It’s an offer few clothing designers would even consider refusing. But last spring Montreal’s Harry Parnass balked when an Academy Award-winning costume designer asked him to outfit the stars of NBC
TV’s hit show Miami Vice. Indeed, the co-founder of the Parachute line of clothing told Los Angeles-based Milena Canonera that prime-time exposure might lower the exclusive appeal of his designs to such celebrities as film stars Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda. But after consideration, Parnass presented the Parachute inventory to Miami Vice’s wardrobe buyers. And now clothes worn by actors Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas —including loose-fitting charcoal suits and ankle-length white duster coats—have become an integral part of the show’s hip image. But the designer, who prefers to be vague about his age, is clearly aware of the risks of mass exposure. Said Parnass: “Every one of our customers feels they discov-
ered us, and we want to keep it that way. Our image is very underground.”
Parnass and Nicola Pelly—his 38year-old partner in design and the mother of their two-year-old daugh-
ter, Talia—have clearly attained international status. For one thing, more than 200 independent retailers in Europe, Australia, the United States and Canada now carry their merchandise. Retail sales of Para-
chute merchandise reached $26 million in 1985 alone. And although Parachute’s sales volume ranks far below such billion-dollar retail enterprises as New York-based Calvin Klein Industries, Parnass says that
he prefers to gauge his success by recognition from others in the fashion industry, customer satisfaction and visibility. Indeed, he clothes such high-profile entertainers as singers Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and actors Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Cher.
Parachute established its reputation with well-designed and eye-catching clothes. Its current fall lineup, based on Russian military themes, emphasizes stand-up collars and closely fitted jackets. The fabrics include cotton, viscose and wool crepe. The designers color their creations in sombre hues that have almost become a trademark —among them grey and mocha brown enlivened by occasional splashes of red and cobalt blue. Declared
Pelly: “Over the seasons it has tended to be the silhouette of our cuts that has defined the Parachute look. We use a lot of fabric. It makes a more dramatic statement.” Added Parnass: “We have a way of feeling certain trends before they happen. Our biggest problem is that sometimes we are too far advanced.” Their clothing is not cheap—a pair of men’s winter pants can cost as much as $200. Still, the most expensive item currently in the Montreal store is a broad-shouldered black coat made of heavy wool which sells for $620.
Parnass, a native of New York City, has graduate degrees in architecture and urban design, and British-born Pelly is a fashion scholar and fabrics expert. In November, 1977, less than a year after they met, the two launched their first clothing line. By the summer of 1978 their reputation for producing hot new designs had reached Los Angeles and New York City, prompting clothes-conscious Americans to undertake buying trips across the border to their Montreal design studio. Recalling Parachute’s early days, Iona Monahan, fashion editor of The Gazette in Montreal, said: “People figured they were renegades who would be out of business in a month. But they have turned out to be fabulous leaders here.”
Still, Canadian demand for Parachute’s clothing has been light. Indeed, Parnass and Pelly have never operated outlets anywhere but Montreal and Toronto. The significant breakthrough for their clothing line occurred when the couple opened their first New York City store in April, 1980, offering clothes that featured padded shoulders, funnel collars and asymmetrical zippers. Recalled John Duka, a former fashion reporter for The New York Times'. “It fitted exactly what was happening in fashion at the time. When they first came here they had the trendiest store in New York.”
Despite international acclaim, the company’s headquarters remain firmly rooted in Montreal. The partners live and work together in a rambling, century-old Westmount house, designing at least five fashion lines each year. And they dismiss criticism that Parachute wear has become too commercial and no longer determines trends. In response, Parnass points to such innovations as last year’s all-black line of baby wear—the first in the world, according to the designer. And with their clothes appearing weekly on one of television’s most popular series, Parnass and Pelly may become as widely known as some of their famous clients.
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