For a while in Montreal I did advertising and PR in the fashion industry. First, for a fashion trade magazine, where I did all the ads for advertisers who were not working with ad agencies. Which was all of them. Then for a very small agency that specialized in the fur industry, of all things.
And then for a manufacturer of high-priced women’s clothing; and specifically, for one of their designers, Leo Chevalier. He was one of the country’s best, Canada’s answer to Bill Blass or Geoffrey Beene. For the record, this is not one of his sketches.
I loved all three of the jobs because they combined two loves of mine: Advertising and fashion. I also loved them because I got to do so many different things. I wrote press releases, produced fashion shows, fashion videos and TV commercials. Co-ordinated and styled fashion shoots. I travelled with designers, and on my own, to do fashion shows across the country.
What was totally bizarre was when I became a ‘celebrity’ in Saskatoon after I’d been interviewed on the local morning TV show. People were stopping me on the street, asking for my autograph. That was just a hoot! Totally shocked me because I knew just how not famous I was! I also wrote and produced newsletters and brochures, instituted co-op advertising programmes and went to all the various fashion weeks.
It was great fun and I learned an absolute ton.
Working with Leo was a labour of love. I’d known him for years, since I was a young girl, actually. When he was first starting out, he supported himself (while trying to establish himself as a designer of haute couture), by working for cousins of mine, who owned a high-end boutique. He designed their windows and helped with the buying.
Whenever my mother went there to shop, I’d go along. I used to love his fashion illustrations and I’d always beg him to do some for me. “Oh, Leo”, I’d say. “Please, can you draw something for me? Please.” He always accommodated me. And I’d sit there, transfixed, watching him. He never said “no”, and he’d stay there with me, drawing away, until my mother was done. Which I hoped would take forever.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was, when I got the chance to work with him. It was like I’d died and gone to heaven. And some of the best work I’ve ever done, was done for him.
As I mentioned earlier, the manufacturer he worked for, was one of Canada’s largest, and best. They worked with top designers, in Canada, the U.S. and even in Europe. And they sold all over the country, to all the finest stores and boutiques. But where they really made a fortune, was through a license they owned for a synthetic suede called Ultrasuede.
In a very shrewd move, they locked up the worldwide license, which meant that any designer or manufacturer, anywhere in the world, could only use Ultrasuede if they paid a royalty to them. If the thought of synthetic anything, including suede, gives you the chills, you’re not alone. Leo and I used to call it ‘icky suede’. But despite what we thought, it sold like hotcakes, even though there were many, many much less expensive imitations.
Ultrasuede came in every colour you can imagine, from the palest of pastels, to brights, to darks. It also came in both winter and summer weights. And much to Leo’s dismay, in addition to the other collections he designed for the firm, he had an entire collection of Ultrasuede to create each season as well.
To his credit, he treated it like fabric, not suede. And he did everything that was possible to it. He pleated it. Ruffled it. Layered it. Punched holes in it. Wrapped it. Swirled it. Cut it into strips and knitted with it. Braided it. Wove it. Combined it with other fabrics. Appliqued it. Embroidered it. Embellished it with sequins, beads of all kinds, and a myriad of different trims. He used it for jackets. Coats. Pants. Skirts. Suits. Dresses. Stoles. Wraps. Shorts. Shirts. Vests. Cardigans. Shawls. Capes. And even evening wear. It was mind-boggling.
But there were moments when the overdose of Ultrasuede in our lives, just became too much to bear; and hysteria would ensue.
The day Leo and I were in the President’s office, presenting our advertising plan for the upcoming season, comes to mind. These folks were so obsessed with Ultrasuede, they had it everywhere. It covered the walls and all the furniture was upholstered in it. We were drowning in it. Anyway, there Leo and I were, sitting in our Ultrasuede chairs, discussing our proposed campaign with the boss.
All of a sudden, Leo yelped, and leapt to his feet, clutching his crotch. We all smoked in those days. Unbeknownst to Leo, an ash at the tip of his cigarette and dropped down and landed on the seat, right by his nether regions. Among other things, Ultrasuede has polyurethane in it. So when the ash landed on the fabric, there weren’t any flames. It just got red-hot and started to melt. By the time he felt certain parts of his body burning, there was a hole the size of a silver dollar in the seat.
Mr. President wasn’t terribly amused, but Leo and I were just killing ourselves laughing. We got into trouble another time, as well, when Leo, his wife and I were invited to said President’s luxe condo for a party, and discovered that every square inch of it was covered in Ultrasuede. The walls, the ceilings, the lampshades, the furniture, and even all the tables. The end tables, the coffee tables, the kitchen table, the bedside tables, even the dining room table were all versions of Parson’s tables, totally wrapped in that icky suede, with glass tops on them.
Can you imagine? Leo, who suffered from asthma, started to cough, uncontrollably. It was completely claustrophobic. Ultrasuede was closing in on us. We were cackling with a few kindred souls, who were just as freaked out as we were, when one of the boss’s sons overheard our conversation. The relationship soured after that, needless to say.
But really, who could blame us? The whole scene was totally unbelievable! Not to mention, completely unappealing.