Brand caters to a bygone age of planes, trains

Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto


Dax Wilkinson, head of National Heritage Brands, was inspired to start the clothing line by childhood memories of floatplanes winging in over his family’s summer home on Georgian Bay. Behind him hangs a map of Georgian Bay’s North Channel.

National Heritage brands

Summers at his family’s place on Georgian Bay’s North Channel are a gilded memory for Dax Wilkinson, and the vivid memory of floatplanes winging in over the treetops and landing on the water — Otters, Beavers and Norduyn Norsemans — would become the inspiration for a line of clothing that’s designed to elicit the same muscular nostalgia for a bygone age of planes and trains, of Mounties and airmen.

Six years ago, after spending years in the custom sportswear business producing licensed hats and shirts for NBA, NHL and baseball franchises, Wilkinson was ready for something new. “I thought about those bush planes, and they’re cooler than any of this,” he recalls. “Nobody’s never done so much as a cool ball cap or anything for guys who are into aviation. I just decided that was a good idea, but what about CP railways, and Massey-Harris tractors, what about dogsled or toboggan companies? There’s a wealth of things out there.”

National Heritage brands

Working with his uncle on a log, Dax started Red Canoe, the flagship of his National Heritage Brands company, and began by going back to the source. Working with the town of Red Lake, Ont., the host of the annual fly-in Norseman Festival, he got permission to design a line of Norseman caps and T-shirts, featuring the defunct company’s evocative logo and a silhouette of the sturdy bush plane.

“My brother and I hooked up the trailer to the station wagon and drove 24 hours to Red Lake to the Norseman festival, and we had a booth there, and that was the start. We had a great time, and the product line was received really well.”

Since then, Wilkinson has expanded his line, negotiating with Bombardier for the rights to use the Beaver and DeHavilland logos, producing a line of Royal Canadian Air Force clothing in co-operation with the Air Force Association of Canada, and branching off into garments featuring the logos of long-disappeared regional airlines like Sudbury’s Austin Airways, CP Airlines, Massey-Harris tractors, Cessna Airplanes, American Airlines, and other emblems of a boy’s own post-war world of travel and everyday adventure, reaching a high point in a line of clothes, bags and stationary branded with vintage RCMP imagery.

The garments are beautifully finished and, as much as it’s possible, made in Canada, which Wilkinson says is vital to one of his biggest new markets — souvenir shops at landmarks like the CN Tower and the Calgary Tower, and airport terminals like Trudeau and Pearson. The Hudson’s Bay Company has made a big order it will be selling at the Beijing Olympics this summer, and Dax has plans to expand into markets in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

“We want to be able to sell them forever,” he says. “We want everything to be classic. We don’t really want to be in the fashion business, changing our styles every season. It’s just not the kind of business we want to be in, where everybody’s fighting to be different from everybody else. We take some inspiration from Ralph Lauren and Victorinox Swiss Army, where they’re classic styles, done in a really nice quality. Things you can buy and wear and keep forever, rather than something with lots of logoing that the kids will like now.”

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