When Gord Downie, the enigmatic frontman of the Tragically Hip, stepped onto the stage at Victoria's Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre on the weekend, his fans were treated to more than his incomparable voice and stage presence.
Downie, who it was announced this past spring is living with terminal brain cancer, emerged from months in a shadowy cocoon clothed in a bold metallic suit. Though he had worn a similar leather ensemble during the band's tour last year, the vibrant shades of silver, gold, pink and turquoise were unlike anything he had donned before.
The moment was movingly unexpected (even Downie's bandmates weren't apprised of his flashy intentions), and it has cast light on an ongoing collaboration with Toronto-based designer Izzy Camilleri – one that now has even more importance with the knowledge that these stage outfits will be part of Canadian music history.
"I felt no pressure whatsoever. I just felt great about it," Camilleri says of her part in what will be the Hip's final tour. "We've been talking about it since last September."
Camilleri, whose primary fashion design focus is now creating chic pieces for wheelchair users, has dressed David Bowie and Jennifer Lopez during her 30-year career. She was introduced to Downie through "a friend of a friend of a friend" after he decided that he wanted custom stage-wear created for the tour that the band embarked on last year to mark the reissue of their 1992 album Fully Completely.
"[It] was the first time he'd ever worn leather, and it was the first time he'd ever had anything custom-made for a tour," she says.
Camilleri was struck by the amount of research Downie did in approaching the project. "He found a leather mechanic's-style suit, very streamlined, by a brand called Juun J. He pulled some runway images together – I was very impressed."
While the result of last year's collaboration brought Downie's performances to another level – "The experience was really positive, and really elevated his experience onstage," Camilleri notes – the pieces created for this summer's shows possess even more unexpected bravado.
"He's the one who came forward with the metallic idea," Camilleri says. "He was thinking silver and gold. I was like, 'Wow, okay.' "
Once she finally found the bold leathers from a local source and work was being completed on the four jacket-and-trouser stage looks, another bespoke element came into play.
"At first, he thought he would just use some hats he already owned," she says of Downie's desire to accessorize his new garb. "He pulled them all out, and nothing really worked."
So Camilleri got in touch with Toronto-based milliner Karyn Gingras of Lilliput Hats. "She jumped up to the plate."
Camilleri recalls spending several hours at Downie's dining-room table, selecting feathers and trims with him for the hand-crafted hats – a process she says Downie relished. "When you do something that's out of your element, it's fun because it's not what you normally do. He really enjoyed the process and was very hands-on."
With these pieces in place – plus a pair of boots crafted by Jeff Churchill of Jitterbug Boy, emblazoned with the lyrics to the Hip's hit song Ahead by a Century on the soles – Downie was ready to embark on a farewell tour that will culminate with a live-streamed show in the band's hometown of Kingston, Ont., on Aug. 20.
"I think everyone was on the edge of their seat," Camilleri says of the first stop on the band's Man Machine Poem Tour, which began on July 22. "When they went onstage, I tuned into Twitter. I stayed up for the whole thing and followed nothing but positive comments. Everybody was embracing it," she says of Downie's daring costuming (he rotates between three outfit changes per show).
"[Gord] wanted to make this a celebration, to take people's minds off being sad," Camilleri says of his decision to break from the dressed-down look Hip fans had come to know. "I think it all came together beautifully."