History of GWG
The Great Western Garment Company in Winnipeg
by Murray Peterson
The Birth of an Industry
Early garment manufacturing in Winnipeg in the late 19th century was strictly for the supply of the local market and included gloves, work clothes and, of course, winter apparel. It was not until after 1900 that this changed. As the region's premier city, Winnipeg was at the centre of western Canada's economic growth and its garment industry, with an estimated 160 workers in 1903, took advantage of this fact by expanding to serve the domestic markets to the west. The companies of this period were remarkably similar; most were family-run operations employing only a handful of workers who made clothing one garment at a time.
As with the rest of Winnipeg's economic sector, garment manufacturers saw a marked rise in sales during the first two decades of the 20th century, heightened by military orders for uniforms during World War I. This business expansion continued through the 1920s until the Great Depression. But even with the global economy in turmoil, Winnipeg's garment industry of the early 1930s continued. Reflective of the economic conditions of the time, businesses were much smaller in scale and were often operated by recently arrived Jewish immigrant families. These families chose to locate their businesses in the downtown, renting cheap space in the long-empty warehouses of the Exchange District. World War II again increased the demand for manufactured clothing and textiles including uniforms, tents, parachutes and canvas items. It also brought about significant change in the operation of garment factories—assembly lines and piecework pay replaced the traditional, slower methods.
After the war, Winnipeg rose again to the fore of the garment industry, this time on a national scale. Fourteen new apparel businesses were established in 1946 alone. Through modernization and expansion, Winnipeg became Canada's leading producer of menswear in the mid-1950s. Despite the arrival of cheap imports, and shortages of textile fabrics and labour, Winnipeg's garment industry continued to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s, becoming the third largest in Canada behind only Montreal and Toronto. There were 116 firms operating in Winnipeg in 1974, 90% of which were located in the downtown. Together they employed 6,500 workers, making the industry the second largest employer in the city, and the largest employer of women. It was in the midst of this expansion period that Edmonton's Great Western Garment Company opened a branch in Winnipeg.
GWG in Winnipeg
According to Henderson's Directory for Winnipeg, Edmonton's GWG opened a sales office in Winnipeg in the early 1960s, run by representative Neil R. Beaton. By 1964, it was located on the fifth floor of the Bell Block, 370 Donald Street; R. Munro ran the office in the 1970s. In 1965, the company contracted production from Winnipeg Pants Manufacturing Company, a local firm founded in 1939 by Ben Kettner, who had emigrated from Austria in 1923, and his brother-in-law Abraham Rich. The company operated for many years out of a building on Jarvis Street in Winnipeg's North End, a neighbourhood that had traditionally been home to the city's new immigrant families. By 1960, the company had moved again, occupying the entire 7th floor of the Whitla Building at 70 Arthur Street, in the heart of the warehouse district.
On March 2, 1967, Great Western Garment (Winnipeg) Limited was incorporated. That same year it purchased Winnipeg Pants from Abraham Rich, who initially stayed on as Vice-President and General Manager. His son David retained the jacket manufacturing portion of the business. In conjunction with this sale came the company's move to larger facilities. Located at the northeast corner of Adelaide Street and McDermot Avenue, the wholesale hardware firm of Miller, Morse and Company built this large warehouse in 1904 to house its ever-growing business. By the 1930s, the original owner was gone and the entire building was being used by the Manitoba Liquor Control Department—a use that continued until the late 1960s when the interior was completely renovated. The building was renamed the Apparel Mart Building and it became a centre for garment industry manufacturers and importers.
Through the 1960s, GWG Limited, and the Winnipeg apparel sector alike, enjoyed steady growth. A local newspaper in 1969 heralded the arrival of 400 women from the Philippines brought in by the government to work in clothing factories—a result of the continued shortage of workers in the industry. With a staff of over 300, by 1974 GWG was one of the largest enterprises in the garment manufacturing industry. Well-known brand name jeans like Chic and Ziggy were designed and manufactured in Winnipeg and led the clothing sector in Canada.
The Move to a Modern Plant and Closure
In 1977, the company purchased a large factory, constructed of brick and concrete, that had originally housed a printing firm and moved its operations, including its sales office, to its new address at 365 Bannatyne Avenue. The company continued to operate out of this location until the early 1980s, when it was decided to close the plant because of what local manager Ken Jones called an "outdated" plant that could not be expanded. Despite the efforts of civic and provincial governments, the company closed its doors on January 10, 1984, putting 245 workers out of jobs.