A couple of weeks ago, while gliding by on my bike during a night run, I saw a gorgeous yellow dress floating in the window of Local 23, a friperie and designer clothing shop on Bernard Street in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood. Lit up and surrounded by colourful hand bags, with its corset-like bodice, low neckline and knee-length hem, it looked as though fireflies and small, big-eyed woodland animals should have been partying at its base. I was sufficiently enthralled to make it my mission to return the next day and score that dress.
When I went around noon the following day there were no other customers in the store. I tried the dress on, it fit like a glove, and I left to get some cash; when I came back, the small store was crowded. Last week, over breakfast with co-owner and designer Jennifer Glasgow, I learned that later that day two other women had come in looking for the same dress I had snatched. The outfits had been on the floor just one day.
"I loved how sort of Tom Waits-ish it was, how decrepit and cranky and off the beaten track it was."
Local 23, which opened in 2003, hawks highly affordable small-run goods and features many of Glasgow's pieces, as well as clothing and accessories by local designers Haiiku, Fairyesque, Viola Blanca, and Dream Flow. Glasgow's partner is Geneviève Heistek of the band hangedup, but the business was started with another friend, Jessica Moss, who left in January to concentrate on her own musical endeavours.
"Local 23 used to be called Family Fashions and it was a furrier from Romania who moved here in 1965 and opened this fur shop," explained Glasgow over breakfast at El Coyote, a few blocks from her hood. "When I moved to the area nine years ago there were mannequins in the window with two inches of dust and dresses hanging off of them. I was like 'someday, that store will be mine!' I loved how sort of Tom Waits-ish it was, how decrepit and cranky and off the beaten track it was."
Glasgow and Heistek retained much of the original character of the store while making it more inviting. "We kept the same racks that Bernard, our landlord, had his fur coats hanging on. We kept the big bureau at the back of the glass showcase in the main hall, where there's the cash."
Working in the first store she's ever owned, she loves the opportunity to stay close to the people who wear her clothes. It helps her to find out what works and what doesn't.
Glasgow didn't start off as a designer, though. Her mom and a high-school arts teacher conspired to herd her into fine arts, and in 1992, she graduated from the University of Manitoba at the age of twenty-three. She had been working in video and performance arts until a bad review from a prof made her abandon the camera and return to fashion, her passion all along. From the age of twenty to twenty-four, she spent her summers travelling the festival circuit, living out of her '66 Ford Meteor, selling hats out of the trunk. Romance brought her to Montreal, where she started sewing NHL players' gloves to keep afloat, all the while aspiring to work for Cirque du Soleil.
Serendipitously, while visiting her mom in Calgary, she got a call from her dream employer and began working as a hat maker for the internationally renowned Montreal circus troupe.
The images are hopeful, but there is a darker underbelly to the buoyancy pervading her designs-their inspiration is a reaction to a jarring event.
"They called me-when does that ever happen with your dream job?" she said. "It gave me a lot confidence. But after a year-and-a-half of being crushed by the system of 'the family,' I decided to leave and then started my own stuff," she said of working in the pressure-driven Cirque organization.
Glasgow then went into business for herself. She started Solo, a children's clothing business, with a woman who left the Cirque at the same time she did but grew tired of the enterprise after a year of "Tupperware party"-style selling. She started a new venture called All Is Good/Tout Est Bien with silkscreener Pascaline Knight, but they too split just before Local 23 opened.
If you've been inside, you've seen Glasgow's vibrant works. Her styles are often based on older ideas she developed "before I knew how to sew," which, now that she has honed her skills, are given a new shot at life. She draws on her art-school background and a particular penchant for Russian Constructivism and the work of multi-disciplinary artists like Vavara Stepanova for composition ideas.
This year's designs feature silkscreened images oriented around the theme of flight. Hummingbirds, airplanes and images of Amelia Earhart, for example, are positioned tastefully on shirts, skirts and dresses. The images are hopeful, but there is a darker underbelly to the buoyancy pervading her designs-their inspiration is a reaction to a jarring event.
"In October I was attacked by a stranger, walking down the street at two in the morning," she said. "He got out of his car and tried to drag me over to his car and I fought him really, really, really hard, and I got away, but before I got away he punched me in the face."
She later ID'd the man, who lives on the street where her studio is-she's seen him having dinner with his wife on their balcony, she explained. They go to court in the fall.
"I don't consider myself to be a victim but someone who is working through a difficult time," Glasgow continued. "I see him everyday so if I were a real victim, I think I'd be running every day."
"So, in order for me to feel safe, for my work as well as for my own physical security, my work took on proportions of flying and freedom and not being afraid. Sort of having all the things that make the world a good place."
Although she outsources some of her work to a women's collective in St. Jérome that helps disadvantaged women get back into the workforce, she does most of the sewing herself.
"It's like flying, sewing into the stars," she said, noting that this is another source of flying images. "Sewing is meditating because it's putting together the puzzle of your pattern, it's thinking about your life in general and what this whole thing is."
23 Bernard Street West
Melissa Wheeler is a Montreal news and arts journalist who used to breakdance until she decided it was too bad for her knees. You can hear her report on the weekend traffic on CJAD 800.