by Diana Foxall
Kathy Cheng says textiles are in her blood, so it makes sense she’s now running the show at Wing Son Garments, the family business with its origins dating back to 1988.
And while the company is now a powerhouse in the apparel industry, it came from humblebeginnings.
“We came to Canada (from Hong Kong) in the late seventies. My father did first, and then I joined him afterwards,” Cheng says. “We’re your typical immigrant family, I was a latchkey kid at the age of five and basically grew up in factories.”
In fact, Cheng’s parents met at a factory in Hong Kong -- her father, a cutter; her mother, a seamstress.
“They couldn’t afford to give me camp or daycare, so whenever it was school holidays, like the summer or March break, I used to go with them to their respective workplaces and we were lucky enough that their employers would allow us to,” Cheng says. “I literally grew up on factory floors -- and my Dad used to put me up in the racks of fabric and I would have my
colouring book, I would nap there, I would play games there by myself and literally watch the factory floors.”
Fast forward to the late 1980s. Cheng’s father founded the business that would go on to eventually become Redwood Classics with his brother and sister -- a sewing contracting company based in Scarborough. At its inception, the team was made up of five people running ten sewing machines.
“Our very first brand name we ever made for as a private label was for Club Monaco,” Cheng reminisces. “Back in the day, in the late 80s and early 90s, it was that Club Monaco vintage logo that was really big, so we used to make ten, fifteen thousand a month of those for Club Monaco.”
But while Club Monaco was the company’s first big break, the second major brand it began manufacturing for is even more recognizable.
“We’ve been a legacy supply chain partner for Roots Canada for about thirty years now,” Cheng says. “Roots Canada was our second brand name and then, fast forward to the late 90s and by that time, the family business has grown to a point where we’re directly employing close to 500 people.”
By that point, the facility had grown to include a knitting mill, a dye house facility, a warehouse and the ability to screen print designs on to garments -- spanning 200,000 square feet across several facilities in Scarborough.
“And then 2008 happened, which was the global financial depression,” Cheng says. “By that time we were down to about 100, 150 people. The business landscape really just was not able to support the infrastructure we had scaled into. The marketplace was just not there to support the growth of the infrastructure that we had built.”
Cheng says the company’s commitment to paying fair wages and manufacturing its products in Canada meant it became very challenging to compete with offshore producers whose cost of labour was much lower.
“Like most textile families, you’re faced with a decision -- do you retire and shut down the factory like many factories have shut down in textiles, or do you continue fighting this fight?” Cheng says.
The answer came to her in a flood of emotion.
“I’m literally standing amongst all the sewing machines and you can hear the buzzing of the machines and rumour got out that we may not be around anymore, we may need to shut down the factory,” Cheng recalls. “By this time, my Dad asked me, would I restructure and be his business partner? And there was a part of me that was very selfish and kind of like ‘finally, an opportunity for Kathy to do what she wants to do.’ I initially didn’t want to, and initially didn’t say no, but in my mind was like ‘I don’t know.’ But that moment, standing in the
middle of the production floor, was my ‘aha moment’ where all of a sudden I just woke up.”
Cheng says ultimately, the decision to continue on with the company came back to her roots -- and those of the highly skilled craftspeople upon whom the business was built.
“If we were still in Hong Kong, who knows what a life I would’ve had?” she says. “So I'm standing there going I am so proud to be Canadian. I am so grateful that I'm here and I'm so grateful for all of our makers, because a big part of our makers who have been with us for 10, 15, 20 years, they were part of that influx of immigration (from Hong Kong) that happened in 1997.”
In January 2009, Cheng and her father restructured the company, downsizing to a team of 40 people and moving into one of the factories it had outgrown previously.
That’s when Redwood Classics really started to take shape. In the decades prior, the factory had run a stock program, producing garments for other brands, but it had never had its own brand. For Cheng, creating a brand was necessary to regulate the factory’s production.
“We don’t work on contract, there’s no guarantee of business -- and so that just-in-time delivery model needs to be normalized to some degree,” she explains. “I can’t, you know, ‘this time I have a rush order here, tomorrow I don’t have a rush order,’ -- I can’t lay off and keep hiring and rehiring people.”
But even before the brand was officially created, Cheng knew there was a market for its goods.
“People would call us, call the factory, and say ‘I bought this sweatshirt ten years ago, I’ve washed it a million times, and I’m ready to replace one and I want more, where do I get more?’” she says. “So these end users went as far as finding our factory through the trace label to call us to tell us they wanted more.”
“So that, to me, was like okay, there is the demand -- a niche demand -- but there is a niche marketplace for well made, quality goods that are made in Canada.”
And so Redwood Classics began.
“Redwood, even though we’re proudly made in Canada, we act local but we really think global,” Cheng says. “Redwood trees are known for their longevity, for strength; and you can actually find redwood trees globally. In North America, we tend to recognize that they typically are on the west coast ... but really, you can find redwood trees in the UK.”
“So with that in mind, the brand Redwood Classics kind of made sense, because we are a family business -- so there’s that legacy of quality, there’s a legacy of making in Canada.”
It didn’t take long for Redwood Classics to break into the promotional product market, joining the Promotional Product Professionals of Canada (PPPC) within a year of the brand’s creation.
“I remember doing the road shows, and I went to every show and I’d pass out my lookbook and I’d be like ‘everything is made in Canada,’ and they used to look at me like I was an alien with five heads,” Cheng says, explaining that the locally made brand stood out in a marketplace filled with goods produced offshore.
And not only were Redwood Classics garments made in Canada, they were predominantly cotton -- another anomaly in the promotional products industry, where many items are produced with polyester.
Maintaining production locally has been a challenge -- but it’s something the company has been committed to from the start.
In the ten years since restructuring and creating Redwood Classics, the business has nearly tripled its headcount, more than tripled its physical footprint and continually reinvested in its supply chain -- with roughly 60 per cent of the raw material used at the factory knitted within a 100 mile radius of its Scarborough facility.
With that commitment to sourcing material locally, it comes as no surprise that sustainability-- both environmental and social -- remains amongst the brand’s top priorities.
“We’ve been following our north star, which is people, planet and profit. Because it’s our markers that really did inspire me to restructure and continue fighting the battle about offshore production,” Cheng says. “Planet, because what we’re trying to do while we’re manufacturing domestically is minimizing the carbon footprint, when everything is offshore.”
“And profit -- the truth is, I’m not the cheapest out there because I need to make decent margins. I don’t have to make a lot of them, but I need to make enough that I can rebuild this infrastructure, that we can constantly invest within our own community, we can invest in our own country.”
Redwood Classics is a member of the Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council and a Women Business Enterprises Canada Council (WBE) certified Tier 2 supplier-- both of which help facilitate partnerships in the world of corporate procurement. In 2014, Cheng was named an EY Entrepreneurial Winning Woman -- something she says has helped her continue to champion supplier diversity in the industry.
“Through these generous programs and donations and sponsorships, they want to give us an opportunity to be at the table. They want us to be able to build a voice, so then we can bring others alongside,” she explains. “Supplier diversity is really focused on marginalized groups -- between women, minority, aboriginal, disabled, veterans. Because there are a number of marginalized groups in the business community, and if corporations are recognizing that, they’re also saying it’s not just because it’s the right thing to do -- there’s a business case to it. There’s innovation that happens because of this.”
Since then, Cheng has continued to share her passion for increasing supplier diversity -- winning awards in recognition of her work supporting the cause.
But while Redwood Classics is proudly made in Canada, Cheng says about half of its products leave the country for other markets.
“What makes me sad is that I don’t think that Canadians recognize the global reputation we have as Canadians for high quality goods. As Canadians, we don’t celebrate it,” Cheng says.
“You think about it, we celebrate farm to table, right? We celebrate farmers because we ingest the food and we're respecting our farmers because they've worked hard in growing the food for us.”
“Next to what you ingest, what's the closest thing to your skin? Clothing."