Style and the city

What defines Montreal style? The typical outfit around campus often features heavy parkas, rolled up beanies, and thrifted sweaters. Montreal’s climate requires practical outerwear while its social scene requires tasteful dress. While it’s impossible to pin down a single style for an entire city, Jean-Claude Poitras, one of Montreal’s best-known fashion designers, has distilled a part of the city’s character in almost all of his garments. Known for his outerwear and clean cut designs, a collection of Poitras’ ready-to-wear clothes are currently on exhibition at the McCord Museum until April 26. Jean-Claude Poitras: Fashion and Inspiration showcases the breadth of his life’s work and provides sources for his design inspiration.

Throughout the course of his career, which spans nearly three decades, Poitras has designed everything from simple pant suits to voluminous wedding dresses. The McCord Museum’s exhibit is arranged to show that Poitras’ surroundings greatly influence his stylistic vision, as each room shows how his life experiences affect his work. Starting with his early life, the rooms transition to explore his travels and his fascination with film stars. Presented in a straightforward fashion, the clothes draw inspiration from period clothing but feel timeless, drawing references from many cultures while still feeling quintessentially Montreal. Jean-Claude Poitras: Fashion and Inspiration demonstrates how inspiration can appear anywhere, impacting style and identity along the way, as it has for Poitras.

Born in 1949, Poitras grew up in the Cartierville neighbourhood of Montreal. From a young age he was influenced by the elegant dress of churchgoers and clergy at his local parish—a style he termed “monastic chic.” After he earned his diploma in fashion design from the École des métiers commerciaux, he went on to open his own store in Old Montreal in 1975. Since then, he’s created a number of labels, worked with many manufacturers, and won prestigious awards for his designs, including the Fil d’Or de Monte-Carlo. Specializing in ready-to-wear clothing, his garments are designed for everyday life. Don’t expect avante-garde, sculptural pieces here—Poitras’ clothes are wearable in any situation.

In this exhibition of his life’s work, many of the garments feel timeless. Most of the clothes on display are from the ‘80s and ‘90s, but they certainly aren’t the typical type of clothes from those periods.  A sleeveless, salmon-coloured sundress looks like it was from 1950s Italy, but it was made in 1993. A boxy, high-neck fur coat from 1992 looks like it could be worn anywhere from the 1930s or today. Poitras cites classic Hollywood as a source of inspiration for his work, and his style certainly assumes that classic quality. In contrast to contemporary fast fashion, Poitras’ designs aren’t dated by trends—his clothes last physically and stylistically for years to come. 

“For over 30 years, Jean-Claude Poitras has influenced Quebec fashion through his signature designs, exceptional know-how and intuitive, very sensitive, artistic approach,” Stephen La Roche, executive director of the Musée de la civilisation, a co-producer of the exhibit said. “For him, fashion is an art form that is part of our lives and reflects who we are.”

Jean-Claude Poitras: Fashion and Inspiration is an insightful look into a Montreal designer’s sense of style and spirit that is emblematic of Montreal as a whole. His designs make elegance seem effortless, whether the wearer is attending a red carpet event or drudging through a snowstorm. Poitras, still an active member of the fashion scene, will be at the McCord Museum on Jan 30. to present a free screening of the documentary, Jeanne Moreau, l’affranchie.

Jean-Claude Poitras: Fashion and Inspiration runs until April 26, 2020.

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