Canadian Fashion Connection – Erich Fayer and Balmain

During his lifetime Canadian financer Erich Fayer was a bit of a mystery man. He was rarely interviewed and never talked about his past. Only after his death did it become known that Fayer was a Polish-born Jewish refugee who came to Canada in the early 1970s by way of Panama. Where or how Fayer made his money was never clear, but his Montreal-based company, Produits Parfums et Cosmetiques Universels, had many assets in its holdings including a $50-million Montreal shopping centre. In July 1986 Fayer bought the Paris fashion house of Balmain with an eye to resurrecting the label’s prestige – the way Lagerfeld had resurrected Chanel in 1983.

Balmain had been one of Paris’ leading fashion ateliers when it was founded in 1946 by its namesake Pierre Balmain. However, it lost its lustre over the years, especially after Pierre’s death in 1982 when Balmain’s life partner and business assistant, Erik Mortensen, became the house designer. While Mortensen kept loyal clients happy he failed to make waves in the fashion press. 

Fayer diversified production into a line of luxury products including accessories and perfume, and bought back the rights to the original Balmain perfumes that had been sold to Revlon in the early 1960s. By 1987 he had cancelled licensing agreements with companies that were churning out Balmain designs using second-rate craftsmanship, damaging the Balmain image. Fayer bought d’Ana Cote d’Azure, a high-end clothing manufacturer in the south of France to produce all of the Balmain lines including Balmain Ivoire, a luxury ready-to-wear line created with the American market in mind (see video below of Fall 1989 Balmain Ivoire fashion show.)

Instead of contracting out ready-to-wear collections to lesser designers for the growing ‘fastwear’ market (as it was called in 1987), Balmain’s ready-to-wear collections were now designed under Mortensen to retain an elite, upscale chic that would be sold for 25% – 30% more than ready-to-wear had been previously priced. Twenty-two year old Hervé Pierre was hired to assist Mortensen with the increased designing responsibilities.

The influx of new ideas and capital re-invigorated the house of Balmain and ushered in an era of foreign capital investments into long-standing Paris fashion houses. However, everything wasn’t working smoothly behind the scenes at Balmain. In March 1990 Alistair Blair was hired to design the Balmain Ivoire luxury ready-to-wear collection, allowing Mortensen to devote his work exclusively to the couture collection. 

That same year, Fayer sold Balmain to Alain Chevalier, a French financer from the Louis Vuitton group, only to buy it back a year later in June 1991 at a greatly reduced price. Mortensen however, was no longer with Balmain when the company was purchased back. Hervé Pierre had been made in charge of creating Balmain’s couture collections for 1991 and spring 1992. 

Fayer then brought on board Oscar de la Renta as Balmain’s lead designer in early 1992. De la Renta, who had established himself in New York in 1966 and had only shown his own collection in Paris for the first time in March 1991, became the first American designer to take over at a Paris fashion house. He remained at Balmain until 2002. 

Erich Fayer died in Brussels on April 6, 1995 from a heart attack.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Ramona Rull

Left: model Donna DeMarco wears a Ramona Rull dress with Sheesha work. Right: Ramona Rull wearing a wood-block printed cotton ‘at home’ dress, Toronto, April, 1979

Several years ago we inherited a collection of caftan and caftan-like dresses from a friend who loved the style. A few of them were labelled Ramona Rull, and the quality was particularly interesting, but I couldn’t find anything about the name on the label. Fortunately, thanks to Fashion History Museum remote researcher Lynn Ranieri, she managed to find a LOT of information about Ramona Rull and her career as a manufacturer:

Ramona Mary Rull was born into a Eurasian family of Hong Kong clothing manufacturers on August 5, 1933. In 1965, Ramona moved to New York and took a job at the United Nations. However, the fashion industry was in her blood and in 1968 she opened a boutique on Madison Avenue selling clothes made in Hong Kong from textiles she sourced across Asia. 

In 1971, Pakistan House International (a government agency), financed a trip for her to Pakistan to see what they could offer to encourage the export of Pakistani textiles. That same year Ramona closed her boutique and went into the wholesale manufacturing of cotton clothes made from vegetable-dye patterns printed with traditional wood-blocks. Sometimes her clothes also featured decorative work, like sheesha (mirrorwork). The dresses were manufactured in Lahore and Karachi using patterns for the export market that showcased the textile, using simple designs like slight A-line dresses with sash belts, caftans, and shifts with side slits. 

Her new manufacturing and importing business was called ‘Ramona Creations’. Over the next two decades she would travel to Asia for four to six weeks, three times per year, to source fabrics, draft patterns, and oversee quality control. The worst problem was ensuring textiles weren’t printed on rainy days when the dye wouldn’t set properly and then bleed easily.

In 1977, Ramona married Canadian businessman Thomas William Karson and moved to Toronto. Her first Canadian fashion show was held at Simpsons, Toronto in April 1979, where her clothes were sold through ‘The Room’ – their chic fashion department.  Over the years her clients would include Canadian journalist Betty Kennedy, and American actresses Ali McGraw and Shirley MacLaine.

Her husband passed away in June, 1989 and Ramona closed down her business by 1994.  Ramona Karson (nee Rull) died June 6, 2010. 

Canadian Fashion Connection – Lady Beatrice

Lady Beatrice was a mid-priced line of millinery sold through Eaton’s department stores, and possibly other venues. The line was created by K&G Hats Ltd., 55 York St., Toronto, ON. The company was operated by Philip Katz (president) and Harry Glassman (vice president), and was in operation from 1935 until at least 1965. The company went out of business sometime between 1966 and 1979, and was expunged in 1980.

Canadian Fashion Connection Everywoman’s World Magazine 1914 – 1923

Everywoman’s World magazine first appeared in 1914. Founded by Isidor Simonski of the Continental Publishing Company, Toronto. Although The Canadian Home Journal, founded in 1895, had a 50% female readership, Simonski realized there was no magazine in Canada that exclusively marketed to female consumers. Everywoman’s World was an instant hit and by 1921, the publication boasted the highest per issue circulation of any Canadian magazine to date, with 106,167 monthly readers.

The publication is an interesting mixture of fashion and household management, alongside articles with feminist interests, from reportage on various women’s organizations to what women can do to help win the Great War. The magazine favoured women writers, including Lucy Maude Montgomery. There are several issues available online here but despite its popularity, surviving examples of the actual magazines are rare. The last reference I can find for the publication dates from 1923, which must be the last year it was printed. Not sure how a publication can go from the highest circulation in Canada to defunct in two years! If the Continental Publishing Company in Toronto was associated in any way with an American publishing company of the same name, the U.S. company was dissolved in 1925, however, it is not clear if there was any association.

Canadian Fashion Connection – La Marquise Handbag Co.

Jack Sverdlove founded La Marquise Handbag Co. in Montreal in 1946. Sverdlove had been born in Russia in 1907 and immigrated to Canada where he married his Montreal-born wife Gabrielle in 1947. Jack’s company specialized in making handbags from imported tapestry. In 1976, as tapestry and handbag styles fell from popularity in favour of leather shoulder bags, the company was forced to reorganize its debts. It is not known exactly when the company ceased production, however, the last AGM was held in 1981 and Jack died in 1987. The company was officially dissolved in 1993.

La Marquise handbag, c. 1960s

Canadian Fashion Connection – Givenchy

Eight years ago a picture of a brocade suit with a Givenchy label from the early 60s was posted on the Vintage Fashion Guild by Kelly-Anne. I was sure her suit couldn’t be a Givenchy because, although the brocade fabric was nice, the construction was standard factory work typical of the era. As well, the skirt had a Canadian union manufacturer’s tag. 

At the time Kelly-Anne posted her pictures in 2013, there had been more than a few incidents of less-than-reputable online sellers removing designer labels from men’s ties and sewing them into dresses and suits. I myself was once duped into buying a suit with an added designer label. In my case, the dealer, who rarely dealt in vintage clothing, took the suit back without an argument, and she may have bought it that way herself. However, there were a few well-known sellers who were regularly making these alterations on purpose, concocting fake stories to accompany the label about how they got the garment from the original owner who had worn it for her going away outfit, or graduation ceremony, or bought it on her first trip to Paris… One dealer in Israel was notorious for this, but despite being regularly reported to Etsy she sold her fakes for years without repercussion. 

After vociferously declaring that the Givenchy suit must be a fake, and suggesting Kelly-Anne confront the seller (who had a story about the original owner), the discussion petered out and the thread slowly slipped away into the backlog of Vintage Fashion Guild archived conversations. But then, three weeks ago, Modamuzesi, a collector from Lebanon who owned the same suit in a different colourway but with the same label, showed up with evidence that the suit was, in fact, a licensed copy of a Givenchy design.

He posted a snippet from the August 30, 1960 issue of Women’s Wear Daily, that noted Marvin Warsh, vice-president of the Toronto clothing manufacturing firm J.H. Warsh & Co. Ltd., signed a contract with Givenchy to reproduce clothes under Givenchy’s boutique label for the Canadian market. The line would become available that October through better stores across Canada and retail between $50 and $100 (the equivalent of $450 – $900 today).

Canadian Fashion Connection – Cougar

Walter Sedlbauer immigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1939 to work for the Bata Shoe Company at their newly opened manufacturing plant in Batawa, Ontario. In 1948 he, with business partner Anthony Ronza, founded Susan Footwear Industries in a former parachute factory in Burlington, Ontario.

A sneaker brand called Cougar became a breakout success for them in the early 1970s, rivalling adidas running shoe sales in Canada. Their next big success story came in 1976 with a snow boot style with a padded leg and red lining, called the Pillow Boot.

By the time Walter died in 1994, the company was running into hard times from foreign brands being dumped on the Canadian market. Most Canadian shoe companies didn’t survive the shift to the world market, including Bata. Wanting to keep the business going, Walter’s sons Steven and Ron bought the Cougar trademark out of bankruptcy in 1996. The brothers realized they had to play by the same rules as the modern shoemaking industry and revived the Cougar brand by moving manufacturing off shore. The new Cougar brand company found success in new designs based on Pillow Boot styles, updated for the contemporary market.

To read more about the Cougar brand, check out this article, and their web page.

Harry Parnass 1935 – 2021

Innovative Canadian fashion designer and architect, Harry Parnass died January 1, at the age of 85.  

Born in Germany, Harry’s parents immigrated to New York in 1936. He graduated with degrees in architecture from Columbia and Harvard universities and became a professor of architecture and urban design at the Université de Montreal from 1965 to 1991.  

While designing retail stores in 1977 for the Montreal firm of Le Chateau he met Nicola Pelly, an English-born Canadian fashion designer for Bagatelle in Montreal. The two launched their Parachute label in Montreal in March, 1978. A Toronto boutique followed in late 1979. Their New Wave concept of unisex futuristic tailoring was popular in the U.S. and Canada. Overwhelmed by how business was changing and consuming their lives in 1989, Pelly and Parnass slowly closed their business – the last store shut its doors in 1993. 

For more information about his architectural career, see this obituary.

Canadian Fashion Connection – Harry Tolton

Harry Tolton was born March 29, 1871 in Guelph, Ontario. He was an avid sportsman and traveller in his youth – touring Europe on a bicycle and winning the Zimmerman trophy in 1894 as a champion bicycle rider in Canada. By the turn-of-the-century he had started a shirt-making business in Galt, which he moved to Hamilton where he married in 1902. In 1905 he relocated his factory to Berlin (Kitchener) moving it from King Street East to King Street West before building his own factory off College Street. Tolton closed down the business when he retired in the early 1940s: He died in January 1947.