Strong & Free thrives in duty free

Canadian streetwear brand Strong & Free Emblem is ready to take its three word affirmation from Saint John, New Brunswick all around the world.

Now available in fifteen duty free locations across Canada, the brand began with no lofty expectations in 2006. It started with a woman pulling maple leaves off a tree and tracing them.

Peace Bridge Duty Free

“My partner Denise Dow always wanted to create something that emulates the American eagle in the U.S.,” Patricia Gallagher, Strong & Free VP Marketing tells TMI. “We have a maple tree in our backyard. Denise took some leaves off the tree and traced them into this image, which were three maple leaves, and put the banner on it – Strong & Free. It was as simple as that, which is the best part of the whole story. There was no big plan. We were just going to create this plaque and sell it to patriotic Canadians.”

The three words – Strong & Free – which the company trademarked 12 years ago, feature in the Canadian national anthem and are instantly recognizable to Canadians.

“The words that really ring true to most Canadians are ‘The true north strong and free.’ We picked the words strong and free from that sentence as the ones that really resonated with us.”

And the three word affirmation resonated with Canadians at first, and then with tourists purchasing the products as a little bit of Canadiana.

“What happened organically along the way was this clothing brand developed. People started loving the message, loving the affirmation. It has completely evolved into a streetwear collection that is relatable to all humankind. It is no longer just us Canadians. The words Strong & Free relate to people in different ways.”

Dow and Gallagher opened up a shop in their hometown of Saint John, New Brunswick, which serendipitously happened to be located across the street from the cruise terminal.

“We started to sell to tourists of all nationalities. The words meant something to people, really evolving from being just a Canadian emblem.”

Following the brand’s success with cruise tourists, Dow and Gallagher saw duty free as the next logical step for the brand’s growth.

Sault Ste Marie Duty Free

“We started with the Saint John airport and the local land border store in Woodstock. We are now in 15 duty free locations in Canada, including both airport and land border, and continuing to grow. We are in T1 and T3 in Toronto and in YSJ and Hamilton Airport and the rest are land border stores.”

This year will be Strong & Free’s third time attending the FDFA Convention.

“In our shop and across the border clothing is our best seller, with the hoodies and t-shirts leading the way. We also sell a lot of hats and toques and sell many pins, crests, decals, easy add on items.”

Gallagher says the short term plan for the brand is to be in every Canada duty free store, but she also has loftier goals in mind.

“Our goal is to completely cover the Canadian duty free market, but I also think there is opportunity for international attention. Our products are 99% made in Canada but the message is universal. Because we own the trademark we can produce the product anywhere and put it on anything. We want to take that conversation further and see if there is an opportunity in European markets or in the U.S.”

Gallagher says she never could have imagined twelve years ago where this little brand they created in their backyard would go.

“You take a dream and twelve years later you are doing something that you are totally passionate about. These two middle aged women decided to create this brand and we did it. And we are doing it all from this little small town in New Brunswick.”

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