Culture  Artful commodities

Encounters with Montreal’s purveyors of haute couture

If you’re from Montreal, you have boasted at least once about your hometown being the hub of the hot and hip. The city is replete with LaSalle graduates sewing their way into the hearts of local fashion cliques and authorities (from the pregnantgoldfish style blog to Kill Magazine), who turn trends into epidemics and take style very seriously. But the Quebec scene remains small, forcing designers to find success in creating clothes that can sell to everyone. For local labels to flourish, accessibility is key; it’s the fulcrum that balances the often-idiosyncratic creativity of high fashion, with the lucrative business savvy necessary for the self-employed.

Three local designers – Audrey Cantwell, Travis Taddeo, and Eve Gravel – have all experienced varying degrees of success thanks to the accessibility of their designs. While Cantwell’s womenswear is just starting to creep up on international fashion blogs and into national press, Taddeo is already a sophomore designer at Montreal Fashion Week (MFW), and the barely-30 Gravel is practically a veteran. While each designer’s aesthetic is unique, they all maintain the perfect balance for their client between getting noticed in designer clothes and being able to afford them, without looking like the subject of an obscure Dalí illustration.

Audrey Cantwell’s clothes are ideal for any woman who has fantasized about being a sexy Madeline Usher. One teenage blogger summed it up nicely by calling Cantwell’s “Salem” collection “One part spooky forest dweller, one part cool it-girl.” And, like most burgeoning designers, she relies on fashion blogs to promote her collections and to direct customers to her online store, Black Market Baby. “Selling online is how I survive,” Cantwell says.

Cantwell studied fashion design at LaSalle, and won the prestigious Telio competition in 2008, a Canada-wide design contest for fashion students. Two years and three collections later, Cantwell is about to release her fourth, Mysterium, for spring.

Each collection is different, but there is an underlying feel to her aesthetic. “I like to think that [the collections] flow into each other somehow,” she said of her style. One unifying feature seems to be her obsession with textures. Her recurring use of animal skins, like fur and leather, reveals her fondness for nature; it’s a major inspiration of hers, both for creativity and work ethic. “I usually start with a mood or theme and a few materials that inspire me [and] I just keep going that way until a full collection emerges. I just let it happen naturally”.

Along with nature, Cantwell relies on “fantasy, mythology and the occult” as creative muses, basing each piece in Mysterium on the spiritual or Wiccan – like her “Vodun” dress (another word for Voodoo), or “Grimoire” jacket, named after a textbook of spells and black magic.

Despite their Gothic names, the clothes themselves barely resemble the stereotypes that the term conjures (the “bondage leggings” from her X collection are actually very sophisticated). Rather, her designs exude a deep femininity that is rarely captured in typical fashion circles, which may be why Cantwell hasn’t pushed into the cutthroat and critical realm of Montreal Fashion Week. “It’s difficult just to get your name out there. The only market right now in Montreal that seems interested in my collection is the more DIY and local/indie designer scene. But I’m okay with that!” She adds that she wants her label “to stay small”, perhaps as a means of staying true to her own aesthetic. She made this clear when she modeled her X collection lookbook, showing the sincerity and authenticity of her designs. And her four completed collections are a testament to that, as they all maintain a cryptic aura and style that can only be understood as Cantwell’s auteurism.

Moving from crypticwear to clubwear, Travis Taddeo is Montreal’s most recent golden boy. The Calgary native, who also studied at LaSalle College, moved to Montreal at 21 and began his leather-fur-Tencel-jersey clothing line by dressing himself and his friends – the crème de la crème of Montreal fashion scenesters. The hype that surrounded his first fashion show two years ago at MFW launched his line into national prominence, far beyond Montreal’s insular club scene. But his sustained local success stems from dressing some of this city’s most beautiful people (including the entire barstaff at the W hotel’s Wunderbar), who bring his avantgarde streetwear into the city’s streets.

The Montreal scene has been a great platform for Taddeo, who praises the city for “embrac[ing] its artists and its fashion.” In an interview with Fashion Television last season for his S/S 2010 line, he gushed about how his designs represent their native scene: “We like to have fun in Montreal. We’re not afraid of trying new things and wearing fierce outfits.”

Describing his clothes as “elements of high fashion streetwear,” Taddeo elaborated on his responsibility as a designer. “For me it’s about stepping up the game for everyday clothing. Make it comfortable, wearable, and original.” His pieces, when displayed alone on Taddeo’s choice of waif models, are bold and artistic and create a real performance on stage, but remain wearable when paired and styled appropriately. “Streetwear for show value,” he coined in an interview with Fashion Magazine at his last show.

Taddeo designs for both men and women, but his approach to their clothing is undifferentiated. “I design for an attitude that is very much alive in both men and women.” He focuses mainly on menswear, with an approach that fits into his “overall image of a strong, independent woman.” For him, fashion “is a way of being” and inspiration “is just a thing. It’s out there, it comes from anywhere and anytime,” and manifests itself in any design, whether for men or for women. His clothes exude edginess and confidence, and for that reason might not be absolutely accessible, as the consumer must have enough edge and confidence to buy his clothes and pull off wearing them. The October 21 issue of the Globe and Mail aired this concern after Taddeo’s last show: “Was it sexy? Absolutely. Was it sellable? Not so much; it’s too high-end for teens but not quite sophisticated enough to attract fans of [exclusive label] Helmut Lang.” But a “Travis” piece gets noticed either aggressively or subtly, depending on how it’s worn, and so fulfills his standards of wearability and originality.

Further up the established-designer chain is Eve Gravel. Having showcased collections from her self-titled label for 15 seasons at Montreal Fashion Week, she uses the event as a means for furthering her already-lucrative business. Like any burgeoning businesswoman, she defines her success less by Canada’s fashion editorials, and more by sales. “[Montreal is] a hard market. Sometimes when you design, you have to think ‘It has to be wearable’. Because independent stores won’t buy it if it’s not.” She even envisions herself in the designs as a means to prioritize accessibility. Nevertheless, her designs retain a uniqueness that is decidedly Gravel. “Each piece is a work of art,” she asserted in an interview with Montreal Gazette fashion writer Eva Friede.

Gravel’s fashion philosophy – to design clothes both universal and approachable, to dress polished women in sophisticated and well-made clothes – allowed her to extend her line outside of Montreal. But despite her international success, Gravel remains loyal to local fashion. Discussing MFW, she praises the camaraderie that occurs among her fellow designers. “In the Montreal scene, everyone helps each other.”

And with Fashion Week less than three weeks away, Montreal’s designers are already in a collective frenzy – finishing their collections, casting their models, and doing last minute alterations. But they’re also figuring out how to put on a show that will simultaneously capture the awe of their audience and the pocketbooks of investors, who look for collections that can transcend the runway and succeed on the sidewalk.