If you’ve seen a classic rugby jersey on a college or university campus, chances are that shirt was made here in Kitchener. Or if you noticed a character wearing a striped rugby shirt in a movie or TV show, that shirt was probably cut, sewn and stitched at Barbarian Sports Wear.
Barbarian established its roots in Kitchener in 1981, and aside from a short three-month hiatus in the summer of 2013, the company has been one of the preeminent rugby jersey makers in the world.
It’s fortuitous how Steve Wagner, the current owner of the company, began this endeavour with the apparel company. He played competitive rugby during his university days, winning several awards, all while donning a Barbarian rugby jersey.
The company went into receivership with its previous owners in August 2013, but Wagner learned Barbarian was for sale after many of their employees came looking for work at his other company, Salus Marine Wear, which manufactures life jackets and PFD’s.
With his rugby and manufacturing background designing hockey equipment for Nike, Bauer, and Cooper, Wagner saw an opportunity to continue Barbarian’s vision as a leader in the rugby jersey and spirit wear world. He entered the scrum to keep the company intact, which was the only bid that didn’t intend on dissolving the company.
“There were offers for the machinery, for the raw material, for the name; but we saw that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts,” Wagner said. “To have that company dismantle, you’d never put it back together, including the workforce.
“We opened the doors and everything was still in place with the way they left it. It was a fairly easy transition in that respect.”
Wagner gave the operation a second life and brought back most of the original workforce laid off after the company went bankrupt. The factory was closed down for about 12 weeks, but it wasn’t long before they transitioned and started making rugby shirts again.
Fast forward to today, and despite missing an entire sports team season through high schools, colleges, universities and club rugby, they’re still knitting sweaters at a breakneck pace at their facility in the south end of Kitchener.
To supplement part of the lost revenue, Barbarian began manufacturing cloth face masks for a wide range of companies, from Hudson’s Bay, to the City of Kitchener, to Home Hardware, Loblaws and Subway. Barbarian also adapted part of their production line to make protective gowns for hospitals and fire departments.
Interestingly enough, about a quarter of Barbarian Sports Wear’s business is based in Japan. Their sweaters are featured in full-page magazine spreads overseas, and the labels on the garments are printed in both English and Japanese, as there’s quite the cache for Western-made garments.
Around 20 percent of their output comes from on-field performance wear for rugby players, but the bulk of Barbarian’s production relates to what they call “spirit wear”; the prototypical cotton striped college or university rugby sweater.
Some of the largest Canadian universities they supply spirit wear to include Queen’s University, Wilfrid Laurier University and Western University. They also make spirit wear for stateside colleges like Harvard, Ohio State and the University of Michigan. Especially in states anchored by college football teams, school apparel is big business in the United States.
“If you have a son or daughter that goes to Harvard, you’re selling your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, your mom and dad with embellished diapers and baby carriages with Harvard,” Wagner said.
“It’s a big industry, especially with some of the big football states like Ohio State. In one game, they’ll sell ten million of clothing for that one event.”
Barbarian has had several high-profile features in TV and film. Barbarian sweaters were used in the films Invictus, The Blind Side, and TV shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation.
The spirit wear industry is a crowded market, but Barbarian Sports Wear stands out by making custom embroidered spirit wear for each individual school. That’s how they distinguish themselves from any other manufacturer selling a simple sweatshirt with the school’s name and logo.
“Our approach is a little different; we can actually put your colours into your jersey into the knit, whether it’s a hoodie, a crewneck or a rugby shirt, and it’s a very unique look to that school,” Wagner said.
When he took over Barbarian Sports Wear in 2013, Wagner didn’t have to overhaul too much from a production standpoint, but this past year has been a lot of adapting on the fly; whether it’s manufacturing PPE, or potentially shifting some of Salus Marine Wear’s life jacket operation over to the Barbarian facility.
As the last remaining Canadian manufacturer of life jackets, the demand on Salus’ side has been high as well. With so much uncertainty in the near future and a lot hanging in the balance, Wagner hopes the life jacket manufacturing side of the business can help keep Barbarian afloat, if need be.
“This team has been able to pivot quickly on a lot of things,” Wagner said. “We’re prepared to even make life jackets if the college industry to the team industry slows down. That’s crossed our mind."“Our demand on life jackets is even coming up from the states, and we’re not even trying to sell down into the U.S. right now. Having the two companies gives us a lot of flexibility.”