There’s a mystery in Canada’s business world. Why did Roots, the iconic Canadian company that’s synonymous with stylish, quality casual wear for nature lovers, drop out of a plan to collaborate with Parks Canada on a new fashion line?

When Parks Canada announced in 2012 that it would licence its brand in order to produce merchandise (and make a bit of money in the process), Roots was named as a “creative partner.”  

“As a company that has always celebrated and been inspired by Canada’s physical beauty, Roots is thrilled to be part of this new initiative with Parks Canada,” Roots co-founder Don Green said at the time.  

It’s hard to imagine a more ideal partner for Parks Canada. Not only is the Roots brand identified strongly with Canada, the company helped to put us on the map in the world of design. It did such a great job of outfitting Canadian Olympic athletes that it was hired to do the same for the U.S. team. And with 120 retail locations in Canada and the United States, and 125 in Asia, it would have offered an incredible distribution system for the new Parks Canada clothing line.  

But somewhere along the line, the partnership fell apart. Successful Canadian fashion designer Roger Edwards was hired instead, to create the look of the new clothing line, which includes T-shirts, hoodies, and ball caps. As of this week, the clothing will be sold exclusively at The Bay

What happened?

“For reasons I think you’d have to ask Roots about, they chose not to work with us,” said John Houlding, who runs the Mississauga-based clothing manufacturer Cotton Candy, which will produce the line.

Parks Canada originals

The logo for Parks Canada's 'Original' line of clothing, made by Cotton Candy. (CBC)

Parks Canada was just as obtuse in its reply to the question.

“Originally Roots was to be the urban retail distributor, however in mid-2012, Roots withdrew from their relationship with Cotton Candy,” is the department’s official line.

Business partnerships can break down for all kinds of reasons. Disagreements over pricing for example, or creative differences regarding design. Personality conflicts can also quash a deal.  

Roots, The Bay and Olympians

There is potential rivalry between Roots and The Bay. After all, Roots did lose the contract to outfit Canadian Olympians in 2005, and HBC became the official provider in 2006. Did a proposal from The Bay drive Roots away?

'Due to the various parties who would be involved in such a venture, we were concerned about being able to create a collection that would have reasonable and competitive retail prices.'- Robert Sarner, Roots spokesman

Fashion maven Jeanne Beker raised the possibility that branding may have been an issue.

“Roots has its own brand on its clothing,” she points out. “Would they have to add Parks Canada to that? Maybe they could have seen this as creating a product that would compete with their own products.”

Robert Sarner, director of communications at Roots, said in an email that Roots originally welcomed the prospect of working on the Parks Canada branded clothing line in early 2012.

"We ultimately concluded due to various aspects pertaining to the production and distribution of the products, that the project was less feasible for us than we had initially anticipated. As a result, we respectfully informed Parks Canada that we had decided not to move forward on the collaboration.”

A person familiar with some of what went on behind the scenes, (who requested anonymity) told me the stumbling block for Roots was that in addition to launching the new “Original” clothing line for Parks Canada, the company would have also had to manage the older “Memories” collection that Parks Canada sells at the 44 national parks and 167 historic sites it manages.

Price issues

“A significant part of the contract was working with those locations, and that involves a lot of fulfillment and distribution,” the source said. “Roots is really a retailer.”

It turns out Roots left the project long before The Bay signed on.  

In a followup exchange, Sarner wouldn’t confirm that it was the “Memories” collection that presented the biggest deterrent to the deal, and instead named a completely different point of contention: price. “Due to the various parties who would be involved in such a venture, we were concerned about being able to create a collection that would have reasonable and competitive retail prices.”

Mystery partially solved. It looks like this deal fell apart for any number of reasons. They may have all been in the same canoe, but the paddlers clearly had different destinations in mind.

The next puzzle will be to discover if there really is room in the marketplace for two similar Canadiana-themed brands to flourish. In abandoning the Parks Canada line, Roots has opened the door to a significant competitor.