DARE TO WEAR SAINT

Devotees of this Montreal designer are practically a cult. They know they're buying works of art.

ANNE KINGSTON January 30 2006

DARE TO WEAR SAINT

Devotees of this Montreal designer are practically a cult. They know they're buying works of art.

ANNE KINGSTON January 30 2006

DARE TO WEAR SAINT

Devotees of this Montreal designer are practically a cult. They know they're buying works of art.

BY ANNE KINGSTON • In the fragile pantheon of Canadian fashion, the Montreal designer Marie Saint Pierre has carved a niche as the thinking woman’s couturière. She is collected by those who

talk of clothing in terms of “architecture,” who appreciate asymmetry and novel fabrications, who enjoy garments that can be wrapped and fastened at the wearer’s whim, and who have no interest in mimicking the latest disposable starlet. Impeccably fashioned, subtle and not-sosubtle showstoppers for day and night are SAINT PIERRE: The woman who hates rampant consumerism is wowing them in Vegas

Saint Pierre’s forte, making her a favourite of Rideau Hall’s most recent residents. Michaëlle Jean chose Marie Saint Pierre—a dramatic flurry of crinkled, ruched black layers—for her first major social engagement as Governor General at a National Arts Centre gala last October. (Saint Pierre also played an indirect role in the kerfuffle surrounding the dresses originally commissioned, then rejected, by Jean for her inaugural; the designer, Yves Jean Laçasse, met the future governor general when he was working as a salesman in Saint Pierre’s Montreal boutique.) Former

ernor general Adrienne Clarkson commissioned Saint Pierre to whip up her 1999 inaugural dress—a long, ink-blue, A-line with a crossed-over front.

In her 20 years braving the Canadian fashion scene, the 44-year-old Saint Pierre has established a reputation as an outspoken freethinker who eschews trends. “Timeless pieces are very important to me,” she says from her Montreal studio. “When you buy something, you invest in something.” More radically in an industry whose offerings are “rarely women friendly,” in the words of the American designer Michael Kors, Saint Pierre is celebrated as a designer who creates for women of all ages and sizes.

One need only look to the range of her customers—from the singer Joni Mitchell to the astronaut Julie Pyette, from veteran actress Geneviève Bujold to former Baywatch ingenue Yas-

Michaëlle Jean chose to wear Marie Saint Pierre for her first major social engagement as Governor General

mine Bleeth, from the singer Diane Dufresne to the publisher Louise Dennys.

Her designs appear on red carpets both in Canada and abroad. Rebeccajenkins has worn her to the Geminis, Denise Robert to last year’s César Awards in Paris. These are women, it must be said, who can pay upwards of $500 for a jacket, $300 for pants and $900 for a coatprices that would be considered bargain basement next to most “designer” pieces.

That Saint Pierre’s following is largely French stems in part from her limited exposure in English Canada. But it also reflects the two solitudes of Canadian fashion. “There’s a daring to her clothes, a feeling you’re wearing something special,” says Clarkson. “English Canada doesn’t appreciate that as much.” Margaret MacMillan, the author ofPam: 1919 and provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, is also a fan. “Every

time I buy something I think it’s too expensive-then I wear it all the time.” She calls Saint Pierre’s designs “clothes for grownups.” There’s a cult of Marie Saint Pierre, she notes. “Only people who wear her know her,” she says. “I’ve been to parties where total strangers have come up to me and said, ‘Marie Saint Pierre!’ ”

It is somewhat ironic, then, that Canada’s most venerated unknown designer, a woman who questions rampant consumerism, is wowing them in Las Vegas, a town enamoured of Quebec talent, viz. Céline Dion and Cirque du Soleil. The Capri boutique at the Bellagio hotel, a glitzy temple of high-flying consumerism itself, carries Saint Pierre’s second line, Saint Pierre Accessories. Launched in 2003, SPA is a versatile collection of Lycra, crepe jersey, tulle and “crinkle” pieces sold in clear plastic tubes and priced from $95 to $345.

Fittingly, Vegas provides a subtext for the Marie Saint Pierre spring collection, available in mid-February. Her inspiration was the desert, not literally as in transforming Navajo blankets into sarongs à la Ralph Lauren, but conceptually—in terms of monochromatic colours, textures, calmness, escape, a sense of discovery. For a twist there are pop culture references to what Saint Pierre affectionately calls “the trash culture of Vegas, what makes America great in a way.”

pieces—a medley jersey separates, bold taffeta coats and dresses, laserprinted brocades, floaty dresses, zebra-printed chiffons—illustrate why fashion writers are often flummoxed when describing Saint Pierre. One writer called her 2004 fall collection “sober and romantic, decadent and decaying, masculine and feminine, modern and old-fashioned all at once.” In a particular act of desperation, another writer invoked

Margaret Atwood’s Survival to explain how Saint Pierre’s clothing shields wearers from the extreme Canadian elements.

Marie Montreal Saint in Pierre an artistically grew up in vibrant north household. Her father, Champlain Charest, a radiologist, collected modern art. Jean-Paul Riopelle was his best friend. Her mother, Réjane Saint Pierre, shopped for clothes in Paris, returning in the 1970s with pieces from André Courrèges as well as Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto—then the new wave of Japanese designers—whose experimentation with artificial fibres inspired Saint Pierre.

After obtaining a diploma in fashion design from Lasalle College in 1986, she went to Paris to study architecture, believing fashion not to be a stable career. “Family issues” forced her to return. Unable to find a chal-

lenging job, she made winter coats and sold them to local boutiques. Suddenly she was in business. “Life throws you in the mouth of the beast,” she says with a laugh. “I had to organize, find people, place to sew.”

She staged her first ready-to-wear collection in 1988. Acclaim came quickly. The next year she was selected as the first Quebec designer to participate in the Fashion Coterie of New York. Awards and inclusions on “most pro-

mising” lists followed. In 1995, she showed in Paris, the first Quebec designer to be given a solo show.

Building her business, Marie Saint Pierre Design Inc., which now employs between 15 and 20 depending on the season, has been a constant struggle. Her New York ready-wear

'She isn't trying to torture material into shapes that have nothing to do with the way women are shaped'

debut in 1996 took place within 48 hours of the birth of her first child. She has never had investors. “A woman in fashion with bankers is not the right combination,” she says. Family support has been vital; her mother and sister, Danielle, work for the company.

Saint Pierre’s inventive fabrications— crinkled, painted, woven and ribboned—were what first attracted Clarkson over a decade ago. “I responded to her because she understands material,” she says. “She isn’t trying to torture it into shapes that have nothing to do with the way women are shaped.” Clarkson also likes Saint Pierre’s playful sense of humour. She tells the story of visiting the Montreal boutique and finding tiny, whimsical purses inspired by drawings done by kindergarten classmates of Saint Pierre’s

daughter. “Just wonderful,” she says.

That store, in a prime downtown location on de la Montagne, is the only place that carries both full lines. Over the years, distribution has been erratic. A Toronto boutique opened in 1998 but closed a few years later when managing it proved onerous. The line has been sold off and on in various stores, including Holt Renfrew, but rarely west of Ontario. Exporting to Europe and the U.S. was difficult with the once-weak Canadian dollar and Kafkaesque tariffs seemingly de-

signed to thwart Canadian fashion manufacturing. Some 10 to 15 per cent of Saint Pierre’s sales are to the United States, but she expresses little desire to set up the distribution offices required to build the business.

Her website has become her major marketing tool. Media advertising doesn’t make

financial sense, she says, unless you have “sub product” to sell, meaning the cosmetics and handbags that are the bread and butter of most big-name designers. She looks to the bright side of limited retail exposure, that being the exclusivity valued by her devoted customers.

Fashion is not Saint Pierre’s only focus. She’s active in charities that assist impover-

ished women and children. And her name appears alongside those of prominent Quebecers such as Lucien Bouchard and Pierre Fortin on “A Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec,” a non-partisan manifesto intended to spark discussion about challenges facing the province—the depletion of natural resources, declines in the education system, a shrinking population and high suicide rates among boys. She says she worries for the next generation, which includes her own two children.

It is that broader perspective that allows

Saint Pierre to question fashion industry mores. She knows she could charge more for her clothing but chooses not to. “People with a lot of money don’t buy that much Canadian fashion,” she says. “It doesn’t have status.” Her clothing is sized 1 to 5, partly in defiance of the size 0 tyranny. “I didn’t see why I should have to correspond to measures used in the U.S. or Europe,” she says.

She is particularly critical of how fashion is now driven by publicists, conformity and celebrity endorsement: “It’s quite vicious. The emphasis is only on the commercial aspect.” That accusation could never be levelled at Saint Pierre. “She’s one of the only designers in Canada who’s a true artist,” says MaryLu Toms, the co-owner of Finishing Touches, a Toronto store that carries pieces of her collection. “You can’t ever part with her stuff. It’s a piece of art.” M