Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

François Barbeau: Master in the art of costume design

François Barbeau’s nickname was Le maître – the master – and he lived up to the superlative. Mr. Barbeau died in his sleep at home in Montreal on Jan. 28. He was 80.

Hugues Poirier

Dollarama might seem an unlikely source of inspiration for a master in the art of costumery, but for each annual iteration of The Nutcracker by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, this is where François Barbeau went shopping for ideas.

The celebrated costume designer also rummaged through hardware stores and shops in Montreal's Chinatown, scooping up such everyday items as cleaning sponges, Christmas ornaments and paper doilies to realize his out-of-this-world theatrical visions.

"François had no shame using unusual stuff as embellishment," says Mélanie Ferrero, the head of wardrobe for Les Grands Ballets, who assisted Mr. Barbeau each year in refreshing his design of the holiday classic.

Story continues below advertisement

"He would always aim for simple ideas that anybody could reproduce at the least cost but with maximum effect, and efficiency, on stage."

His designs enlivened more than just the ballet. During a career than spanned more than 50 years, he contributed to nearly 700 productions of theatre, opera, film, television and the circus.

His nickname was Le maître – the master – and he lived up to the superlative.

"When we talk about costume design in Canada, François Barbeau is the pioneer," states Raymond-Marius Boucher, a scenographer who is a senior lecturer in theatre at Montreal's Concordia University. "Mr. Barbeau unleashed on stage an imagination that had a strong impact on all who witnessed it."

Mr. Barbeau died in his sleep at home in Montreal on Jan. 28. He was 80.

The day before his death, he had telephoned Ms. Ferrero to ask when they would be meeting again. He was working on a new concept for The Nutcracker (or Casse-Noisette, as the ballet is known in French), and had wanted to discuss how they could implement some of his new ideas while working within Ms. Ferrero's budget.

A costume designer who was also a highly regarded art director, teacher and theatre director, Mr. Barbeau worked for every major theatre company in Montreal. His costumes also graced the stages of the Stratford Festival, Theatre New Brunswick and the National Arts Centre.

Story continues below advertisement

"How can we imagine our theatre without François Barbeau?" asks Lorraine Pintal, the director of Montreal's Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, with whom Mr. Barbeau had a long association.

"How will we survive without his unique and expressive laughter, without his rebellious and vocal stance against stupidity, ignorance, laziness? Driven by passion, to generations of designers, he was a master, a role model and a genius."

Mr. Barbeau made a living creating spectacles, but he conducted his personal life beneath a cloak of intense privacy. He married once, to a woman who is now deceased, and they had a daughter, named Valérie. But he never spoke of them with his colleagues.

It was also his wish to depart this world without fanfare. According to Ms. Ferrero, Mr. Barbeau wanted to be cremated and buried in his garden. His colleagues and admirers in Montreal's theatre community were unaware of any funeral arrangements.

There is talk of paying tribute to the man who contributed so much to Canadian culture.

In 1973, Mr. Barbeau created the sensuous fur-and-silk clothes seen in Claude Jutra's screen adaptation of the Anne Hébert novel Kamouraska, and in 1980, the trench coats and fedoras worn by Susan Sarandon, Burt Lancaster and others in the Louis Malle film Atlantic City.

Story continues below advertisement

His reputation grew outside Canada, earning him commissions to design costumes for the Comédie-Française in Paris; the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel; the Harkness Ballet in Chicago; the Boston Ballet; and a 1984 production of Tartuffe, starring French actor Gérard Depardieu, by the Théâtre National de Strasbourg.

The costumes Mr. Barbeau created for Xavier Dolan's critically acclaimed 2012 film Laurence Anyways won him a Genie Award, just one of his many accolades, including Quebec's Prix Victor-Morin and a Governor-General's Award. He was also named to the Order of Canada and received an Emmy for his costumes in the Cirque du Soleil's Dralion, a touring show that was turned into a video and broadcast to critical acclaim across the United States.

The Dralion costumes were included in a 2014 Barbeau retrospective at the University of Montreal that featured 50 costumes and accessories, together with 10 original maquettes and 30 reproductions. There was a video of Mr. Barbeau describing how he prepared the costumes for Théâtre du Nouveau Monde's 2012 production of Christine, la reine-garçon. The multimedia exhibition, which attracted 4,000 people, also included photos and drawings.

"It was he who suggested we present the costumes on hangers and allow visitors to touch them," says Andrée Lemieux, an independent curator who organized the exhibition. Ms. Lemieux, who is working on a book about Mr. Barbeau, first joined forces with him in 2011, when they both participated in the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space, the world's largest scenography exhibition. He was prickly at first. But he slowly let his guard down, regaling her with stories about his days in Europe mixing with Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando and Yves Saint Laurent.

"His memory and erudition were fabulous," Ms. Lemieux recalls. "He was funny, even scathing at times. He started designing costumes when he was very young, at age 22, and after nearly 60 years he mastered all aspects of the work of a costume designer: cutting cloth, researching materials, processing techniques, experimenting with colour and committing to memory the entire history of clothing."

His influence cannot be overstated. A highly regarded pedagogue and self-taught archivist who became an expert in fabric renewal and restoration, Mr. Barbeau nurtured generations of Quebec theatre artists when teaching scenography and costume design at the National Theatre School (1962 to '71) and the University of Quebec at Montreal (1993 to '97).

His vast knowledge and endless curiosity established costuming as a vital Quebec industry. This is his lasting legacy. Students learned from him, both in the classroom and at the Cirque du Soleil laboratory he established to experiment with new materials.

Mr. Barbeau will be remembered for how he made a costume a vital element of theatrical performances. Made from bric-a-brac and the shiniest and most unusual materials – twist ties and netting, for instance, to create the illusion of fur – Mr. Barbeau's costumes were never just clothes. They were a creative statement.

"The way he transformed materials was unique and inspiring," Ms. Ferrero says. "He was a costume artist."

Mr. Barbeau worked from extensive drawings and painstaking research. Whether he was dressing a classic by Shakespeare or a contemporary work by Montreal's Michel Tremblay, his aim was always to give the audience an immediate sense of character within the specific social, historical and emotional context.

As he once said, his costumes went beyond superficial decoration to communicate a deeper reality: "In the first 20 seconds, the costume exists, and after, should not exist any longer. After that, it is up to the spectator to discern the character. For me, the costume has nothing to do with fashion. I want to make costumes that are psychologically appropriate on the imperfect bodies of the actors. It is very lifelike, and not at all glamorous."

Mr. Barbeau's origins were similarly unglamorous. He was born in Verdun, a borough of Montreal, on July 27, 1935, the son of a bank clerk who came from a long line of craftsmen, including upholsterers.

When the family moved to Trois-Rivières in the 1940s, Mr. Barbeau saw his first play and was smitten. He considered becoming an actor, but in a 2014 interview with Nathalie Petrowski of La Presse, Mr. Barbeau revealed his true inclination. He said he couldn't remember the name of the piece he had seen, only the shoes the actors wore.

He wanted to become a dressmaker, he told his aghast father, a confession that caused much grief.

As a compromise, Mr. Barbeau eventually enrolled in the commercial art program at Sir George Williams University, a precursor of Concordia, where one of his art courses required him to execute a costume design.

He had found his calling.

In 1952, Mr. Barbeau entered Montreal's Cotnoir-Capponi School to study cutting and sewing. With these skills, he landed his first job as costume designer for Théâtre La Roulotte, a travelling children's theatre in Montreal parks.

After five years there, Mr. Barbeau next became the assistant to set designer Robert Prévost at Théâtre du Rideau Vert, where he made costumes for more than 185 of the company's shows.

In 1961, he received a bursary from the Canada Council to study for a year in France, Italy and England.

Returning to Montreal in 1962, Mr. Barbeau landed at the National Theatre School where, as the director of the school's scenography program, he played a key role in training the next generation of Canadian set and costume designers. He also continued plying his craft in the city's theatres.

With his frequent visits to thrift stores and junkyards, Mr. Barbeau never tired of experimenting with cloth and texture to create a unique impression.

According to Ms. Ferrero, while Mr. Barbeau "knew how to express directors' wishes by listening to their vision and feelings," he believed that a costume was its own source of creative expression, made of equal parts imagination and ingenuity.

"He is from the generation where there were no budgets for making costumes," Ms. Ferrero says.

"Making costumes was not necessarily a career in the 1950s. But – and thanks to him – it is today."

To submit an I Remember:

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly said he went shopping for ideas at Dollarama for his 1987 redesign of The Nutcracker. Although he regularly visited the chain for annual refurbishings of that 1987 design, Dollarama was not founded until 1992. This online version has been corrected.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Deirdre Kelly is a features writer for The Globe and Mail. She is the author of the best-selling Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books). More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨