Written by Deena Douara
Andrea Armstrong describes her grandfather’s motivation for starting a line of casual “athleisure” wear as gratitude, above all else.
Most Happiness Is … shirts feature Canadian nature motifs — an iceberg, tree, mountain and sea — and all of them feature the brand as a prominent graphic. Which is sort of the point.
“When someone walks by with that emblazoned on their chest, don’t you read that and want to know what they’re happy for?”
Armstrong’s grandfather Gordon Carton created the line of T-shirts and sweatshirts to spread joy and gratitude for Canada, hoping it would be a contagious message for a proud populace.
And he has much to be grateful for. Carton survived World War II, but 95 classmates did not. That loss, says Armstrong, left an indelible mark, and the brand largely serves to honour their sacrifices. So patriotic is Carton that he once paid for an anonymous ad in the Globe and Mail newspaper to remind readers that it was Flag Day.
While Carton isn’t able to join the interview, his perspective is shared unfiltered through his blog on the brand website, and through Armstrong, who has long admired her sharp, atypical grandfather who has also served as a Member of Provincial Parliament, cabinet minister and businessman.
“How many times has he said, happiness is Canada,” notes Armstrong. “He started saying it over and over again…. We really have to be grateful for all these moments in our lives. Moments of happiness.”
The brand was sparked by an article on “the Canadian Dream” in a local magazine, which put into words what Carton had long felt: that Canada was not characterized by a homogenous or easily-definable culture or tradition, but that was something to celebrate.
“He gets so excited when newcomers become Canadians,” adds marketing head Minnow Hamilton, who feels part of the family. “He wants to share it.”
While they knew they were on the right track with their branding, it was important to get validation on their approach.
That’s why Enterprise Toronto’s Small Business Forum was so valuable, says Armstrong. They connected with similarly-minded entrepreneurs at the event, and resources like Vistaprint Canada, which printed their business and marketing cards. They were particularly struck by keynote speaker Jeremy Potvin – who they met with later and who provided general encouragement as well as specific guidance on useful tools and social media channels.
One decision that wasn’t solely about business was where to manufacture the clothes, which are produced entirely in Canada. And 10 per cent of proceeds are donated to Canadian non-profits — currently The Great Trail (previously the Trans Canada Trail).
“It was absolutely paramount to my grandfather that we give back to the land we love.”
It is little surprise, then, that the family behind Happiness finds their greatest happiness relaxing together near Algonquin Park.
“We’re utterly nuts about our cottage. We spend entire summers up there,” says Armstrong, who’s only skipped the cottage three summers of her life — even participating in a canoe regatta with her son two days after giving birth to her second child. “My son wanted me to be in it,” she explains nonchalantly.
“If there’s any moment we can be up there, we are.”
Looking back on her childhood years there, Armstrong recalls her grandfather making bacon and eggs breakfast for the family while sporting the “athleisure wear of the time.”
And that’s not a tradition they are about to change. Perhaps, however, they’ll swap the velour for some worn-in tees that will remind them of these moments long after.
Happiness Is … apparel is available for purchase online and at select retailers, including some Sporting Life locations.