B.C. 2.0.: Adaptable clothing companies pursue new markets in wake of pandemic

The strength of the domestic supply chain has also become evident.

Credit: Mustang Survival

Mustang Survival pivoted to PPE during COVID

The strength of the domestic supply chain has also become evident

“One of our company values is to evolve. We just thought, OK, we’ve got to work with what we got—and once evolved, we can make things happen,” says CJ King, vice-president, omni-channel, of outdoor apparel brand Arc’teryx Equipment. The North Vancouver–based company was quick to pivot from its regular production of jackets, backpacks and footwear to medical gowns for B.C. health-care workers. Together, Arc’teryx, Boardroom Clothing and Mustang Survival (all three have factories in Metro Vancouver) will make 90,000 medical gowns for Vancouver Coastal Health.

Mark Anderson, director of engineering at outerwear and life-jacket maker Mustang Survival, says regular business was suffering dramatically as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country. “Nobody went to stores, nobody bought our stuff, we stopped shipping,” he remembers. “Sales dropped significantly.”

But after Mustang switched to medical gowns, the opposite was true. “It’s actually put us in a position where we’re hiring people,” Anderson says. Burnaby-headquartered Mustang is recruiting 40 staff and investing in equipment, and Anderson hopes to keep making gowns post-pandemic. “In the long term, the hospitals are very interested in having a local supply.” Up next: Mustang is partnering with clothing brands Reigning Champ and Wings + Horns for a 150,000-gown contract with the federal government.

Anderson, who is also chair of the BC Apparel and Gear Association, says COVID-19 has had a polarizing effect on his industry. Companies that can switch things up to meet the needs of health-care professionals or quarantined individuals (read: comfy clothing like T-shirts and sweatpants) are thriving. Those that are less adaptable are focusing entirely on online sales, closing temporarily—or shutting down for good.

Even apparel companies that already had a profitable website, like Arc’teryx, have invested more in online retail. “The main channel of distribution has been e-commerce, and we have had to shift to make sure that we have enough people to support that,” King says.

According to Anderson, successful e-commerce is all about making shopping easy for the consumer. “When you’re trying to buy clothing online, sometimes it feels like a roll of the dice,” he says. “So the techniques or technology that are available to help improve that process is what we are investing in now.” Anderson says high-quality product imagery, sizing information and easy returns are vital for anyone hoping to compete with Amazon: “You’ve got to step up your game up if you want to play on that level.”

For companies that are reopening stores, shoppers can expect mandated distancing, limited capacity, Plexiglas screens and employees wearing personal protective equipment. And retailers can expect, well, not a lot of shoppers. “People will be hesitant to try on clothing, or they won’t go in unless they know exactly what they want to buy,” King says. “Destination shopping” will be the new normal, and there will be less browsing, he adds. Arc’teryx, which is launching an optional scheduled virtual assistance service so consumers can video-chat with a sales associate while in-store, will also offer online ordering and quick pickup at retail locations.

More than ever, thanks to the pandemic, apparel companies in B.C. and around the world are thinking about local versus international supply. “The supply chain out of Asia has definitely been top-of-mind for everyone,” says Anderson, who explains that many clothing materials flown to B.C. travel here in the cargo area of passenger planes. With most flights cancelled, transportation became extremely expensive—and it took too long. “With the gown project, Vancouver Coastal Health was losing their minds because they literally ran out of gowns,” Anderson says. “So we had to see what kinds of materials we have in Vancouver that we can use right now.” 

Having to manufacture locally has shaken up the industry, but for Anderson, getting to know the Canadian supply chain better is a positive thing. When making the gowns, B.C.-based companies had a chance to collaborate with textile and fashion producers across the country. “It’s definitely been eye-opening for everyone to realize that we have a great industry within Canada,” Anderson says. “We want to figure out a way to maintain that longer-term.” Producing in B.C. with Canadian materials makes it easier for businesses to react to local circumstances, which feels like a superpower when conditions change quicker than Clark Kent can put on tights.