Marie Saint Pierre on 25 Years of Montreal Fashion
A native Montrealer and graduate of LaSalle College, local fashion icon and designer Marie Saint Pierre started her label in 1987. She was the first Québec designer invited to show her work at the Fashion Coterie in New York in 1989, and the first Canadian designer to present her collection in Paris in 1995. That year she was also awarded the Designer of the Year Award by Elle Québec.
In 2004, she founded the Sous Zéro charity foundation, which provides winter clothing and assistance for underprivileged women and children. In 2006, she was recognized as YWCA Woman of Distinction for her entrepreneurship in Québec and granted the title Chevalier of The National Order of Québec the following year, “for outstanding achievements in most fields.” She also designed outfits for Lara Croft!
Marie Saint Pierre has two flagship locations in Montréal, and her brand is sold in specialty boutiques around the world. Her clothes are timeless pieces that celebrate feminine form and avant-garde design; they are not only made in Canada, but made in Montreal.
The Montreal fashion doyenne dishes to Cult MTL about local style, changes to the fashion industry over the last quarter-century and offers some advice for up-and-comers.
Kat Sark: After 25 years of creating fashion in Montreal, you have witnessed a lot of transformations both in the city and its fashion. What are some of the hallmarks and highlights for you in the past 25 years in this city, the fashion scene and in your own work? What has changed?
Marie Saint Pierre: Everything changed. It’s been a very busy last 25 years, it’s been a time when you had to be extremely strong and adapt fast, especially with China opening its borders. I started 25 years ago in a fashion industry very open to young designers, and then everything changed with globalization and big brands. But we were able adjust to the changes and market our product right. Now, with social media and e-commerce, I’m seeing a shift back to a more open space for creativity and smaller brands. It’s an interesting time. I feel like I had 20 years to become good at what I do and to adjust to the demands of the market.
KS: How has the image of women been transformed in fashion over the years? Do you notice any cultural or social transformations?
MSP: It’s gotten younger, fashionistas are younger. I think women 25 years ago had more freedom to be more stylish. It seems that today there are stricter codes, you must fit a certain profile in order to fit into a certain social group, and the image of women has changed to a younger image.KS: How would you describe the Montreal fashion scene?
MSP: Montreal is an eclectic city and it is reflected on the fashion scene. There are interesting young brands that have an individual perception. But it’s still hard for fashion designers to grow here. They have limited means and a very small clientele base, they need passion and patience.
KS: How do you see the relationship between the city of Montreal and the clothes that people wear and buy?
MSP: Montreal is a cosmopolitan city that draws its inspiration from the world. People are therefore very aware of the international trends. The fashion styles that you see in the streets are countless, and it is very inspiring to see people dare. It is very recent that we noticed a change in the behaviour of consumers. They are becoming more aware of where the clothes they buy come from. A brand like Marie Saint Pierre that produces in Montreal is very rare nowadays.
KS: What is your relationship to this city? (You trained as a fashion designer here and you established your label here – were you ever tempted to leave?)
MSP: Montreal for me is home without representing the easiness. You cannot feel comfortable in order to reinvent yourself. I absolutely love living here, but I feel that it is difficult to survive in such a small market, to create brand awareness and to recruit knowledgeable people.
KS: You are very engaged in the Montreal community on behalf of underprivileged women and children. What made you create the “Sous Zéro” fund?
MSP: It is very important for me to be aware of what is happening in the society I live in, and if I can make a difference, however small it is, I will do it. Being a mother of two, children are deep to my heart. In the quartier St-Henri, where my design studio is, I have seen many kids go to school without proper winter clothes, not even wearing boots.
It was clear to me that I had to do something. “Sous Zéro” contributes to help deprived children wear proper clothing during the cold season. I invite you to look at the Hochelaga Community Center if you want to make a difference in those children’s lives. Helping women via their kids was a delicate way to enhance their well-being and self-esteem.KS: How do you see the relationship between fashion and feminism?
MSP: Fashion is about individuality, creativity and communication. It also reflects movements in society. You can think of the creation of the miniskirt during the modernist movement of the 60s in London. It was definitely a feminist act.
KS: What are some of the challenges for women designers and women in general in the fashion industry?
MSP: Being a fashion designer is a challenge regardless of gender. It’s a very competitive industry where it is hard to survive. Men have always had a predominant position in the fashion world, but women in this industry have made important changes in the aesthetic that are still so relevant today. Think about bias cut invented by Madeleine Vionnet or the jersey used by Gabrielle Chanel. Women have their own vocabulary in the fashion world.
KS: Is there a difference between male and female designers?
MSP: Women tend to think more about the clothes and the impact it has on themselves while for men, fashion is more about the impact of the clothes on others.
KS: What do you think of when you design clothes for the female body? What is important to you in the process? How do you approach the female body?
MSP: The woman is at the center of everything I create. A woman’s movement is in fact the motto of my brand. I like to create clothes that will make women feel good about themselves, that fit them perfectly. I see the female body as a tool around which I sculpt clothing.KS: What are the themes and inspirations for your new collection?
MSP: One of my inspirations for this collection was the color scheme, mostly black with neon highlights, based on the London punk movement of the 80s. Neoprene effect, bonded fabrics are also reminiscent of that era. My recent journey to this fashion capital inspired me to also revisit the classics. The trench coat and mini-skirt are brought back to life in my Spring 2013.
KS: During Montreal Fashion Week this year you decided to have an exhibition, rather than a runway show, what was your idea for this type of presentation?
MSP: People who have discovered my work recently could experience a trip to my very beginnings. Fashion tends to be so ephemeral that designers have the urge to constantly reinvent themselves. It is basically what I have been doing for the past 25 years. People were able to experience a travel throughout 50 collections or so.
KS: Do you have any advice for young and up-and-coming designers?
MSP: My advice would be not to skip steps. I value craftsmanship and technical skills. That knowledge tends to be relegated to a less significant level. Young designers have to master this technique if they want to last in this industry. ■
Kat Sark is a fashion and culture blogger at Suites Culturelles, and the co-author of Berliner Chic: A Locational History of Berlin Fashion (2011) and the upcoming Montreal Chic.