Winnipeg’s garment industry still going strong
Marissa Freed (photo by Rebeca Kuropatwa)
The garment industry has played a vital role in the development of the Jewish community, the city of Winnipeg, and even the province of Manitoba over several generations.
On May 8 at Rady Jewish Community Centre’s Berney Theatre, the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada hosted a panel discussion on Winnipeg’s Garment Industry – Past, Present and Future. CBC Radio’s Terry McCloud was the moderator, panelists were Bill Brownstone, Marissa Freed, Howard Raber, David Rich, Bob Silver and Gary Steiman. From the discussion, it seems as though most of the panelists did not plan to get into the industry, but stumbled into it by chance.
Brownstone, for example, took over for his father after his father had a heart attack. “I was home for the summer, in June, and was to make one trip to his territory…. So, I made the one trip and, 55 years later, I made the last trip,” said Brownstone. “That was how I got into it.”
Freed also grew up in the business. “It was around all the time, certainly because of my father and, more so, because of my grandfather and my great-grandfather,” she said. “I’ve always loved fashion, so that was the exciting part, but certainly not the business part.”
Freed’s great-grandfather started a sewing and pad factory, which was, over the years, transformed into more of an outerwear and ladies wear company, also offering tailored items, like uniforms.
“Something we’ve been doing for a long time is government uniforms,” said Freed, listing some of their clients, such as the RCMP and Parks Canada. “For the Canadian Olympic teams, we made the opening ceremony jacket for the athletes. And in the HBC stores, we did all the replicas.”
Raber’s grandfather started in gloves in 1924. “My zaida started being a glove cutter,” he said. “In 1934, the partner came to the realization that no one was manufacturing dress gloves in Western Canada. So, they started a company, called Perfect Fit Glove [and he was involved there from] around 1934-1941, manufacturing the majority of the dress gloves for people like the Eaton’s bale order, which at that time hosted 90 percent of the retail shares in Canada.”
In 1941, when Raber’s grandfather’s partner’s son and Raber’s father finished school, his zaida suggested they buy him out, which spawned the company Raber Glove that same year.
“Now, we make all domestic leather gloves and mitts for many uses, for many customers: the RCMP, the military, police departments across Canada,” said Raber. “We also supply a lot of independent stores from coast to coast that stick to [us because of] the quality we make, and we’ve existed that way … 99.99 percent of all gloves coming into North America come from offshore.”
Rich’s father started his business, with four operators and himself, in 1939. It was called Winnipeg Pants and Sportswear, with one of the main buyers at the time and for many years following being Eaton’s.
“Today, we have a factory in Winnipeg,” said Rich. “We still manufacture high-quality work outerwear. We also deal in Asia, Bangladesh, China and Cambodia. People ask us how we can make a living dealing with people [worldwide] like that. I tell them I come from the North End [of Winnipeg] … [so] if I can’t deal with these guys, nobody can.”
Silver recalled his closest neighbor driving up at eight o’clock in the morning, informing him that his dad had died. “I made my way back to Winnipeg and a lot of people were pointing fingers and wondering who would take care of the business,” said Silver. “I said, ‘Not me. I’m going back to B.C.,’ but my great-uncle, who was around at the time, asked me to come in and help him sell the business. That was 37, 38 years ago and I have yet to be able to sell it.”
Silver discovered that no one was willing to buy unless he was willing to stay and manage the company, spurring him to do just that. “So, I bought it with some partners and then the drive for success kept me going,” he said.
Weston Glove Works was established around 1921 by Silver’s grandfather and three great-uncles and, in the beginning, exclusively manufactured gloves.
“In 1921, gloves were one of the most important parts of work wear, because all work was outside with your hands,” said Silver. “Then, they branched off into coveralls, overalls and other types of work wear. Then, they got into casual wear, and then into polyester leisure suits.
“I was interested in developing a brand that could sell a large volume of merchandise for Victoria Beckham, and the jeans were about $300. I thought we could do about 20 to 25 million dollars globally.
“At the same time that I was making garments for Victoria Beckham that sold for $300, I was making jeans for Walmart that sold for $15. People would ask what the difference was between the two, and I’d say $285 – except the ones for Walmart would last longer.”
“At the same time that I was making garments for Victoria Beckham that sold for $300, I was making jeans for Walmart that sold for $15,” he continued. “People would ask what the difference was between the two, and I’d say $285 – except the ones for Walmart would last longer.”
Last but not least, Steiman spoke about how he got into the industry. His grandfather started one of the first garment companies in Winnipeg, making, among other things, buffalo coats for the Winnipeg police force as early as 1900. Steiman came into the business in 1962.
“I remember, as a young boy, I hated to go up to his shop to get a leather jacket, which I had to do every two years, because it stunk, was noisy, was sweaty, and people yelled at each other. It was the last place I could envision myself having a career.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.