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Montreal designer Stacey ZhangThe Optimist Club

As Montreal fashion week kicks off amid global economic gloom, two designers keep their chins up and trust in the buy-local trend.

Fashion is an optimist’s game. Fantasy and froth are a designer’s stock in trade. And retailers invariably insist the outlook is rosy.

But the global economic meltdown is already casting a pall that makes even the cheeriest types acknowledge concern. It was evident in Paris during the recent spring shows, where luxury and extravagance are always the order of the runway.

Now, people are talking about rise of the recessionista, she who trades her Chanel for Le Château, Vuitton for Value Village.

Today is the start of Montreal Fashion Week, as about 20 designers roll out their collections for next spring and summer. Another feature of the week: a marketplace called Le Showroom, where designers from here and beyond try to land sales.

In a landscape that was already notoriously tough, The Gazette speaks to two designers about their hopes and fears – and the clothes they hope will make you spend your dollar next season. Katrin Leblond shows her colourful, whimsical designs on Thursday at Bonsecours Market, headquarters for Fashion Week. Stacey Zhang held an informal showing at her Ste. Catherine St. boutique last week. Here are their stories.

Katrin Leblond’s Mile End boutique is the go-to place for a “plain little summer skirt” – swingy, stretchy and adorned with hearts or flowers, perhaps in screaming magenta, electric blue and juicy orange.

“I feel people look to me for embellishment,” said Leblond, 33, in her cheery, pink-painted atelier on Casgrain St.

“I’m not a sculptor the way some designers are. I tend to work on surface embellishment.”

Leblond admits she is “totally” worried about the economy. But she figures her clients will stick with her for several reasons: the unique factor and because the movement to buy local is spreading to fashion.

The collection is about 90 per cent homegrown, from the buttons to the zippers to the threads to the fabrics. The ecological movement, which has focused on organic fabrics, is turning to a more realistic target of buying locally, she added.

“People are interested in supporting our economy, are buying more and more local,” Leblond said.

Her spring collection features lots of red, like a showpiece skirt with multi-coloured tulle bustle and red and black bustier to match, as well as easier pieces like simple linen A-line skirts or flounced capris, some set off with delicate vine embroidery. There are also stretchy ruched tops adorned with rosettes and what Leblond calls the “chicken skirt,” a colourful print cotton circle whose hem sports yellow mesh loops. And she plans to show and sell bridal dresses in store next season, both casual and formal, augmenting her couture business.

“Brides are a headache,” she joked. “It’s like fashion therapy. You have to massage the mother, bridesmaids.”

A Concordia fine arts graduate, Leblond apprenticed with a designer in New York before working as a textile designer at Montreal’s Tricots Liesse, where all she wanted to do “was make clothes out of the fabrics.”

“So I was coming home with garbage bags full of scraps.”

Later, she was part of the Fairyesque design team, then went into retail on her own in May 2007.

“The minute I opened my door it worked,” she said.

Her clientele does not consist of Mile End hipsters, just women from their 30s to 50s – “the ladies, artists, journalists, actresses, businesswomen, mothers,” she said.

The price range for the items in the store is about $60 to $260, to rise somewhat next season.

“I’m not going to let go of the $60 top. I wanted to put more embellishment into pieces, but they’re selling slower.’‘

Her clothes are about 20 per cent more expensive than those from, say, Urban Outfitters, she said – worth it to those who want a unique fashion fix.

Much of the fabric she buys comes from Montreal’s Tricots Liesse, stretchy “indestructible” knits used in lingerie and swimwear. It’s augmented by treasures from Télio, a local import house, she added, pointing to a swath of orange organza adorned with floral appliquées that’s sitting on her cutting table.

“I can see how many people are employed because of my business decisions. There aren’t that many suppliers. I like the ones I have – I hope they stick around.”

Katrin Leblond’s boutique is at 4647 St. Laurent Blvd.


Jet-setting over to the sub-continent for high tea in Pondicherry, India, is the theme of the spring collection designer Stacey Zhang showed to a small group of media in her Ste. Catherine St. boutique last week.

Among the looks: a bubblegum pink draped goddess gown, a splatter-print mumu, a one-shoulder palazzo pant jumpsuit and a darling white and gray taffeta strapless dress that converts into a skirt.

Those are fairly heady styles as world markets plunge and people run for cover, but, of course, the collection is augmented by more prosaic pieces. Still, Zhang and business partner Karl Hearne know they could be in for tough times.

Zhang, 32, was born in the Far East and grew up in Jamaica. She studied at LaSalle College in Montreal and worked in the fashion industry here as designer at local companies before opening her first boutique, Nu on St. Denis St., 14 months ago. A namesake boutique on Ste. Catherine followed this April.

She targets a working woman in the 25 to 45 age range, with a price range of $75 to $275.

“People love our things. I think we’re going to be okay,” Zhang said.

“That’s what we hope. Of course, we have to plan for the worst,” Hearne added.

“We try to be very discerning and picky about which styles that get made. We try to cut costs where we can. We’re not going to sacrifice quality.

“The one thing that’s clear, when you’re such a tiny boat on a big sea like this, if everything is going down, you’re going down no matter how good your business is,” he said, adding that on their stretch of St. Denis, eight boutiques have gone out of business in the past eight months.

“We’re planning to survive, but we’ll see how things pan out” Hearne said.

Meanwhile, they’ve always known they can’t compete on price alone.

“Style and quality,” Zhang replied when asked how she competes with the flood of cheap fashion from the likes of H&M. Fabrics are top quality from Europe and China, and now 70 per cent of production is done in Montreal.

“We offer 10 times the quality for only a little more price,” Hearne added.

Boutique Nu is at 4107a St. Denis St. Boutique Stacey Zhang is at 1378 Ste. Catherine St. W.

PHOTO CAPTION
Designer Stacey Zhang opened her first boutique, Nu on St. Denis St., 14 months ago. A namesake boutique on Ste. Catherine followed this spring.

CREDIT: The Gazette

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008