Navy. Yellow. Red. Green.
The savviest of branding gurus would be hard pressed to come up with anything matching the iconic stickiness of a Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket.
The blanket was created, in that four-colour stripe pattern (the “navy” being referred to as “indigo”), around 1800, 20 years after the first “point blanket” — “point” referring to a system of grading blanket size devised by 18th-century French weavers — was introduced into the trade between Europeans offering manufactured goods, and North American Aboriginal hunters providing furs and beaver tails.
By 1800, that trade was already more than a century old. Two French explorers had discovered the wealth of fur accessible through the massive Hudson Bay basin and tried to get French backing to lay claims to the land (keeping in mind, of course, that the land was already well-occupied by the aboriginal peoples who already lived there.) The French were not interested in the enterprise but somehow these two came to the attention of Prince Rupert, a cousin of the English King Charles II.
And so it came to be, in a complex weaving of timing and opportunity worthy of its own historical novel, that King Charles II approved a Royal Charter in May, 1670 granting the lands of the Hudson Bay watershed to “the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay.”
I suspect few people outside Canada know that the Hudson’s Bay Company is North America’s oldest company, or that it has evolved into an international retailing powerhouse after some stuttering and stumbles around the early 1980s economic recession. The company now owns and runs 90 Hudson’s Bay stores in Canada (recently returning to the old name after years of being the breezier “The Bay”), as well as Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Saks OFF 5TH, Gilt, and Home Outfitters. Hudson’s Bay Company also runs Germany’s largest department store group, Galeria Kaufhof, and further European expansions are underway.
The company evolved from a trading company to a retail one in the early 20th century, creating stores out of its trading outposts and then building up, wave by wave, in Canada’s cities. Eventually it swallowed many of its Canadian competitors: the Hudson’s Bay flagship store in downtown Toronto used to be the site of the flagship Simpson’s department store, a chain absorbed into the Bay.
The Bay is where you go for good-quality household basics, sometimes for clothes, always for socks and pantyhose. My partner picked up some great dress shirts on deep discount the other weekend; I keep an eye on the linen sales when we need fresh towels, sheets, or pillows. It treads a fine line between gestures toward elegance — the flagship Bay in downtown Toronto now has an outpost of the New York Kleinberg bridal salon on its eighth floor — and the bargain-hunter delights of “Bay Days” and one-day deep discounts on particular items, promoted relentlessly to customers via near-daily emails.
Especially in recent years, Hudson’s Bay has capitalized on the yearning for All Things Hipster to extend its signature rustic Point Blanket to everything from furniture to toys, sold at boutiques set up within the department stores.
I particularly liked the “ultimate Canadiana” piece I found recently at Hudson’s Bay: Toboggans with Multistripe Point Blanket fabric pads. And, as I wrote about in the Teahen Tale, Mad for moose, artist Charles Pachter has designed a line of items labelled “Baywatch” that incorporate the Point Blanket multistripes with his signature moose silhouette.
But it’s not just Hudson’s Bay that keeps the stripes alive. In celebration of the National Ballet of Canada’s 60th anniversary in 2012, the Design Exchange in Toronto hosted The Tutu Project, which commissioned 60 tutus made by artists, fashion and jewellery designers, and schoolchildren.
And, of course, what could be a more-Canadian tutu than one made of Hudson’s Bay blanket material? With, naturally, matching mittens on strings.
Main photo: Kelley Teahen