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Lessons from the catwalk

Nathalie Atkinson National Post
Designer David Dixon with his models.  Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Designer David Dixon with his models. Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Greed is good. But it's expensive. NADA's Dynasty-themed show was an ode to conspicuous consumption (thankfully, sans shoulder pads), but it wasn't the only one. Designers, especially in Toronto, showed so many fancy luncheon suits, day shifts, cocktail dresses and gowns, you'd think they were designing for the cast of Dirty Sexy Money.

Here's a tip: Attending 17 cocktail parties a week isn't on the social calendar of many Canadian women, especially with a potential recession looming; neither are thousand-dollar suits and $1,500 gowns (especially when they're just a few yards of sloppily draped and tacked silk jersey).

Phillip Bloch may be harsh, but he's right. A few seasons ago, L'Oréal Fashion Week imported celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch to attend the Toronto shows and give his opinion. He sure did, criticizing everything from the models to the bits of tape visible on the bottom of shoes; admittedly, both the stuff of amateur high-school fashion shows. Last week, Bloch was back (shilling his Designer Series shoes for Hush Puppies) and singing a different tune. "I have to hand it to Canada for taking it like a man," he told me of the furor caused by his original comments. "The whole tent set-up, I think it's beautiful. There are better models, prettier and who can walk, compared to what they were, though I did still see a piece of tape on a shoe last night!" But Bloch admits he's a tough critic. He wouldn't even give the original tents in Bryant Park a 10. "They're an eight. So is Toronto. Both have their problems and challenges."

Canadians are inspired by nature. David Dixon's silver forest silhouette fabric and Comrags' crunchy nylon taffeta, with its imprint made as if by decomposing leaves, make a good case. But both Paul Hardy and Joeffer Caoc's textural play with embellishments such as pony hair, feathers and fur prove it.

There's no such thing as too much glitter. The buzzwords to remember for fall are shine and sheen rather than sparkle, from the street-smart Asian-inspired Tatsuaki by Dan Liu (who had a free hand with the bedazzler) to the liquid mercury shifts and gowns in almost every collection.

Bloggers aren't journalists, and journalists aren't necessarily bloggers. An interest in style, an opinion and a MySpace page do not a fashion journalist make. But you'd never know it from the Toronto media lounge: the hottest ticket in the tent, evidently. Sponsors, VIPs, stylists and newly accredited fashion bloggers (and idle media, too) clogged the space and hogged the meals earmarked for those of us who had to be there for 10 hours straight, especially our long-suffering camera guys. Starving, cranky and cramped, it's a wonder the actual working media choose to cover Fashion Week at all. Montreal Fashion Week set up a number of lounges to filter out the poseurs from the real pundits and the media room hummed with happy posts and productive journos as a result.

Frenchwomen don't get fat. And they really do wear Hermès scarves. Foreign fashion media, including several major French style editors, attended L'Oréal Fashion Week (though by my count, barely a handful of actual runway shows), including the formidable Claudine Hesse from Madame Figaro and Emmanuelle Eyles of Marie Claire. Slick mag L'Officiel's editor, Louis Bompard, too. But what do we have to do to get a buyer from Barneys, anyone from The New York Times or Condé Nast and maybe someone from industry bible WWD to make the challenging two-hour commute from New York?

Open To Buy are the three most important words in fashion. Like Big Tobacco or Big Auto, fashion is an industry. And that means business. The innovative trade-show-cum- marketplace Le Showroom, a new addition to Montreal Fashion Week, was a welcome facet to the bottom line, even if it was too late in the season to truly write orders. I spotted buyers and journalists from Tokyo to North Carolina perusing the racks of collections by more than 55 creators and designers.

Everything old is new again. And by old, I mean the '80s: from the electric-socket crimped hair and nerdy librarian glasses at Nadya Toto to the metallic leggings and Blade Runner inspiration at Muse by Christian Chenail. NADA introduced her Dynasty-inspired runway show with titles mimicking the soap's opening credits, only on the Toronto skyline instead of Colorado. Kim Newport-Mimran's Pink Tartan show was styled to kick up the jams with punk unlaced 20-hole Doc Martens, swags of zipper chain and the Ramones. Why are we so nostalgic for such a bad fashion era? So we can rewrite history?

Fashion is controversial. Men in black (and wearing earpieces) peppered the front row and stands at the Beautifully Canadian fur show in Toronto, a pre-emptive security measure in case PETA showed up. (Though in the end, the only fur flying was on the runway.) Meanwhile, Marie Saint-Pierre's show in Montreal was inexplicably stormed by a pair of cross-dressing protestors concerned about the disappearance of a young girl (a famous open case in Quebec), but the interruption was only momentary and many in the audience assumed it was part of the sartorial spectacle, anyway.

TV makes people famous. It was standing room only at several of the Project Runway Canada kids' shows: Lucian Matis and, of course, winner Evan Biddell (Carlie Wong suffered from an early start time). For better (or worse), reality-TV stars and celebrities can only help Canadian fashion. In Montreal, Franco Rocchi (Le Chateau's VP of marketing) brought the glamour with a series of vedettes at his side throughout the show - all wearing the latest Le Chateau, of course - such as Canadian Idol contestant Audrey de Montigny, and ferried them around in a campy stretch limo. In Toronto, it was the Degrassi kids (and Spike) who were ubiquitous, along with Dan and Jessi from MTV Canada, and thespian mavens Susan Coyne, Martha Burns and Wendy Crewson. Not to mention all those glam TV anchors donning red dresses for the Heart & Stroke Foundation.

If you sew it, they will come. Women shop with each other, it's true, but also with their boyfriends and husbands. Montreal designers especially get this: Many collections - such as Dinh Ba and Envers - include both women's and men's looks. The strong euro is also a prime opportunity for menswear designers like Soku, Bustle and Philip Sparks to competitively carve out a niche in the domestic market with style for guys for whom Dior Homme is getting a little too pricey.

Fashion is costume, but it doesn't have to look costumey. Helmer, the label of textile technical whiz and artisan Joseph Helmer, uses Calais and Chantilly lace and rows of ruffles in various fabrics that evoke gypsy costumes from found and preciously collected textiles. His kaleidoscopic patchwork gown recalls South American folklore and his complicated white shirts, Argentine caballeros. But it never looks costumey (though his work will be exhibited at the Montreal Palais des Congrès next week). Yves-Jean Lacasse, on the other hand, set his theatrical collection firmly in the French court, complete with rustling bustles, frock coats and silk cravats: You could practically hear the guillotine being sharpened.

Bad trends never die. Like bacteria and disease, they evolve and mutate: Every fashionista attending Montreal Fashion Week was given the latest style from Crocs: the Celeste Mary Jane, a mix of canvas and plastic. Like Cheez Whiz and cockroaches, these garish extruded plastic shoes will surely survive nuclear annihilation.

Good fashion lives forever. I was thrilled to meet the legendary Sylvia Tyson in the front row of several shows in Toronto. Tyson wore a lot of Canadian fashion back in the day, she tells me, quickly rhyming off Pat McDonagh, Marilyn Brooks, Winston Kong and David Smith. But her favourite piece of all time, the one she regularly wore on stage and in life, is still an evening skirt by Wayne Clark. "It has a shaped velvet cummerbund and went to the floor and flounced out all over, like a gypsy skirt. I still have it!"

Canadian winters are cold. But our coats aren't cool enough. BSD, among the world's top manufacturers of outerwear, sponsored a Montreal fashion bursary ($2,500 and a trip to Shanghai to collaborate with their outerwear designers) to encourage diverse talents such as Project Runway Canada finalist Marie Geneviève Cyr and the seasoned duo Tavan+Mitto to play with outerwear materials, including BSD (which stands for Beyond Silk and Down). But it was once again Denis Gagnon who stole the show with a truly experimental look: a twisted-and-seamed down cocoon in smooth, shiny black nylon paired with a puffy matching muff. It looked like an haute inflated garbage bag; this is what statement-making in Canadian fashion should be about.

There really are two solitudes. At least when it comes to competing fashion weeks, or else sponsors are superstitious. At L'Oréal Fashion Week in Toronto, Montreal's fashion extravaganza is a love that dare not speak its name; and vice versa, in Montreal (the latter is sponsored by competitor P&G Beauty). When you're at one, don't mention the other or bad things might happen. It's like actors and "the Scottish play."

Black is the new black. As surely as night follows day, as "red lipstick is back!" and floral prints and blooms come back into fashion every darling month of May, black springs eternal. Lucian Matis worked entirely in black, embellishing his collection instead with dressmaker details, crystals and beads; so did Carlie Wong. If it wasn't black, it was grey, pewter, silver and charcoal, making it especially easy to get dressed in the dark this fall.

When all else fails, play ABBA. (Also, Michael Jackson.) Simon Chang used the Mamma Mia! songbook in an attempt to rev up a Montreal audience before his parade of bourgeois silk suits and over-the-top gown confections. Similarly, Andy Thé-Anh buttered up the crowd before showing more of his same signature floating chiffon gowns and slim suiting with Tina Turner and selections from the MJ canon.

Being Canadian is an asset, not an excuse. Consumers around the world don't buy all those Feist, Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene albums out of patriotic pride. The same goes for clothes: People won't buy Canadian to be virtuous, so Canadian designers have to appeal to vanity. Canadian clothes have to be as good as, if not better than, the thousands of labels they compete with. Based on this criterion, Montreal maestros Denis Gagnon, Helmer and Marie Saint-Pierre and Toronto designers Comrags, David Dixon and Joeffer Caoc will have a very good year.


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