashionable and expensive outerwear for some of the most prestigious brands on the market so it has the institutional production and design know-how.
Its Black Label line features European fabrics, top-quality trims and details and the most modern technical light-weight insulation.
"They may not be meant to withstand road work, but they are certainly meant to withstand a tough urban environment that’s for sure," he said.
Now, while 85-to-90 per cent of its total production takes place overseas, the Tough Duck Black Label line is 100 per cent manufactured at its Adelaide Street plant in Winnipeg.
Deemed an essential service, Tough Duck has been able to continue operating throughout the pandemic, save for a two week shut down in late March to re-tool in order to space out production and much like a lot of other domestic players in the clothing business in Manitoba, Tough Duck has won some gown and medical PPE contracts.
"We have been very fortunate and we are one of the businesses that are in demand right now," he said. "While all of this has been going on there is a growing demand for basic work wear and high visibility safety clothing."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.