French connection

Designs by Muse par Christian Chenail on the runway as Ottawa Fashion Week. Photo by Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen.

Montreal has a reputation for its streets of high-end shopping and a stylish population not known for shying away from making a statement, but its designers are still flocking to the nation’s capital for one thing: Ottawa Fashion Week.

Sure, it’s smaller, more sedate and a blip on the fashion world’s radar, but according to several Québécois designers, those are the exact reasons they want to strut their stuff at the Ottawa Convention Centre Feb. 8 to Feb. 10.

“I like Ottawa because they want everything to be perfect, even backstage,” says Helmer Joseph, a Haitian-born, Montreal-based designer. “I like it also because they make Fashion Week better by having the (UNICEF) fundraiser on Sunday, and it’s very important to give back.”

What’s more, as with other designers such as Rachel Sin who began her career here and has moved on to bigger markets, Ottawa’s more intimate crowd is the perfect launching pad for bigger things.

“We thought about doingMontreal Fashion Week this year, but for our first fashion show, we thought we’d get our experience here,” explains Maude Fournier, spokeswoman for SEFANI. “This is where you come for experience.”

Here are four designers making the French connection.

Y!D.N.A by Andy Nguyen

Returning to Ottawa Fashion Week for a third time, Nguyen, 22, has brought high drama and flair to every collection he’s staged. If last season’s astonishing parade of models accompanied by black underwear-clad, umbrella-toting, glitter-flinging men is anything to go by, his current collection, Time Traveller, should be eye-popping.

File photo: Montreal designer Andy Nguyen Models wearing designs by Y! DNA at Ottawa Fashion Week at Sala San Marco on Preston Street. Photo by Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen.

“I’m trying to re-create a vision of a moment in my life,” he says of his approach to this season. “I went to New York City last March and at the same time, this person I loved in the past was also there. I was walking and wished I could cross his path, that fate would bring us together. It’s a small feeling, a yearning, because love doesn’t happen every day for me. So that’s the perfect message for representing New York in this collection.”

But it nearly didn’t happen for Nguyen, who lost his job as a denim designer at Buffalo a month after his last collection in Ottawa. Out of work and living at home, he recently found a backer in a friend, Vincent Kuach. As a result, Nguyen has made the leap from purely theoretical collections aimed at filling his portfolio to a commercial presence. For the first time, Y!D.N.A pieces will be available for purchase online.

MUSE par Christian Chenail

“My inspiration is the Bond Girl … just not the one from the last movie,” laughs Chenail, 50, a former architect who has been fashion designing in Montreal since 1989. “My favourite Bond Girl was Diana Rigg and that streamlined silhouette, very lean, very pure and architectural, sexy in shape, but no wild décolleté.”

Featuring more jackets and a range of rich hues such as royal blue, deep burgundy, black and charcoal, Chenail’s collection for Fall/Winter 2013 is based around often oversized houndstooth patterns contrasted with a more pared down esthetic, he says.

“I’m tired of the exhibition on the runway of big sleeves and bows. It’s not that I think it’s ugly, but it’s not very wearable. I’ve done peplums for two or three seasons and I’m done with that. I like designers with less ego, but more sensibility toward women. St. Laurent would be one. It wasn’t like ‘this is my ego creation.’ It’s doing something again and again and again until you have this perfect little suit. That, I love,” Chenail says.

Sefani by Stefanie Gagnon

Since launching her brand three years ago, Gagnon, 24, has consistently delivered chic, comfortable little jackets that transition well from home to work. Trained at both Montreal’s Lasalle College and the Superior Fashion School of Montreal, she brings together comfortable double knits and merino wool with structured blazers that range from $120 to $200.

Having struggled to establish her name in the deeply competitive Montreal design scene, she will now be distributed across Canada and the United States, in the hopes of becoming a success back home, says her spokesperson, Maude Fournier.

“This year, we’re expecting the brand to take off. So we’re coming to Ottawa to do that; it’s close, has the same vibe and the people are more open to Montreal designers. It’s very competitive here, but before they’ll stop and look at you, you have to have a name already. We could do this same collection inBoston and Montrealers would buy it, but if we say it’s fromMontreal, you have to have made a name for yourself somewhere else to get noticed. So that’s our plan.”

Helmer by Helmer Joseph

Fashion designer Helmer Joseph (left) and jewelry designer Charlotte Hosten are set to open a new boutique on St. Laurent street in Montreal. The pair are seen in the Lab Creatif, a communal fashion design space July 22 2009. Photo by Allen McInnis, Montreal Gazette

Known for his amazing craftsmanship and attention to detail (read “perfectionist”), Helmer will this season reunite with renowned Quebec glass artist Jean-Marie Giguère. Two years ago, the duo staged a show-stopper when they designed a glass wind-chime dress that tinkled and jangled as the model slowly moved down the catwalk. This year, says Helmer, Giguère has designed four glass masks for models to wear with what he says will be predominantly brown, beige and black prêt-a-porter and evening wear designs.

“I worked in Paris for years and in haute couture, you have several artists working with you. I like to work with other designers, to collaborate, so I am working with Jean-Marie. For fashion designers, it’s better to take a risk, to use some detail, some length of skirt or the décolletage. I have a lot of corsets in this collection; it’s very sexy, feminine and young.”

Connect with Julie Beun |life@ottawacitizen.com