Founded in 1996 by Craig Atkinson, today CYC Design Corporation is synonymous with made in Canada. Alongside producing garments for brands like Supreme and Arc’Teryx, CYC’s in-house labels, Reigning Champ and wings+horns, are defining what it means to be best-in-class. Chris Danforth sits down with Craig to learn the untold story behind Canada’s reigning champion of athleticwear.
At CYC Design Corporation, everything starts and ends with fabric.
Craig Atkinson is the founder of manufacturer CYC and its two sub-brands, Reigning Champ and wings+horns. Over the last few decades, this brand consortium has carved out its reputation as being one of the world’s leading apparel manufacturers, helping to establish “made in Canada” as a globally recognized signifier of quality.
The brand consortium stands in stark contrast to the world of capital “F” fashion. While fashion brands churn out seasonal collections twice a year, each with their own inspirational references and show notes, Reigning Champ’s core offerings change very little between spring/summer and fall/winter.
The brand’s color palette remains locked into neutral tones like greys and navy blues. Reigning Champ gives the impression that it strives to be anti-fashion. This is all by design, a testament to the brand’s commitment to quality and timelessness over quantity and trends. As a brand, Craig and his team are laser-focused on doing what they do best.
Here’s the story of how CYC became one of the industry’s most reliable and in-demand athleticwear producers.
Prior to founding CYC, Craig honed his eye for fabrics while living in Japan. He acted as a middleman, sourcing sneakers, denim and vintage apparel in the United States and Canada, to then be sold in vintage boutiques in Japan. “I would come back to Vancouver and hit up every Foot Locker. I bought as many Air Max 95s as they would sell me. Certain types of Levi’s were gold if you could get your hands on them.”
His Japanese clients would sometimes make specific requests regarding size, quality, or materials. “Some of our customers said, ‘Well if you can’t find it, can you make it?’” So when Craig was not able to source certain particular pieces, he considered finding a manufacturer that could recreate vintage items. “So we started looking into resources to manufacture sweatshirts and T-shirts. We were looking for manufacturers who could recreate a 1960s Champion sweater or a Sears-Roebuck piece.”
“I knew that the Japanese understood the quality we were striving for and when I realized that they had a unique appreciation for that level of quality, that became the angle for me.”
Craig quickly became a stickler for quality, insisting on the highest-quality output from any manufacturer he worked with. “We were a pain in the ass for any factory that we worked with,” Craig confesses. “We would have to push all the time. We camped out. We were in that factory daily.” Craig notes that his time living in Japan was formative for his understanding of manufacturing and materials. He notes, “My education in the space was Japan.”
Armed with a deeper understanding of quality and an eye for vintage gear, Craig started to produce white label goods for brands in Japan, including department stores like Beams and United Arrows.
“I knew that the Japanese understood the quality we were striving for and when I realized that they had a unique appreciation for that level of quality, that became the angle for me,” Craig reveals.
Supreme Comes Knocking
While shopping at Beams, Supreme founder James Jebbia came across a sweater produced by CYC. In 1998, Craig received a phone call from a brand called Supreme. Craig recounts, “I remember getting the call from my brother-in-law who said, ‘Hey there’s some guy from New York calling from a company named Supreme. Are we interested in that?’”
“Supreme was really our first North American customer,” Craig notes. “So we took on Supreme’s entire sweatshirt program. We developed a specific fabric, a heavyweight 500-gram fabric for the Japanese market and for Supreme. That was kind of the catalyst for, I think, a lot of other streetwear brands to come our way.” This list includes the likes of Arc’teryx, Social Studies, Snafu, Rogan, Nom de Guerre and more.
“I remember getting the call from my brother-in-law who said, ‘Hey there’s some guy from New York calling from a company named Supreme. Are we interested in that?’”
This relationship with Supreme also led Craig to partnering with Brendan Babenzian (former Creative Director of Supreme) on the first launch of Noah in the mid-2000s. Craig and Brendan were partners in the brand, with Craig handling production, distribution and finance, while Brendan looked after product design.
“I’ve always appreciated Brendan’s passion and that’s what I invested in. I remember James giving us the advice to open retail first so we could express the brand the way we wanted. At that time, we just didn’t have the resources to make that next step. A few years into it, we weren’t able to get the brand to a place where we were happy so we decided to put Noah into hibernation. Fast forward to 2016, I’m happy to see he’s successfully resurrected Noah with his wife Estelle.”
CYC and Reigning Champ
After establishing CYC as a business-to-business operation and white-label supplier for a laundry list of brands, Craig founded the consumer-facing brand Spruce in 1998. He learned Spruce was already registered as a brand and in 2004 he selected a new moniker, wings+horns. Three years later, Craig launched Reigning Champ.
Reigning Champ’s clothing designs are iterative. The brand has a core program that consists of high-quality wardrobe staples, offered in black, navy blue and grey. Season to season, these pieces remain largely the same, however cuts are updated ever-so-slightly over time. The leg opening of their signature sweatpants. The shoulder of their hoodie. The sleeve length of their T-shirt. Ultimately, the details that go into any Reigning Champ product are impressive and the final result—a hoodie, a blanket, a T-shirt—is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts
“Reigning Champ was started with the mindset of just being best-in-class in fleece,” Craig states. “In 2008, we did a collaboration with adidas and Livestock. In adidas’ press release, they called us the King of Sweatshirts. That really struck a chord with me and helped me realize that other people are starting to recognize us as this company that produces really high-quality sweatshirts.”
Throughout its history, Reigning Champ has also developed a strong portfolio of collaborative partners. Since 2019, the brand has worked with esteemed fashion designer Junya Watanabe on seasonal collaborations, reworking several items from Reigning Champ’s core offerings.
In the footwear category, Reigning Champ has worked with both adidas and ASICS on more than one occasion. Craig notes, “When working with another brand, we’re always looking to partner with best-in-class, whatever the field may be. So when you think about ASICS, they’re a legendary running company. Can we create something new? Something special. We don’t just want to slap labels on something.”
On the most memorable collaborations, Craig reveals, “One of my favorite collaborations that we’ve been doing recently is working with Jide Osifeso. He’s coming up with things that we would never do. Our two worlds coming together is creating something new. He’s been a pleasure to work with.”
Reigning Champ’s collaborative work with the creative director and designer includes graphic T-shirts, cut-and-sew pieces, and accessories. Jide’s past work includes projects with Nike and adidas, as well as musicians Kendrick Lamar and Jaden Smith.
Craig’s personal style overlaps with what his brands, Reigning Champ and wings+horns, are perhaps best known for. “My personal style is pretty simple, but I can say that our Reigning Champ Team Pant and my wings+horns merino wool crewneck have been in heavy rotation this winter.”
“I like supporting locals. We’re living here. We benefit from being here. If we can support local businesses and local people, that’s always a priority for us.”
Made in Canada
At one time or another, the brand been has a home to many of Vancouver’s most noteworthy creatives. Designers Kenta Goto, Tung Vo and Davidson Manaloto. Streetwear and fashion pioneer Raif Adelberg. Entrepreneur Rob Lo. Photographer Fahim Kassam. The list goes on.
CYC and its subsidiaries have helped foster and incubate a number of important creatives from Vancouver, a city that is held in high regard thanks to the mixture of outdoor and lifestyle brands based there; Arc’teryx, Lululemon, and Herschel Supply Co. being among the most noteworthy.
25 years into its journey, CYC’s adherence to quality, timelessness, and unisex designs have transcended trends to become wardrobe essentials. But more than that, the company has become a beacon and an example of Canadian entrepreneurship in the fashion industry.
CYC, Reigning Champ, and wings+horns have leveraged something quintessentially Canadian, creating products to be showcased on a global stage. Today, wings+horns and Reigning Champ are synonymous with made-in-Canada quality.
“It does feel good for us to represent Canada on an international level,” Craig concludes. “It’s more than just stamping that a garment is made here. It’s really about what the company is collectively doing as an organization. I like supporting locals. We’re living here. We benefit from being here. If we can support local businesses and local people, that’s always a priority for us.”
Photo credits: Chris Danforth