Montreal: The Waning Giant of Canada’s Fashion Industry

Montreal has always been the hub of fashion and style in Canada, and though it has been hit hard by changes to trade agreements and falling real estate among other challenges, its designers and creatives are all hopeful.

The textile industry in the city made up nearly twenty percent of the workforce in the manufacturing sector at the turn of the nineteenth century, with a quarter of all garment factories calling Montreal home. Hat and fur makers settled in next to the Hudson’s Bay Company, with the area containing over half of all furriers nationally. The Montreal Garment District has changed locations twice, first downtown on De Maisonneuve Boulevard and then on to the Mile End neighborhood in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, where the massive buildings erected during the 1960’s are still standing, before settling into its current location on Chabenel Street starting in 1964. This street is still considered the center of the Canadian Fashion industry.

The Montreal textile industry grew from English-speaking clients who were looking for clothes that were at the height of fashion in Paris. Couturiers in Quebec used the Parisienne garments as guides in trends, fabrics, design ideas, and sometimes even direct copies. This was common through the 1920’s and 30’s, and Montreal became known as the Paris of the North.

Local couture didn’t start to come into its own until a group of designers realized that a recognizable design identity and media presence for garments produced in Canada would enable the industry to make an impact on the global market. Couture lasted longer in Quebec than other fashion capitals, where ready-to-wear collections were starting to dominate, but by the 1960’s the province was starting to wake up after too many years spent under the anti-modern Duplessis. Collections by Montreal designers were seen on the major runways in NYC, Paris, and London to promote Expo 67 which ushered in a new era in Canadian fashion history.

During the economic downturn of the late 70’s and early 80’s, many manufacturers threatened to close their doors. To stimulate production they turned to local designers for collaboration as most designers by that time had switched from custom-made to RTW collections. These were hugely beneficial partnerships for both sides, and allowed for Montreal designers Leo Chevalier, John Warden, and Michel Robichaud to grow their businesses to the prestige necessary to design the 1976 Canadian Olympic uniforms.

In the 1980’s Quebec gave 80 million to modernize the fashion industry. They aimed their efforts at marketing the more inventive and exclusive qualities of Canadian designer clothing and manufacturing to distinguish it from large-scale apparel firms as a destination for international buyers and production.

The Stores

Department stores played a critical role in the growth of the industry. Without partnerships with stores or manufacturers, most of the early ready-to-wear designers would not have achieved success, nor would the department stores, they were both necessary for the other to grow.

  • Simons began as a humble dry goods store in 1840, before a few location and stock changes transformed it into a leading fashion retailer. They focus heavily on innovation, customer experience, and smart/steady growth as a business. Simons seems to be on its way to becoming a retail powerhouse due to a better knowledge of Canadian consumers than American competitors.
  • Bovet opened its doors in 1907. They made, sold, and distributed work clothes before specializing in shoes and clothes for big/tall men. With eleven stores located throughout Quebec, this long-standing company is a landmark in Montreal’s textile industry.
  • Yellow began as a shoe store started by Samuel Avrith and his family at the turn of the twentieth century. Identified by the yellow tags on every pair, the business continues to be owned and operated by the third generation in over eighty locations.
  • Reitmans started in 1926 as a general store, but the popularity of their clothing line prompted the opening of a second store exclusively for women’s wear. Though the company is currently facing financial difficulties, at its height there were 925 stores and six divisions.
  • Laura Wolstein opened the first Laura store in 1930 on St. Hubert Street, before moving into a larger space in Verdun during the 1940’s. Catering to women newly entering the workforce, the store reached popularity with the baby-boomer generation. They began expanding in the 70’s and currently own over 170 stores nation-wide.
  • Browns Shoes – 1940. Founded by Benjamin Brownstein, the original location on St. Catherine Street burned to the ground in 1954. Morton Brownstein, Benjamin’s son, took over after the fire and moved to selling high-end brands. Browns became the first retailer to bring Italian leather shoes to Canada. With 50 locations across Canada and carrying brands such as Stuart Weitzman and Giuseppe Zanotti, they are still one of the nation’s top destinations for exclusive footwear.
  • Le Chateau was founded in 1959 by Hershel Segel as Le Chateau Men’s Wear, where he sold overstock from his father’s department store. After a name change, dropping “Men’s Wear”, Le Chateau began selling the latest imported fashions from Europe. By 1972, the chain had ten stores and over the next decade fazed out importing the latest styles to selling its own and private label mainstream fashion. With over 230 stores across Canada and expansions into the US and Arab markets, Le Chateau is one of our country’s great success stories.
The Designers
  • Ida Demarais 1920’s +
  • Gaby Bernier 30’s-50’s. Ida’s chief rival. Between the two of them, they dressed all of Montreal’s fashionable ladies for decades.
  • Yvette Brillon 1933 -70’s: She began as a milliner before expanding due to popular demand into couture. At one point she employed over 60 seamstresses.
  • Marie Paule-Nolin in the 30’s-1970 had an in-store salon and couture workroom with over 20 employees through the 1940’s located at Holt Renfrew
  • Michel Robichaud: Worked under Guy Laroche before starting his own line in 1963. He contributed to the designs of the 1976 Canadian Olympic Uniforms and currently holds an Order of Canada for his work.
  • Marielle Fleury: Teamed up with Michel Robichaud to tour collections through Europe to promote Expo ’67 and was one of the first designers to associate themselves with a manufacturer in Canada.
  • Jane Harris 1940’s +: Jane was contracted to outfit women during the war effort that were being sent overseas. During that time she met many influential women that became her first clients when she opened her salon.
  • Jaques de Montijoye 1960’s +: studied at the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and was a founding member of Association of Canadian Couturiers. His collections typically had a political statement.
  • John Warden opened his first boutique in 1966 after studying at Parsons in New York and working under other designers for a time. Warden has earned numerous awards for his work.
  • Serge and Real were the talents behind the Quebec pavilion hostess uniforms for Expo ’67. Their classic cuts, unique styles, impeccable designs and stunning fabrics imported from all over the world have made Serge & Réal the couturiers of choice for their upscale clientele.
  • Mario Di Nardo opened his first couture showroom in 1958 and was the designer of choice for many of Montreal’s creative personalities.
  • Poitras – Jean-Claude Poitras designed a number of women’s lines in the 80’s and 90’s
  • Parachute: Designed by Nicola Delly and Harry Parnass in the 80’s and 90’s
Industry Impact

At its peak in the 1970’s, Quebec employed more than 70,000 people in the garment industry and was home to many top brands. That number has halved to 45% of employment in the industry, but approximately seventy percent of Canadian-owned fashion firms call Montreal home. Quebec is still the leader in Canada regarding production and design jobs and ranks third in North America for clothing manufacturing.

As a whole, Canadian fashion design and retail firms have been affected by the complete elimination of import quotas on textiles and clothing imposed by the WTO in 2005, when the global industry was transformed by large-scale, low-cost foreign products flooding previously domestic markets. Up until the 1960’s, the vast majority of clothing worn by Canadians was also manufactured here. Other factors influencing the downturn in the fashion business in Canada is the rise in online shopping as well as the G-8 policy of “trade not aid” for least developed countries such as Bangladesh allowing cheaper foreign production.

Quebec itself is impacted by retail companies Mexx, Smart Set (owned by Reitmans), and Jacob closing or reducing operations due to an influx of foreign competitors and vacancy rates are increasing as brands move to Toronto and offshore production. The Lac Megantic derailment was just icing on the cake for an industry struggling to grow.

Despite all this, Montreal has everything necessary to succeed in its bid to become a major fashion capital. The most important factor is that fashion is considered art and an important aspect of culture in Montreal. Museums hold shows about designers, both local and international, including Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Denis Gagnon. Quebec is also the only province in Canada that receives arts funding for fashion projects from its government. The city has cultural and linguistic diversity, a high-quality workforce and dynamic educational system, a strategic geographic location, and a highly effervescent design and creative community, all the required components for becoming an international fashion destination.

There are a few organizations and individuals breaking ground on this endeavor that I will discuss in a later post. Toronto fashion history is up next, let me know what you think of this series in the comments.






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