The Susie thing

MARJORIE HARRIS November 19 1966

The Susie thing

MARJORIE HARRIS November 19 1966

The Susie thing

MARJORIE HARRIS

The languid young woman, resting cheek against hand, is Susie Kosovic, a precocious (22) fashion designer, who has become to Canada what Mary Quant wasto England a few years ago. Susie brings to clothes a fresh and vital elegance, an uninhibited attitude to color, and a belief in craftsmanship. On these pages she’s with her models and friends who are wearing the rich, simple styles that have propelled her to the forefront of Canadian design. What makes Susie good news is that her clothes are feminine without fussiness, arresting without being bizarre. Overleaf, the story of how she’s managed to come so far so fast

She’s 22, she owns three stores and it all looks very simple. But it’s a tough and intensely obsessive world

“SUSIE’S A TERRIFIC little bird.” That's Vidal Sassoon speaking. He’s the London hairdresser whose ideas about cutting hair have practically defined the feminine profile in the mid-1960s, and he's talking about Susie Kosovic, a 22year-old Toronto fashion designer. “I spotted her at a party in Toronto last spring. I couldn’t miss her — she was wearing an exact copy of one of my hair styles and this marvelous wild dress she’d designed herself. I was tempted to call her Canada’s Mary Quant. But that’s not right because Susie has her own Thing.”

The object of all this praise from one of the gurus of the current fashion scene is an intense, red-headed, strongwilled high-school dropout who owns two shops in Toronto and one in Jamaica, each of them called the Poupée Rouge. She’s had offers from New York, Detroit, Nassau, Vancouver and

Montreal to open stores specifically to carry her line. Chic clients from New York, Detroit and Buffalo come to Toronto regularly just to pick up her clothes.

She opened her first shop in August 1964. Last year, her first full year in business, she grossed $120,000. Now she estimates that 40 people are dependent on the Poupée Rouge for all or part of their income. She has two contractors making the clothes, one for suits, the other for dresses. They're so keen on Susie's clothes that, although they turn out reams of identically cut fake-leopard jackets, or whatever is seasonally current as their mainstay, they lavish special care and attention on the intricate details of Susie’s clothes.

All this has been accomplished in just over two years without advertising or gimmicks. Susie’s only sales pitch

has been the fact that her designs are good and, by now. recognizable. Her silhouette is simple and uncluttered. The details, long jackets, pointed collars, low-slung belts and extreme contrasts in colors are unmistakable. But the effect isn’t achieved without effort. “Sometimes it takes weeks to work out the simplest-looking design to get exactly the right line,” she says. “Then I spend hours and hours cutting up muslin prototypes so the real thing will hang just right. And I'm wild about mad color combinations; that takes a lot of fiddling and experimentation, too. Then I cut and recut brown-paper patterns so that it works in different sizes. For something like our simple little slip dress, the whole process took about three months.”

Her clientele ranges from very hip teeny-boppers to middle-aged women who like to wear “something differ-

ent.” They all struggle into the same clothes, but it's the women with a firm sense of their own style who suit Susie’s clothes best. Anybody with less individuality finds herself swamped by the strength of Susie's Poupée Rouge designs.

Susie produces a large number of designs in limited quantities. Of the 50 new designs for her fall line, about 20 will remain originals, 30 will be reproduced in quantities limited to a few dozen. Part of the attraction of her clothes is their prices. They cost as much as $125. but that’s for a three-piece suit.

It’s almost big business and, to Susie and her generation, none of this is terribly remarkable. You hear these days that youth is a new nationality. And after contact with this generation of under-25-year-olds you’ve got to believe it. The Beatles, Jean Shrimpton, David Bailey and the Mod designers took over London and changed it. Now' the same generation is taking over here, too.

These young people—the designers, photographers, models and artists who comprise Susie’s set — have a terrifying competence about their approach to life. They take their work intensely seriously, and see it as their mission to impose their own stylish image on what they consider a very drab society. But somehow, in their campaign to make everything from clothes to typography seem more youthful, they’ve lost some of that precious quality in themselves. They are, as one close observer of them recently declared, “a sad little generation.”

Susie shares these qualities, but she’s learned to be skillful about concealing her competence. Instead of a hardbitten bitch-goddess, she's more of a bouncy little dolly (that’s her word) who might be an uncomplicated actress or model. Her tastes arc luxurious (she hankers after chinchilla) and occasionally bizarre, like Rice Krispies with sour cream.

It's a self-contained scene, and an

exhausting

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The Passionate Polka Dot or Poupée Rouge? Sanity prevailed

one. "You forget about the ouside world." she remarked recently, waving at the morning rush-hour traffic flashing by outside her shop. “You think you look normal, then you go out there, you get those looks and you remember other people exist who think you look weird or strange."

She said this as she hustled off to a little Jewish jobber’s in Kensington Market. The market, with its vegetable stalls and crates of live chickens scattered over the sidewalk, seemed an odd place to hunt for lace for a wedding dress. Of course, it wasn't really a dress — it was a jumpsuit, and the lace was for a flowing full-length cage to go over it. “Like. I am doing this for friend's price — you know'. $200. So I had to figure out a w'ay of gluing on appliqués, instead of sewing them on. Otherwise, it would cost at least $600. And you would just snap if you saw' some of the unbelievable bargains you can find here."

When she walked into the cluttered store, wearing a purple-and-gold minidress. she looked like a visitor from another planet. The men in the store craned their necks and regarded her with aw'e.

Susie searched frantically through boxes pulled from the cramped shelves full of hutton boxes, materials, and a lot of things you forget still exist, like fringes for lampshades. Nothing was just right. She didn't find the lace, but she did find two cards of “really mad beads."

“Can’t you sec that as trim for a marvelous jumpsuit or a crazy dress? It's too much!”

She bought $37.40 worth of beads and tore off in another direction for the appliqué. Finally, she found the right pattern. And. since everyone else in her shop was overloaded with work, she spent two days cutting out each little pattern herself and gluing it onto the dress.

In that same week, she also organized shipments of clothes to be sent to a shop in Montreal that carries some of her dresses, handled a dozen clients who come to her for personal designs, rented out 60 custom-fitted dresses for two TV specials, threw a party, dressed her friend the bride and managed to get to the wedding. It was, she said, a pretty average week.

The pace of Susie's life hasn't altered much since she left high school in Toronto at 17. She said she was “hopelessly bored,” so she took a job selling sportswear in a department store. "I must have been the wildestlooking sales girl they’d ever had. Of course, when I was young" fa phrase she uses with unnerving frequency) “I'd show up for work in really extreme clothes, like short leather culottes I'd made for myself on an old zig-zag machine."

At the same store, she met Marilyn Brooks who was about to open a clothes boutique called The Unicorn. Marilyn invited Susie to come and work for her as a combination designer-seamstress. The Unicorn, with its crazy Camp style, rapidly became a success.

At 19, a few months after she mar-

ried a rakish. 41-year-old Czech-born CBC film executive named Peter Kosovic. Susie opened her own shop. She had $6,000 and the midtown Yonge Street location she could afford was difficult to reach and not really fashionable or quaint, qualities that most other boutiques have going for them.

“Wc had lists of names and ended up with the Passionate Polka Dot and the Poupée Rouge." Sanity prevailed. "When I first started Poupée Rouge," she recalls, “1 was IT — designer, cutter, fitter, alterationist, sales clerk, window dresser and janitor. Peter has always done the books. But even so, after about three months I almost snapped. I mean. like. I was really out it and that's when I got Nina."

Nina Giampieri, a tiny, good-

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THE SUSIE THING

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natureil Italian seamstress, was the first in a series of employees who are intensely loyal to Susie. According to Mereline Moore, Susie's assistant, Nina is convinced that every tiling Susie creates is just great.

“She even bullies customers into buying things,” says Mereline. "If they don't react immediately, Nina is likely to yell, "What’s the matter? You don't like it? Why, it’s beautiful!’ And Nina is likely to sell Susie’s own clothes when they're hanging in the shop — at a higher price because they're off the designer’s back.”

Her clients have just as much trust and loyalty to Susie as her employees. One bride whose dress didn't show up. even for last fitting, because of the rush of work until two hours before the wedding, calmly remarked. “Susie, if it had been anybody but you I would have been hysterical by now. But 1 knew you'd come through.”

Her main shop, a converted house, draws smiles anil jibes from passersby. Its bright-pink paint, in the context of the conventional buildings that surround it, looks like a minidress at a funeral.

It's also a bit of a fishbowl and must be quite a shock for some nice lady w'ho wants to buy a dress she has seen at a party. The sales girls all wear extremely short skirts. The place veritably rattles with enthusiasm, noise and music, mainly the Tijuana Brass. One man who passed by every day for a year to and from work finally dropped in. After staying half an hour he announced. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t let my wife shop here!”

Next spring when Vidal Sassoon has a big hair and fashion show in Toronto, he’ll use clothes created by three designers — Mary Quant, Rudi Gernreich and Susie Kosovic. You can bet Susie will be “snapping” all over the place. You can also bet she will hold her own very nicely wath all those top international fashion stars. ★