Cost of Living

How some of your favourite brands are brought back from the dead

Bringing back beloved brands can be good business. That's because the factors that lead to a company's demise can sometimes have little to do with whether consumers are still interested in its products.

Retail experts say bringing back beloved brands can be good business

A man sits on a chair that's sitting on a checkered rug. Next to him is a rack on which is hung pairs of pants in a range of bright colours.
Alex Curry was a huge fan of the brand Modrobes when its iconic pants were first popular in the '90s. He and his wife, Zoe Curry, bought the company in August 2022 and relaunched it as an online store operated out of their home in Sexsmith, Alta. (Submitted by Zoe Curry)

One brand of clothing — specifically pants — has always had a special place in the closet of Alex Curry of Sexsmith, Alta., a small town about 20 kilometres north of Grand Prairie. 

"From high school, I loved Modrobes. I think from about Grade 7, I really noticed they were unique."

The loose-fitting, made-in-Canada pants came in a range of bright colours and were the height of rave and streetwear fashion in the late 1990s. 

However, after that initial craze passed, the brand sought bankruptcy protection in 2003. It attempted a return in 2010, but the second life didn't last long.

That is, until 2022. After a chance search on eBay to see if he could buy a pair of the pants, Alex discovered the brand had been put up for sale. He and his wife, Zoë, ended up buying the company, and are now operating it out of their home as an online store.

Modrobes isn't the only once-dead brand that's recently been resurrected: stores like Le Château, Pier 1 and HMV have all been reworked in some form, as companies try to capitalize on customers' nostalgia. 

A woman in a face mask walks past Le Chateau, a clothing store, which has "Store closing" and "Everything Must Go!" signs on it.
A woman in a face mask walks past Le Chateau at the Guildford Town Centre in Surrey, B.C., Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. The clothing store is going out of business amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. (Marissa Tiel/The Canadian Press)

Bringing back beloved brands — whether online, as a pop-up or as full bricks and mortar — can be good business. That's because the factors that lead to a company's demise can sometimes have little to do with whether consumers are still interested in its products, says retail advisor Farla Efros.

"It's kind of what happens behind the scenes," said Efros, formerly CEO of True Religion Brand Jeans, itself a brand that came back from bankruptcy twice.

It could be that poor management or cash flow are to blame, or an outside circumstance, like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"But at the end of the day, it's not the brand's fault."

And even though some consumers have complained that a brand's return isn't the same as before — products can be of worse quality, at a different price point or have less selection — companies are hoping the brand equity makes up for it. 

A hidden value

Some of these brands have a lot of heritage, said Efros, who is now president of HRC Retail Advisory, part of professional services firm Accenture. 

When they return, "it's kind of like bringing the band back together again.

"And they come back because they have a ton of awareness and they mean something to people."

Customers' fondness for a particular brand is tough to build from scratch, said Grant Packard, associate professor of marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

Legacy brands have a hidden value, even after they've gone under, he said. 

"If we can use them successfully, that's great, because it's really expensive to build that. 

"So if Toys R Us can come back under a new owner or in a new market and take advantage of that pre-built goodwill — that equity — then the company is saving millions."

Simply going by some of the dead or dying brands that have recently been revived in Canada, the appetite for retailers popular in the '90s and 2000s seems to be growing:

  • HMV Canada (Revived February 2024)
  • Zellers (March 2023)
  • Modrobes (October 2022)
  • Le Château (April 2022)

A new business model

The trend has also been a boon to companies whose main purpose is to revive old brands.

Among the largest of them is Authentic Brands Group (ABG), a New York-based brand management company. It's acquired the rights to nearly 60 brands, including Brooks Brothers, Nine West and Forever 21. 

Shoppers talk on their phones while walking in a mall by a store with a sign that says Forever 21.
Clothing store Forever 21 is one of the brands purchased by Authentic Brand Group, which acquires the brand rights for well loved but financially struggling companies. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

Founded in 2010 by Canadian billionaire Jamie Salter, ABG has become "the poster child for this kind of business model," said Alexandre Terseleer, of management consulting firm Kearney in New York.

ABG buys the rights to brands that are either bankrupt or struggling, and can be "bought for almost no money," he said. 

It then sets up licensing deals to bring those back in one form or another.

"So the logic behind this is that, first of all, you don't need to own all the operations of a brand to make it run properly." 

While partner companies make the jeans, sneakers or dress shirts, ABG focuses on making the brand more appealing. It aims to increase distribution, and outsources much of the rest, said Terseleer.

It's been good business for the company — ABG was reportedly valued at $20 billion US in its last funding round, and CEO Salter said at a January conference that it's making nearly $30 billion US in global retail sales. It's also considering going public within the next year and a half.

ABG didn't respond to a request for an interview from CBC News.

'A whole lot of hype for nothing'

But customers don't always resonate with an old brand's comeback. 

Such was the case for Chantal Saville, a gen-Xer who grew up in Toronto with fond memories of going to Zellers, the Canadian discount chain, for everything from a new snowsuit to kitchen supplies.

So when, a decade after it shuttered most of its locations, it launched pop-up shops in several The Bay stores last year, she was eager to check them out.

Baby apparel and toys are seen displayed alongside signage for Zellers.
The Hudson's Bay Company launched a pop-up Zellers shop inside Hudson's Bay department stores in Burlington, Ont., and Anjou, Que., in 2021. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

But to her dismay, "it felt like bougie instead of BiWay," she said, referring to the discount chain that closed in 2001. The pop-up featured a smattering of overpriced pet accessories and kitchenware, she said.

"And there was some, you know, nostalgia clothing with some of the logos and stuff on it, which I'm not going to wear."

She and her mom left without buying anything.

"It just seemed like a whole lot of hype for nothing."

A woman in bright pink pants, a black T-shirt and ball cap sits on a chair with her elbow resting on a stack of colourful pants.
Zoe Curry said the response from fans of the brand has been 'overwhelming.' (Submitted by Zoe Curry)

Sustainable growth for Modrobes

For Alex and Zoë Curry of the new Modrobes, their priorities include keeping overhead down so they can grow sustainably, and meeting the expectations of original Modrobes fans. 

That's why they trained carefully with the original owner, Stevan Sal Debus, on how to make the iconic pants the exact same way. 

"It's the same CAD [computer-aided design] drawings. We are working off of the same raw materials. We're sourced through the same original suppliers in Canada," said Alex. The pants have a different manufacturer, but are still made in Canada.

"We hear from numerous people with these stories of how they're still wearing their pants, and they're so excited that they get new pairs," said Zoë. 

"It's been very overwhelming just how excited people are."

WATCH | More on the Modrobes revival: 

Remember Modrobes? This Alberta couple is trying to bring them back

2 months ago
Duration 3:11

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brandie Weikle

Journalist

Brandie Weikle is a writer and editor for CBC Radio based in Toronto. She joined CBC in 2016 after a long tenure as a magazine and newspaper editor. Brandie covers a range of subjects but has special interests in health, family and the workplace. You can reach her at brandie.weikle@cbc.ca.

With files from Jennifer Keene