Leading by example
With the 30th anniversary of her maison this year, Quebec designer Marie Saint Pierre can't stop thinking about what's to come
Montreal-based designer Marie Saint Pierre has long been admired for her bold aesthetic and cutting-edge vision. Now celebrating her 30th anniversary in the business, the 55-year-old Saint Pierre has earned her stripes as a true pioneer in the fashion industry. She was the first Quebec designer to participate at New York's Coterie tradeshow, and the first Canadian designer to showcase a collection in Paris. She also participated in New York Fashion Week over twenty years ago, and presented a collection at the main branch of New York's Public Library less than 48 hours after she gave birth to her daughter.
With two boutiques in Montreal and one in Miami (and plans for more shops to open in San Francisco and Chicago in the next 18 months), Saint Pierre is intent on controlling her destiny and building her brand. I caught up with Saint Pierre at her Rue Chabanel studio to talk about the challenges in continued success, and how she grows her business while being based in Canada.
Celebrating three decades in a business that's gone through so many changes, and is getting tougher by the minute, is a great accomplishment. How did you get this far?
First of all, I'm very stubborn. I cannot take no for an answer, which means I always push to the limits. I've been fortunate, too, to have been surrounded by amazing people. I've had my ups and downs and tons of hardships to conquer in this business. But I'm fortunate because I'm in a personal environment that is absolutely fantastic. I have an amazing husband—we're real partners in life. We have two really cool kids together who understand what we're going through. They're smart, healthy, and have good reflexes in life. Some people don't have that to start with, so having that gives me more time and liberates my spirit to build this business.
Still, I'm sure there were many times that you thought, "That's it! I'm done. I'm out of here!" What made you want to hang in there?
What's kept me going are the amazing women I end up dressing. It's like I become part of their lives, and I have become very intimate with lots of them, and they've become intimate with me. They know who I am, even if I don't know them. I receive letters, emails, texts from them, and I realize that I accompany these woman through amazing times in their lives.
You always had a forward, almost avant-garde vision – always pushing it in terms of cuts and fabrication. How did that progressive way of thinking come to you at a time when there wasn't a lot of that happening in this country?
For the last 20 years that I've been in the fashion industry, it hasn't been very progressive anywhere in the whole world. We've been feeding people a lot of old decades and vintage styles, a lot that's been redone and remastered. That goes for music, art and fashion. It seems like people don't want to move forward. They want to get stuck in the past or they're afraid of too many changes. What I see in the fashion industry is just the reorganization of shapes, but very rarely do I find intricate novelty, whether it's in the making, a fabric, or a graphic element. There are very few liberal thinkers. There are very few independent designers on the planet. We're not ignored but we're not talked about either, because we cater to a clientele that doesn't relate to the same media environment. For us, it's not about giving clothes to young supermodels or actresses. The business of fashion has changed immensely. Right now, who would want to get into it? Because everybody gets gifted more and more – as an independent brand, you cannot survive by gifting people. You rely on people to buy your clothes in order to survive. So it's been a difficult journey, for sure.
You're starting to really get your product out there internationally, certainly in America. Are you trying to build a following in Europe?
We would love to work harder in Europe but the American market is a big one for a luxury brand like us. Imagine: Apart from The Row, there haven't been any luxury brands that have emerged in the last twenty years there. So it's either the old ones, like Ralph Lauren – or look at what's going on with Donna Karan. There are still a lot of turbulent times ahead, so you have to make sure that you cater well. Even though we would love to have some presence in Europe, we are fabricating everything in Montreal and we are doing it at a luxury level. Our numbers and our sell-through are so amazing because we deliver product that is very high in standard, quality, and design. There's also a timelessness to it. People wear it for so long. So, we cannot multiply this production by two. We can increase it by ten to fifteen-per-cent for now, and the market here demands that.
Right now, the spotlight of the world is on Canada and people finally seem to be buzzing about Canadian designers.
But many of them still work from abroad, like Dsquared2. They chose to go elsewhere, and they were right because there's no infrastructure in Canada. We are creating an infrastructure in Montreal right now with Marie Saint Pierre. We have a design studio and we have the manufacturing facilities. But the fact that there has been no infrastructure is so demanding for a designer, besides having to produce at the fast pace that the industry demands. So it's easier to go to Europe. But at the same time, if you want to be a luxury house, I'm sorry but you have to build it from ground up
How proud are you of the fact that you've managed to create this thriving, burgeoning business here, and managed to stay here, live here, raise a family here?
I have no time to think about. If I do sometimes, it overwhelms me. I feel tired. So I'd rather not look, and stick to my vision. I know where I want to go, so it's always in front. It's never backward. If I look at what happened in the past, I get dizzy because sometimes I see it's been too much of a battle, too much work.
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