We all know how empowering great fashion design is: Beyond its aesthetic ability to inspire, it helps us move through our lives more easily, joyfully and artfully. It’s also a fact that the best design—no matter how forward or avant-garde—has staying power, an increasingly appealing notion now that throwaway, fast fashion is so frowned upon. All this is precisely why Canada’s Marie Saint Pierre has not only survived, but has thrived for 32 years in a country where designers often struggle to make themselves heard. What’s more, Saint Pierre has established a luxury brand with a strong signature that gives women a modern, elegant edge in an era of style homogeny.
I’ve followed the Montreal-born designer since she presented her first pret-a-porter collection in 1988. In 1995, she was the first Canadian to present a collection in Paris and, a year later, she showed at New York Fashion Week, less than 48 hours after giving birth to her daughter. Passionate and driven, with a meticulous eye for innovative construction and fabrication, at 58, Marie Saint Pierre is at the top of her game, and on a mission to continue catering to the legions of women who adore her designs. “Whether a woman is going to give a talk in New York, or going to space, or going to receive a medal, or get her kids married, or get married herself—whatever the occasion is, she feels she can rely on me,” Saint Pierre told me in 2017, on her company’s milestone 30th anniversary. “Clothes are very important for these events in your life. I’ve accompanied my clients on their first job interview, and now they’ve moved on to bigger and more important things in their lives. I get to dress amazing, powerful women. I guess they were attracted to my work right from the beginning because they are faithful to me and they give me the strength to continue,” she said.
But the business of fashion has changed—and continues to change—dramatically. Not only keeping afloat, but continuing to grow and be relevant, is always a challenge. “The immensity of the fashion business has made it harder for independent designers to survive,” Saint Pierre opines over a recent lunch in Toronto. To what does she ultimately attribute her lasting success as a luxury brand? “You need to have a certain timelessness to your designs. And your designs have to be recognizable,” Saint Pierre says. “You need to be a 360-degree player in the industry—you need to control your own production. They say it takes about 20 or 25 years to build a real luxury company, so it’s a long process—lots of money, lots of investment and time and dedication. And I guess one of the things I have going for me is that I’m stubborn,” she laughs. A signature detail of Saint Pierre’s collection is her unique use of unconventional materials. She was one of the first to use fine scuba. “I love material so much,” she explains. “It makes me insanely happy. Fabric not only starts the creative process, but it’s like food for my soul. It’s very powerful for me, like a drug,” she says. Always a very forward-thinking designer, Saint Pierre was one of the first luxury houses to have a shoppable website. “Many were reluctant to do e-commerce,” she reflects. “But I decided to go for it and people thought I was crazy. But we’re on the third version of our site now. We really understand what e-commerce is about, and we have a strong clientele. I’ve always been an early adopter,” she says. The same rang true for her play with fabric. “When the cycles of fashion became shorter, it was impossible to get fabric made in time. There were always delays. So I started playing with fabrics in a very artisanal way. When I showed in Paris, I crinkled it, spray painted it and soaked it in salt water. Then I came up with the notion of bonded fabric because I didn’t want to line my clothes. If I’d paid a lot for these fabrics, it was important for people to feel them against their skin. Also, I like the idea of raw edges. The less seaming the better. I was striving for a kind of simplicity that would come out of complex thinking,” says Saint Pierre, likening her methods to the way an architect works.
Like many designers today, the issue of sustainability is an important one for Saint Pierre. “For me, the environment has always been an issue,” she says. “I started using all the leftovers of my fabric and incorporating them into the designs. I also had little money, so all the resources were always used at their maximum. This has always been part of my design process. Also, where I have an edge now is the transparency of our production —where we get our fabric and our supply chain. A lot of people don’t want to have that openness because there are a lot of dark corners in this business,” she says. She’s also proud to say that all her production remains in Canada.
In the end, it’s her customers that both drive and inspire her. “I think the luxury client has moved from being more passive to being much more engaged,” she notes. “Usually, it was women who were married to wealthy men who’d buy into the luxury dresses. They had the time to go to the haute couture shows. But today, it’s the woman who works who has the ability to buy these things herself. And they choose differently—they choose things that will define them and help them contribute to making their lifestyle easy. Functionality is important, but the empowerment is also important,” she says.
Far beyond pragmatics, there’s a poetic side to Saint Pierre that explains her strong appeal. “I live with art and architecture,” she tells me, “and I’ve noticed that the one thing that’s more important than food is art. It’s feeding your soul with beautiful things. Everything else will disappear, you won’t want to see it anymore. There are things that serve a purpose and there are things that serve, but that also last your whole life.”
Portrait by Max Abadian