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Designer Lynne Tyrrell brought chic to dreary ’50s Toronto

Couture clothing designer and entrepreneur Lynne Tyrrell lived in a sequined world of her own creation, a world filled with fabrics, feathers and fur. Having hired a bona fide baroness to sketch designs for her business, Ms. Tyrrell chose The Baroness as the name for her Toronto boutique. She didn't mind at all that the title, with its aristocratic cachet, was soon being applied to her.

The Baroness opened in Toronto in the early 1950s. From an initial dowtown location on Richmond St, Ms. Tyrrell moved upscale about eight years later, to 105 Bloor St. West, then to Yorkville, and later to Scollard St., all in the fashionable Yorkville area.

Society doors opened for the designer during a period when high fashion was in short supply. Debutantes needed gowns for balls, contestants in the Miss Canada Pageant needed evening dresses, and the wives of wealthy men had money to spare on clothing that wouldn't embarrass them by being seen on someone else. June Carter Cash, wife of singer Johnny Cash, dropped into The Baroness while her husband was playing in Toronto. She was one of its many returning customers.

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Fashion journalist Jeanne Beker said, "I remember my sister Marilyn had a fabulous sari gown made by Lynne Tyrrell in the '60s. It was incredibly glam. She certainly catered to some very stylish women back in the day, and helped make Toronto fashionistas feel as though they'd truly arrived."

Pencil-slim on a diet of coffee and cigarettes (with a cigarette holder), Lynne Tyrrell lived the life of a fashion doyenne into her nineties, when she could still be seen at fashion shows, elegantly dressed and in full makeup. She died in Toronto on May 25 from heart complications. She was 93.

Born Evelyn Beatrice Marvin on March 2, 1920 in the Chelsea area of London, England, Lynne Tyrrell was the eldest of four children. Her parents, Harriet and John Marvin, ran a pub, one of a string owned by her paternal grandfather. Evelyn's father died at a relatively young age – of flu.

After her husband's death, Harriet Marvin installed a new boyfriend to help run the business. Teenaged Evelyn, and sister Dena, uncomfortable with the new man in their mother's life, left home as soon as possible. Evelyn learned shorthand and dictation at the private Pitman's school and worked successfully as a stenographer for the British Armed Forces.

On one occasion during the war, as bombs rained down on London, Evelyn took refuge in an air-raid shelter. Her handbag was stolen. Outraged, she refused to enter a shelter ever again.

To earn extra money, she worked evenings as a cocktail waitress at the Café Royal, an opulent hotel frequented by rich and famous clients such as Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf. Being a gregarious young woman, Evelyn made a wide range of social connections at the hotel, including a love connection with its bartender, Ronald Emil Tyrrell.

The date of Evelyn and Ronald's marriage is unclear to their family. They might not have wed until 1944, after the birth of their first child, Geraldine, in the seaside town of Brighton. The couple moved there briefly to run a guest house, as well as a fish-and-chip shop. Although their businesses did well, a new and innovative idea took them back to London.

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Always resourceful, Lynn Tyrrell used her prior social connections to advantage, setting up a consignment shop for the wealthy to sell their clothes. With the black market in full swing toward the end of the war, and luxury commodities scarce, the store was a huge success. She earned enough money to buy a house in a tony area of London, Porchester Terrace. By that time her family had grown to include a son, Marvin.

In 1947, Ron Tyrrell, fed-up with both rationing and the gloomy British climate, convinced his wife to move. The family of four boarded a cruise ship, the Stella Polaris, and sailed to Jamaica. They purchased the White River Beach Hotel and Club, a modest facility that catered to local people. The small expatriate community of Brits in Jamaica included playwright and entertainer Noel Coward, who became friends with the Tyrrells.

Three years later, Ron Tyrrell, a man who described himself as "moody but magnificent," declared, "This island is too small and the rum's too cheap. We gotta get outta here." Lynne, having given birth to a third child, Harriet, remained behind for six months to care for the infant while her husband and two children immigrated to Toronto. Lynne followed with a Jamaican nanny in tow, but neglected to fill out the proper paperwork. The nanny was soon dispatched back to Jamaica.

By Ms. Tyrell's standards, the Toronto of the 1950s was extremely dull. Her solution was to liven things up by hosting gatherings of interesting people.

"My mother was a real party girl," says her daughter, Geraldine Stringer. "She dressed to the nines for every occasion. She loved to make an entrance."

Ms. Tyrrell gave birth to the last of her four children, daughter Naomi, in Toronto. With Ron taking on household and child-care duties, Lynne apprenticed with a designer named Rudy Lishka, who taught her to sew, cut patterns and design. This apprenticeship resulted in The Baroness.

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The world of fashion consumed her seven days a week. Having spent hours putting the finishing touches on a gown, she would insist on returning to her workshop in the evening, "Just to look at it." She became adept at dyeing lace in vibrant colours, encouraged the use of colour for bridesmaid dresses and made herself available to bridal parties on their big day.

Most of her financial success, however, came from corporate clients. She made gowns for the Miss Canada Pageant, promotional outfits for Rothman's cigarettes, and hostess uniforms for Trans-Canada Airlines (the precursor to Air Canada). At the Automotive Building, during the CNE, jaws dropped as Mrs. Tyrrell, using only a couple of pins, draped a model in various fabrics used for Cadillac car interiors. She changed the design every hour. Husband Ron functioned as her driver and sometime window dresser of The Baroness. In social circles, he would jokingly introduce himself as The Baron. He died in 2003.

Designer Wayne Clark remembers working in The Baroness when he was starting his career. His first job was to sort a jumble of fabrics so that Ms. Tyrrell could easily get her hands on them. He was instructed to answer the phone thus: "Baroness Couture." Ms. Tyrrell, he says, "was generous, somewhat demanding, all business and the best saleswoman I've ever seen." He describes her daywear as frequently being a houndstooth check skirt with a black jacket and a turban of lavender shantung or some other filmy fabric. The Baroness closed its doors in the '80's when it became too much work for her.

Ms. swam at the YWCA three times a week until a year before her death, mentored students from Seneca College and remained involved with Fashion Group International, an organization dedicated to promoting fashion and design. She traveled extensively with her husband and was well known for her conversational skills.

"She was an amazing storyteller," says daughter Geraldine Stringer. "When Yves St Laurent opened the gardens of his house in Morocco, my mother was there. Whether Mr. St. Laurent was actually in the garden chatting with her is probably fictitious. There was always truth to her stories but she liked to embellish in order to leave a good impression. Once you met my mother you never forgot her. Never."

A celebration of Lynne Tyrrell's life will take place with afternoon tea at the Westin Prince Hotel on July 27, from 4 to7 p.m.

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