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Reuben Abramowsky.

Courtesy of family

Reuben Abramowsky Bon vivant. Art intellectual. Fashionista. Cultured. Born June 10, 1933, in Sydney, N.S.; died Feb. 21, 2020, in Montreal, of heart failure; aged 86.

When asked where we would meet for a visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, his response was glib, confident and quintessentially Reuben: “You’ll find me.” For who else would go about town wearing a bespoke, double-breasted, burnt-orange jacket with a flawlessly co-ordinated pocket square, green corduroys and alligator shoes? Reuben was the consummate fashionista, his audacious taste commanding both attention and respect.

Reuben personified the humble eccentric. His secluded apartment on the edge of Montreal’s Westmount district offered its visitors an orderly yet intense collection of paintings, sculptures, carpets, silver, porcelain and fabrics. Invitations to his dinner parties were much sought after, as they were sure to include a broad spectrum of people with varying interests.

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Reuben’s friends were few but devoted. His opinions on anything related to design, art, clothing, furniture, antiques, tableware, china and textiles were absolute and, most of the time, they were correct. You also needed to be able to withstand his barbs such as the one wielded at my wife when she appeared, conservatively dressed, at his home one evening. He greeted her by saying plainly, “My dear, you look like a nun.” Friends would marvel at the little gifts that magically appeared in the mail from Reuben, such as an odd-coloured pocket square or a single tuxedo stud, neither of which on their own had any practical use.

Reuben was born in Sydney, N.S. His father was a tailor who fashioned coats using furs obtained by trading with the Mi’kmaq, considered audacious at the time. In search of something other than the family business, Reuben took a train as far as he could afford and ended up in Edmonton. It was 1957, the year of the Queen’s first royal visit to Canada. Hudson’s Bay, where Reuben worked, was holding a national contest for the best display window. The stress of the competition was too much for the manager and Reuben took over, winning the event. Now recognized as a rising star, he entered the store’s management training program and was quickly promoted to buyer for antiques, glass and china. In 1960, with the backing of the federal government, he was among the first to travel behind the Iron Curtain to import giftware for Hudson’s Bay stores across the country.

Reuben soon relocated to Montreal and led all merchandising and buying for the chain’s designer fashions and furs. Among his travels in the 1970s, he introduced Canadian furs to high-fashion customers in China. By the mid-1980s, he had moved to form his own business targeting designer clothes for upscale women’s boutiques and led the way for many now-mainstream brands to gain a toehold in the Canadian market. Reuben seemed to know everyone in the business of quality merchandise, his years of studying art texts and in-depth knowledge of worldwide auctions was impressive. Mostly, however, his flair and sense of adventure drove his success.

Reuben received an honorary degree from Cape Breton University in 1996 for his philanthropic efforts. Among his many gifts to the institution was making sure that a rare Picasso sketch book, Carnet de dessins, found its way to its cultural and heritage centre rather than being sold at a U.S. auction.

Unable to ever consider retirement, Reuben continued his support of CBU, while at the same time focusing on ways to enrich the lives of his niece, nephew and close friends through countless conversations and gifts.

Larry Mogelonsky is Reuben’s godson.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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