WHENEVER you hear the terms, "the newest," "the latest” or “The Now Thing,” the chances are they're being shouted by someone in the fashion world. No other business pats itself on the back quite so affectionately as the garment industry. Yet what we Canadian women wear is controlled by some of the most conservative men and women in the country: retail buyers for the stores want goods that will sell in large quantities on the mass market, so they demand "safe” designs from the manufacturers. To meet this demand, the manufacturers modify American patterns that sold well in the States the previous season. The raison d’être of the industry is to make money and this leaves little room for creativity, original design or talent.
That’s the mass market. But what about Canadian haute couture people, whose ideas affect the style of an entire nation? We do have couturiers here, but they cater to the relatively few rich women, and the public seldom sees their efforts. The Canadian fashion press usually supports the status quo: fashion pages show the bland, the popular, the what’s-selling-now items; or simply rehash dicta of Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion trade paper. ^
... spent thousands of dollars to show off what their best designers are producing for the fall. Toronto played for the mass market in the EEDEE Awards; Montreal looked for recognition from abroad
This is all pretty depressing — or was until last year when the Montreal Fashion Group staged a show of young Montreal designers who work for manufacturers. Everyone interested in the fashion industry suddenly realized we had talent here all the time and hadn’t even noticed.
This May, two major fashion shows were held, one in Toronto, the other in Montreal. They provided a perfect opportunity to evaluate the garment industry and to find out what kind of Canadian-designed clothes will be available this fall. They also provided a staggering contrast in the performances of our two main fashion centres.
The Montreal Fashion Group is an organization of women executives in the fashion industry. In their show they stipulated that designers should be well established and do a ready-to-wear collection manufactured under their own design or label (though each was allowed to do one outfit for going to the moon).
The Ontario Fashion Institute is a group of manufacturers. The OFI show presents the EEDEE (Excellence of Design) Award. Thirty-two percent of the $37,000 show is paid for by the Ontario Department of Trade and Development under its minister, Stanley Randall, the other 68 percent by the OFI. The awards were set up to improve the standard of fashion design in Ontario and, presumably, to give Randall's department something to sell that will stand up to international competition.
The Montreal Style that has become so intensely characteristic of Quebec was evident during the entire MFG show. Every detail was attended to: from the boppy Dizzy Gillespie-style music to carefully designed makeup. The most popular decades in the show were the '30s and '40s, despite the space-age theme. However, enough of the designers came up with forwardlooking clothes to give it a feeling of unity. The show opened with a pompous voice - over introduction, pretentiously setting a mood reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or more accurately, Alain Resnais’ film /Hiroshima, Mon Amour. It screamed production values.
The OFI show in the gigantic O’Keefe Centre was opened by a pipe band marching down the aisles and drew an emotional wave of applause. A tight well-organized tableau introduced every group of garments in each category (furs, evening, etc.) and the manoeuvring of 30 models was well handled, despite the fact that they had to show 229 garments. Unfortunately, many of the models were unsuitable for the kind of clothes being presented. When the very bad orchestra attempted anything even vaguely suggesting rhythm, the girls had a hard time dance-stepping across the stage.
In Montreal, not a smile broke the masklike serenity of the sculptured
look created by The Makeup Centre. The porcelain-smooth Japanese-mask effect was spooky at first, then entrancing. The models (all possessing that Montreal beauty and poise that turns men on) wore enormous inch-long lashes, so exaggerated they almost became a comment, witty and satirical, on the contrived female.
In Toronto, makeup artists started working on the girls just two hours before the show and haste was evident: there was no consistent look, and much of what was there didn’t carry beyond the footlights.
In Montreal, the hair was a triumph for Charles Booth of Le Cartier Hair Styles, who is one of Canada’s most creative hairstylists. He is a perfectionist. His entire salon worked on the 15 models and barely a strand of hair was out of place, despite the swift pace. Each hairstyle contributed something to the outfit it was worn with.
In the OFI show, the stylists weren't able to cope with 30 models. Strands of hair hung down, the styles were listless and irrelevant to the garments. Behind-the-scenes, chaos was evident in the increasing bad temper and confusion of the models as the show progressed.
The Ontario manufacturers showed so few good ideas that the students’ section was the highlight of the evening. Apart from that, most of the designs were safe, marketable, dull numbers; or they were vulgar and out-ofdate. The Ontario manufacturers just can’t seem to handle details. For instance, a beautifully made coat would have a dreadful set of buttons stuck on it. So much of the presentation represented middle-aged versions of Hollywood-star bad taste: sparkly, spangly excesses. There were exceptions, thank goodness, or the nontrade people in the audience who had paid five dollars for their seats might have rioted. The exceptions were marvelous: Pat McDonagh (for Jack Posluns), Claire Haddad, Lyn Leather, Hudson Cloak, Elen Henderson. They all showed very good merchandise.
No doubt about it, Montreal fashion leads the country. The Montreal show had everything: from the dull, marketable work of Serge and Réal, massoriented clothes by Hugh Garber, to the marvelously inventive work of Elvia Gobbo, Léo Chevalier and John Warden and the understated chic of Michel Robichaud. Each designer gave a sense of intellect working through ideas and reaching for new sartorial solutions.
The manufacturers who’ve used their designs have made tremendous progress in the past year in getting the designers’ names before the public. They’ve risked money on promotion; and the combination has been happy and lucrative for both groups.
Some of the EEDEE Awards, alas, were unforgivably bad choices. One went ►
to a purple leather coat trimmed with fur, with a curved hemline, tied In front with a thin belt. Not long ago an Ontario manufacturer had pointed out to me a suit he’d produced that was known as the “hooker outfit’’ around his factory. It was uncomfortably close to this prize-winner.
The student award went to Linda Lew Kee for an elegant, simple black dinner dress over trousers. Its good taste and beautiful line made most of the pros’ conglomerations look very bad. It should have won the Best of Show award for two reasons: It was the best In the show, and the award would have shaken the manufacturers out of their lethargy. It will be interesting to see how many of these students will be hired in Ontario. After last year’s show, one manufacturer wanted to see a student entry again so he could get one of his own employees to sketch It; he wasn’t even going to bother paying the designer a fee!
That’s one problem, and here’s another. As Joan Sutton, producer of the OFI show, wearily admitted: “We always have a problem with the manufacturers, but they’ve been conditioned by Canadian stores to what will sell. So much good design is put on the rack and never cut. I’d like to do a show with manufacturers' discards some time — it would be a knockout.”
The judges concurred. The trouble starts at the retail level: If good Canadian design does get Into the stores, manufacturers’ labels are cut out and the stores’ substituted. Stores look to the U.S. and abroad for prestige fashion; depend on what’s produced here for bread-and-butter items.
The manufacturers who do use good designers prove that this doesn’t have to be so. They’re Increasing their business and building names for themselves. After all, who ever heard of Hudson Cloak before John Warden began designing for them? Women in this country aren’t such noodleheads that they’d prefer a $150 knock-off from New York to an original design — if they can get it. I get sick of stores saying they can’t find anything In Canada. It simply Isn’t so. Potentially, we could sell magnificent clothes to the rest of the world. We have the craftsmanship. We have the fibres. What we need now are more men willing to risk their money on Canadian talent. Our big department stores need to do a lot more hard-hitting promotion of Canadian designers. Many of the major world centres, such as London, are running out of steam; Canada with fresh, unjaded talent could take over. But It won’t happen unless you get out there and demand clothes not just Made in Canada, but Designed in Canada, too. □
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