Find out how an enduring love story between friends, family and the great outdoors grew into a brand so celebratory of Canada.
It’s 8:30 a.m. in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park at Bonita, a camp on Bonita Lake, and Michael Budman and Don Green, the co-founders of the famously CanCon brand Roots, have already canoed, kayaked and taken an intrepid dip in the very chilly water – on this Saturday morning. Summer is still attempting to make its presence felt. “It’s a great morning, isn’t it,” says Green. The sun is streaming through the trees onto the mist lifting off the lake.
The Budman and Green family dogs – Kingston belongs to the former, and Greta and Arthur, the latter – race past the teepee and the logger’s tent to the dock. There is mention of a lumberjack breakfast. One imagines that the mornings here are always quite good.
Bonita is around the corner from Camp Tamakwa, where Budman and Green as children from Detroit spent their summers.
“Camp councillor, the best job I ever had,” says Budman, who will remind you that he was voted Tamaka’s best canoe instructor two years in a row.
It is hard to overstate the mythic hold that Algonquin has had on the two men and how, to this day, it tangibly infuses the Roots ethos and look. While Bonita serves as the gathering place, both men have intimate enclaves a short boat ride away on Smoke Lake. All get frequent and lengthy use from family and friends come summer.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that in the early ’70s, at Budman’s tiny cabin, which boasted neither running water or electricity, that the buddies dreamt up the idea of the negative-heel shoe that started the run of clothing, accessories, home and design products found in the more than 200 Roots stores that dot the country today.
The first store was opened in Toronto in August of 1973. Denyse Tremblay, a Quebec native, was Roots’ first employee. She later married Green and is the driving force behind the company’s yoga line and studio as well as Roots Kids.
The couple have three children. As store manager, she hired Diane Bald, a Toronto girl who went on to marry Budman. They are parents of two. An architect, Diane is the company’s design director, playing a key role in the brand’s look and feel from store design and interiors – cabin chic is a trademark look; she, too, went to summer camp, Wapomeo, in Algonquin – to the leather bags and goods made at the state of the art factory in Toronto.
Roots: 40 Years of Style (House of Anansi Press), a coffee-table book lush with photographs from the company’s archives, commemorates the milestone that ends this summer.
The book recounts a journey of ongoing design innovation and branding coups through time-tested connections with celebrities from Hollywood, politics and sports. The book lingers on Roots’ years as the internationally trendsetting outfitter of Canada’s Olympic teams. The subtext: how the brand transcended to cultural signifier, one as Canadian as the beaver on its logo and crisp northern nights made for campfires by their beloved lake. Dazzling images of Algonquin take pride of place.
Historically, the pure air would draw the unwell to Algonquin, which is Canada’s oldest provincial park, and Budman and Green learned the values of health through athletics and respect for the environment during those endless summers portaging through the park’s pristine wilderness. Those values have translated into Roots’ perennially stylish esthetic: outdoorsman gear, functional sweats and durable leather outerwear – easy, unassailable, authentic, cultural.
To wit, look no further than a collection currently in Roots stores that pays tribute to the life and art of Group of Seven associate Tom Thomson, who was born in Claremont, Ont., in 1877.
At one point, Thomson lived in an artist’s community in Rosedale in Toronto, very near to where the first Roots store opened on Yonge Street. But more significantly, he lived and painted at Mowat Lodge, at the north end of Canoe Lake.
Budman and Green consider him a kindred spirit, dubbing him the original Roots man, admiring his prowess as a fisherman, canoeist and guide and his love of the park.
In 1917, Thomson drowned under mysterious circumstances in Canoe Lake. And while his rumoured burial in Algonquin Park is in dispute, there is no disputing that his work resonates because he captured the park’s many moods and attributes.
Budman and Green never tire of it. Algonquin is their Canada. And to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their company that was born of it, the two American kids from Detroit were sworn in as Canadian citizens last November. And they agree: “The best thing we ever did was move to Canada.”
A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue with the headline, “True North,” p. 51.