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Designer Pat McDonagh brought Carnaby Street to Toronto

Fashion designer Pat McDonagh, 1966.

Hiroshi Yoda

In the late 1960s, fashion designer Pat McDonagh was a driving force behind Toronto's transition from tame to trendy. Without her vision and determination, the radical mod look, then storming through the streets of British fashion, might have taken longer to cross the Atlantic.

Over her lengthy career, Pat McDonagh's designs have been worn by Cher, Ella Fitzgerald and possibly even the Beatles. Her creations also appeared in the 1960s TV series The Avengers, sported by Diana Rigg.

Ms. McDonagh won a New York Times Award for design excellence in 1992, an award for best shoe from the Bata Shoe Museum in 2000, and, in 2003, a lifetime achievement award from the Fashion Design Council of Canada, an organization she co-founded in the early days of her business. Her clothing was sold in prestigious stores such as Holt Renfrew, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale's and Bonwit Teller.

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Retirement was never an option for Pat McDonagh. Well into her 70s, she received accolades for the military-style coat worn by former governor-general Michaëlle Jean to greet Barack Obama during his 2009 visit to Ottawa. Although she never smoked, Pat McDonagh died of lung cancer on May 31 in Toronto. She was 80.

The cognoscenti of the fashion world, famous clients and those to whom she'd simply been kind were among the 250 mourners who attended her funeral at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Toronto. Pat McDonagh had a generous side and frequently participated in charitable causes such as the Dare to Wear Love fashion show to raise awareness for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. The foundation, in turn, supports other organizations that assist people living with HIV and AIDS. In a quote she gave to Canadian Press, Pat McDonagh said, "I think we're given the glory of walking down a runway and everything that goes with it but I think at the same time, as a designer you have a responsibility to use that platform to do something a little more important than showing off."

Showing off her wit, however, was never a problem for Ms. McDonagh. In his eulogy, Pat McDonagh's brother Michael told a story about a documentary that was filmed toward the end of her life. "The director's final question was, 'Tell me, Pat, how does it feel to be dying? Quick as a flash and with a wicked glint in her eye, she retorted, 'I don't know. I've never died before.'" At the end of his tribute the crowd applauded. Former television host Dini Petty said, "I don't think I've ever been to a funeral where that happened. Pat would've loved it."

Pat McDonagh's ancestral roots lay in staunchly Catholic Ireland. At the turn of the 1900s, her grandfather, an ornamental plasterer, left his homeland to settle in Manchester, England. In 1931, his son Alex married a gifted seamstress named Josie McLaughlin. Three years later, on St. Patrick's Day, in Harpurhey, an inner city area of Manchester, they had their first child, Patricia Mary McDonagh. Three other children followed. Pat McDonagh's father worked his way up in sales for various companies. He became successful enough to build his family a house in a leafy middle-class suburb south of Manchester. Both parents, from poor working-class backgrounds, were determined that their children would attend university. Josie McDonagh saved money by utilizing her natural aptitude for sewing. She upholstered furniture and made clothes as well as curtains. She sold cushions at her church bazaars.

As a teenager, Pat McDonagh bought the fashion magazine Elle to show her mother pictures of dresses she liked. Michael McDonagh said, "My mother would search the Jewish fabric wholesalers for remnants, then she would throw the fabric over your body, start cutting and make a perfect replica of a picture with no pattern. It was remarkable and surely where Pat inherited her skill."

Pat McDonagh attended a convent school, then Manchester University where she studied philosophy and French. Stunningly attractive, with long legs and dark hair that she eventually wore in a signature bob, Pat McDonagh was approached by a top modelling agency in Britain. Her parents were horrified when she announced she was dropping out of university. "My poor, conservative, religious parents were mystified that their daughter had become this feisty, glamorous, post-pubescent diva," Mr. McDonagh said. He said his sister was also a great storyteller, a trait she never outgrew. "Pat had a tendency to exaggerate. You'd hear some outlandish story and you wouldn't believe it. Sometimes, years later, you'd meet someone who'd actually corroborate it."

In demand as a television and magazine model, Pat McDonagh was never short of suitors. She finally married David Main, a high-profile producer working at Granada Television. Once again she defied her parents. David Main was not Catholic.

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The two married in August, 1960, and settled in Swinton. A year later Pat gave birth to a daughter, Louisa, then two years later had a son, Dominic. The travel required for modelling was incompatible with motherhood. Retail beckoned.

Already sketching designs, Pat McDonagh opened a trend-setting store in Horwich, England, then a second in Harley. Through her husband, who put the Beatles on local television, she met their manager, Brian Epstein. She liked the Beatles' music but was even more excited by the daring new styles emerging from designers such as Mary Quant. Mini-skirts, platform boots, and super-skinny model Twiggy were fast becoming the hottest trends. Then, to Ms. McDonagh's chagrin, in 1966 she found herself in the fashion backwater of Toronto with nary a mini-skirt or false eyelash in sight. David Main had accepted a lucrative offer from CBC that was too good to pass up.

Ms. McDonagh saw an opportunity and quickly seconded her youngest brother, Michael, as a buyer. To his delight, he found himself representing his sister at London fashion shows, placing orders for The Establishment, an ironically named store that his sister opened in the Lothian Mews off Toronto's Bloor Street. Dini Petty, who got to know Ms. McDonagh through David Main, said, "Pat brought the whole swinging Carnaby Street look to Toronto. I remember her showing me an item and I said 'What's that?' And she said 'pantyhose.' I asked her if they were comfortable. I'd never seen them before."

When shipments from Britain arrived late and Ms. McDonagh found herself with chiffon miniskirts to sell in the middle of winter, she decided she needed her own manufacturing facility. She opened a factory on Dupont Street, stopping briefly, in 1968, to give birth to a third child, Kate. Michael McDonagh recalled visiting his sister in hospital. "The bed was strewn with fashion magazines. A nurse was poking around in my sister's, ahem, nether regions and there she was on the phone discussing an order."

Mr. McDonagh stayed with his sister and brother-in-law from time to time and remembers her children being raised by a succession of nannies and eccentric friends. "Pat would fly in the door, throw something together for dinner, then rush out again."

In 1972, Ms. McDonagh and her husband divorced. "David Main was very cerebral, and a deep thinker. He couldn't stand bullshit and bullshitty people and there was Pat in this flighty world of fashion. They were just diametrically opposed to each other," Mr. McDonagh said.

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Ms. McDonagh opened a second store, on Yonge Street, called The Re-Establishment. In the 1970s she entered into a deal with Dylex Ltd., owner of Tip Top Tailors. It invested in the McDonagh brand, built a new factory, and ensured her fashions were sold in major department stores. In the early 1980s, however, when a recession began, the company pulled out of the deal. Ms. McDonagh was left to fend for herself.ll

"She wasn't the best businesswoman," her brother said. " She invented an all-in-one lacy garment with press studs in the crotch. It sold like hotcakes but she never patented it, so it was ripped off and copied. Her true strength lay in her creativity."

Attention to detail was another forte. Friend and designer Marilyn Brooks remembers a time they were travelling by train to a fashion show in Montreal. "Pat was in the washroom of the train dying gloves for the models because she had to have the exact shade she wanted," Ms. Brooks said. When things did not go her way, Ms. McDonagh had a fiery temper. "She had a sewing lady who worked with her for 40 years," Mr. McDonagh said. "Their shouting matches were legendary. But Pat would often apologize later. She did not bear grudges."

As her reputation grew, Ms. McDonagh designed gowns for wealthy patrons of Toronto's annual fundraiser, the Brazilian Carnival Ball. She ensconced herself in an atelier in Toronto's Clarence Square, and lived above it. Occasionally she could be seen in Yorkville strolling with her parrot, Thomas, on her shoulder.

In 2006, the National Post's Nathalie Atkinson reported on a makeover that the newspaper sponsored for novelist Susan Swan. The idea was to prepare Ms. Swan for a glamorous evening at the Giller Prize gala. Pat McDonagh was the designer chosen to dress Ms. Swan. In a diary kept by the author about her transformation she wrote, "Pat tells me a story about dressing the Beatles in Nehru jackets for a movie, and how the local barber's standard pudding-basin haircuts became their trademark. A designer with a romantic past!"

Officially, however, the design for the Beatles' Nehru jackets is attributed to Douglas Millings, a men's wear manufacturer from Manchester. When asked about the likelihood that Ms. McDonagh's story had any grain of truth, Michael McDonagh said, "Pat was frequently consulted about style by people who worked with her husband. It's possible that when Pat met Brian Epstein, he said he was looking to smarten up the Beatles, away from the biker/leather look. He wanted suits, but something different. Pat could easily have scribbled the collarless Nehru look on a piece of paper and put him in touch with a manufacturer." As far as the pudding-basin barber story, that was likely a typical Pat McDonagh embellishment to make her tale more entertaining.

While her past was certainly colourful, Ms. McDonagh always had a discerning eye on the future. She saw no reason why her name should die along with her. She worked with her brother to create a legacy collection and, up until her death, was busy updating some of her older designs. She also hoped for a retrospective exhibition of her life and work.

Fashion doyenne Jeanne Beker said Pat McDonagh's designs had an air of whimsy, elegance and sophistication. "At the same time she was incredibly hip. She was one of those ageless women who was really in touch with her inner child," Ms. Beker said. Ms. Petty said, "Pat McDonagh was definitely cut from her own cloth."

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