Canada’s fashion industry has always been centred around Montreal and Toronto. In the 1920s Montreal became more dominant, but with Quebec’s political instability in the 1970s, Toronto rose up to challenge Montreal’s claim, and even surpass Montreal as the leading centre of Canadian fashion design in the 1980s.
In my research to support this theory, I came upon the name of Canadian fashion writer Iona Monahan, who has a plaza named for her in Montreal. While her name rang a bell, I wasn’t familiar with her work, so I looked closer.
Born in 1923, Iona began her fashion career wrapping parcels at Eaton’s department store. In 1944 she got a job as a photographer’s assistant, training models how to stand like those in American fashion magazines. There were wartime restrictions on imports, so the Canadian fashion industry was on the rise at the time. Iona gained a lot of experience in the field until she was fired after she lost her temper when the photographer disagreed with her styling. After various odd jobs she ended up working as an editor for a trade publication, handling the advertising of Montreal fashion companies. By the early 1950s she was also creating fashion parades and became known for her exciting, dramatic shows.
In 1959, she became a fashion writer for Mayfair, Canada’s elite fashion magazine, but the magazine went out of business shortly after her arrival. She wrote for other publications including the Montreal Star, The Montrealer, and Elan Image, while promoting up and coming fashion designers like John Warden. In 1978 she found a new home at the Montreal Gazette and became an internationally recognized female journalist. who was on a first-name basis with designers like Christian Lacroix, Issey Miyake and Sonia Rykiel.
Known for her exquisite taste, industry wisdom, and caustic comments that earned her the moniker ‘Dragon Lady’, she suffered from bipolar swings between matchless bursts of energy and periods of despair. She never minced words – a fashion show in October 1973 to promote Canadian design was reported by her as “A non-representative unprofessional mess…”. Another show in 1979 she reported “Much of what was on view in the show deserved to be ignored by anyone interested in the quality of Canadian fashion…”
Despite being a born and bred Quebecer, she recognized how the fashion industry was flat lining in Montreal in the 1970s. “Fashion’s most commercial and least impressive decade leaves a trail of clothing garbage unlike any other in fashion history.” she wrote in 1979. In September of that same year she wrote about Montreal designers “Not one of them has made a real contribution to the city in the past decade”. The following September she wrote “Toronto has all the enthusiasm, the money, the slickness… I just don’t feel that… there’s any excitement in Montreal.”
A revitalization of the Montreal fashion scene gained momentum in the 1980s with designers like Marie St. Pierre coming on the scene – one of the new crop Monahan tirelessly promoted. Montreal caught up with Toronto in the 1990s, and it’s been a horse race ever since.
Monahan retired in 2002 and died in March 2006.