Features  Fashion Week fury

Kortney Shapiro deconstructs the spectacle, from glam styles to models’ sizes

Now that the designers have taken their final bow of the season at New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, and with LG Toronto Fashion Week already half way through, Montreal’s Semaine de Mode, or Fashion Week, only had three days to make a lasting impression. On the eve of October 13, Montreal-based company Sensation Mode teamed up once again with Procter and Gamble for the 17th edition of Montreal Fashion Week, held at the Marché Bonsecours in the Old Port.

Of late, the fashion industry has been taking the heat for using models who are sickly thin, increasing societal pressures that ultimately contribute to eating disorders and negative body image. Filippa Hamilton, standing at 5’10’’ and weighing a svelte 120 pounds, was deemed too “fat” for all-American designer Ralph Lauren. “They fired me because I was overweight, and I couldn’t fit in their clothes anymore,” Hamilton told the New York Daily News on October 14.

Just days before Montreal Fashion Week, the same distorted expectations were being discussed closer to home: the Quebec Minister of Culture and Communications and of the Status of Women Christine St-Pierre launched a voluntary charter aimed at promoting healthier body image in the fashion industry. “The point behind this is not to make thinness illegal, but rather…to introduce an appreciation of diversity,” St-Pierre told the CBC.

Nevertheless, at Fashion Week, models were still skeletal, flaunting their ribs and their pubic bones as they padded down the catwalk. Sitting front row under the unforgiving lights, anyone could see that the women looked less like couture hangers, but more like hairless cats in stilettos.

After picking up my press pass, I entered into a sea of bold shoulders and studded, potentially dangerous shoes. Culture kids flooded the showroom, with Barbie-like waitresses in pink frothy dresses holding trays of complimentary cosmetics. At a beauty bar, anyone could have his or her make-up touched up. Scantily-clad women were adjacent to patrons who brought their five-year-old daughters. The whole scene begged one to ask what message is being advocated, especially to the little girls present.

Members of the media were given access to the media lounge, in which we sipped espresso and Guru energy drinks and uploaded photos onto the classic MacBooks laid out along the lacquered tables. There wasn’t a corner of the room free of corporate branding – visible evidence of the inescapable relationship between mega-corporation sponsors and high fashion. The industry has been McDonalized: it’s fast and everyone gets a shiny new toy at the end.

Within moments of my entrance, models began to appear on a revolving stage in the middle of the crowd, showcasing designer Andy Thê-Anh’s spring 2010 collection. Models sported strong side parts and structured garments, their outfits evocative of a high-class meeting between Madonna and Barbarella. Cone-bra-style separates littered the stage, as the bold-shouldered sylphs spun round and round. Leave it to a Montreal designer to take “clichés” out of Fashion Week and turn a potentially blasé show into a spinning circus of curio charm.

While sitting front row at the show of one of my favourite Montreal-based designers, Christian Chenail, Grace Jones’ “I Need a Man” came pummelling through the speakers as the plastic wrap was removed from the runway. The sounds in the room quickly changed from a ubiquitous whisper to a groovy hush. Although a number of the designers seemed perhaps too simple, “MUSE par Christian Chenail” was a delight for the eyes. Atop each model’s head was a mess of Marie-Antoinette-inspired hair, showcasing clothing that truly was for the masses. Let them eat cake? Rather, let them don an array of sporty and versatile separates suggestive of that laissez-faire Montreal attitude.

The line emulated what Montreal fashion is all about: consumer-friendly products with an edge. Patterned tights, similar to those that are worn by so many young ladies at McGill, came in a variety of styles, as well as the vast array of vivacious colours – deep blues and cherry reds. Chenail played upon the fashion of opulent Versailles, customizing his pieces with attitude. By featuring structured corset tops and floral patterns on a number of dresses, the designer was able to encapsulate a perfect blend of old French glamour mixed with a modern edge.

When asked what makes Montreal Fashion Week stand out among the rest, Chenail was quick to the punch: “Here [you have] a lot of great people. We need this fashion week!” Although not a detailed answer, it proves the simple desire of most Montreal designers: to showcase their creations to everyone regardless of background or occupation, and to allow each and every spectator to feel as though they are part of the experience. Chenail also offered a tip for being able to stand out fashion-wise during these tough economic times: “You need to find good pieces that will last. It’s better to find one nice thing that will last forever than 10 ugly things.”

Over drinks in the designer lounge, fashion maverick and director of Dressed to Kill Magazine Patrick de Grâce and I shared a few thoughts on the importance of Fashion Week in la belle province. “I’ve been involved for the past few years,” he cooed, “you can see, there [are] more crowds, and [the] media are more aggressive. Everyone knows the designers better. It is [continually] building.”

The general consensus on Fashion Week seems to be that, although it is but a few days out of the season, it’s a chance for both designers and buyers to come together under one roof and exchange their ideas and products. The natural French flamboyance so pertinent to Montreal style seems to have been diluted with a tablespoon of pomp and a pinch of brazen attitude – ingredients that lead to a successful fashion week.

As for the events and glossy parties that come along with the week, one cannot complain. After the shows, media outlets flock to designers and their minions, who are hurrying about in an utterly hilarious manner, barking into Bluetooth headpieces, and positioning a horde of cameras in order to get “the best angles possible” of the designers and their entourage. At an after-party for eccentric Montreal designer Denis Gagnon, known for his unmistakable glasses (eat your heart out, Dan Levy) and laissez-faire attitude, the eye-candy was mouth watering.

Girls with shaved heads, young men with eyeliner, and a group of overstated club kids taking risqué dancing to a whole new level…rather, intensity. Fashion Television correspondent and host of In Fashion Glen Baxter stood idly by, leaning on the banister. As I said hello, he coolly remarked, “I have several private showings tomorrow.” He then sighed as politely as he could.

Amid the hustle and gaiety of it all, it was clear that the people in the room were there for the devotion of the city, and the deep-running love affair that they share for the creative class Montreal has produced over the years.

Procter and Gamble Quebec public relations manager Manon Lapierre remarked over the music, “Ah, there is [such] a natural link between fashion and beauty. By showcasing [these] brands, it is a way to listen to the designers and buyers. It is a two-way communication.” And when asked why Montreal Fashion Week is so important for the city, Lapierre was quick to reply, “I am a Montrealer. It is always important to try new things and be on the forefront of fashion. It is really exciting.”

It was hard enough to get more than PR fluff out of most of the movers and shakers. A lack of critical dialogue in the industry adds to the lack of sales many of these design houses experience in Montreal. The masses are left out of the equation. The insular relationship between designers and buyers excludes the consumers – the ones who indirectly finance the industry.

Despite the waif-like models, pressures of unattainable beauty, and lack of critical discourse, Montreal Fashion Week is a way to credit artistic French talents who have made their mark within a thriving city, based heavily around a garment industry. Fashion Week showcases creativity in the form of entertainment. And at least I was able to reap the benefits of the corporate circus – I went away with enough free lipsticks to last me till next season.