Though confined to our destiny, we do get to pick the color scheme. ~Robert Brault
There is no discernable reason Gilles Montezin became what Americans call a couturier.* Born in a Canadian copper mining town, he was not raised seeing style on the streets. His mother, though an able seamstress, (she even made her children’s pajamas!) neither read fashion magazines nor was particularly conscious of her own wardrobe. “My father cut our hair with an electric shaver. At 11, I asked for and was sent to a stylist. I guess that started my quest for an aesthetic. I began to choose my own clothes.”
Gilles asked his mother to make a sports jacket from a Calvin Klein pattern using a dark pink, heavy tweed fabric. He was a teenager. “I’ve always been, well, not now, but before, a little flamboyant.” (He’s wearing a plain black shirt, jeans- and silver athletic shoes). Madame Montezin began the garment. Her son finished it, teaching himself to use the sewing machine. “I have a technical mind. I can understand very well how things are constructed.” The jacket was admired. He made some pieces for friends. One, who’d taken a course, taught him rudimentary pattern making.
During 3 years at College La Salle in Montreal majoring in Fashion Design, Gilles let his sartorial imagination out to play. “I was very much into Saroual pants. (The traditional Arabic harem pants with a dropped crotch and wide, flowing legs captured at the ankle). I made them in many different fabrics adding really high waistbands.” The pants were worn with a white shirt and tie. As daywear. “And Hari Krishna skirts. I just thought they were fantastic and fun.” Gilles was sufficiently brave and idiosyncratic to wear skirts for comfort and whimsy long before they hit the runways of Paris and Milan or Marc Jacob’s closet. He dyed his hair “fire-engine red. “ Mousse was not around yet so “I teased it with my fingers every day, many times a day. It was 8”-9” high.” Everyone at school knew who he was.
La Salle concentrated on “the making rather than the designing. Very basic. When we got out, we could do Gap clothes.” Next came work for opera, theater, and television. Costuming taught him “period techniques,” such as 17th century cartridge pleats, a kind of ridge of rounded hills created at the top of pleating which sits outside the line of a garment; “a way of gathering a big quantity of fabric around a tiny waist.” Sixteen years in Montreal were spent working on the technical side of fashion. In his thirties, needing a wider horizon, Paris beckoned.
A dual citizen of Canada (his mother) and France (his father), Gilles was able to work in the French capital without the usual bureaucratic acrobatics. He sewed for the Opera Bastille, and spent two years with designer Azzaro “making made-to-order clothes the same as what Halston was doing here.” After hours, there were commissions from a small, private clientele.
At the same time, he applied to and was accepted by the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, which takes only 10 students annually. Offering the preeminent couture training in the world, the school was founded to assure a future for the couture houses …that the savoir-faire will be transmitted uniformly and with standards in accordance to the criteria’s of the syndicate. He didn’t aspire to be a couturier. “I’m naturally curious and I guess I just wanted to get to the highest level of craft-to get the confidence, the knowledge. I learned pattern making, draping on the form, and to build from the inside out, especially when adding volume.”
Gilles took a job at the atelier of Genvieve Carrasco and found himself working on Madonna’s bustier wedding gown (the wedding to Guy Ritchie), Celine Dion’s New Year’s 2000 performance wardrobe, and the film Brotherhood of the Wolves, for which he literally laced Monica Bellucci into a corset – by putting his foot against her rear. (Even slim, straight women can achieve hourglass figures with the proper corset). Carrasco also contracted work for Christian Lacroix, Givenchy, and other couturiers.
“I decided I couldn’t risk fifteen hours a day working on couture. And, too, the social climate in France is very hard. You can’t fire anyone. Ever. If someone is not doing her work, the only way to (legally) get rid of that person is to find three major goofs. The boss tries to push her, she’s angry and resentful. It just rottens completely the atmosphere. That’s why they’re on strike all the time. I can’t stand that. I’m not a fighter.”
New York seemed a viable alternative. Gilles had spent two vacations here. Arriving in the city at age 43, in July, he sent out 200 resumes—Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrara…nothing. The day he was scheduled to fly home, Gilles was referred to couturier John Anthony who hired him on the spot. He went back to pack up and have his papers stamped, turned around, and moved to Harlem where he’d stayed on earlier trips. For three months, Gilles worked on a whole collection, from gowns to suits. He remembers Anthony appreciatively as a designer who knew what he wanted. Nancy Kissinger was a client. Unfortunately, the professional fit was uncomfortable. “I went to other designers, who I won’t mention, but when you cannot hold the pins or a pencil because you’re too stoned…” Disco days.
Seven years ago, Gilles set up his own atelier. Friends recommended friends. He started with cocktail and sun dresses, then suits and eveningwear. In 2009, Bridal became a large part of his creative output. The very feminine silk, satin, chiffon, and taffeta gowns hang like a diaphanous arbor above our heads. Beautifully lined in lace with tulle petticoats, a Gilles Montezin bridal gown is recognizable by its detailed (in-house) pleating and petal shapes. The most unique feature, however, is hidden. Every dress contains a built-in, lace-up corset. “American women’s waists and hips are 2” larger than just a few years ago. This corset takes 2”-3” from the waist.”
The corsets are so popular, Gilles has decided to sell custom made versions on his web site at $125.00 I tried one on. It’s about 6” in body-hugging width. The stays are surprisingly flexible. My posture improved effortlessly. I’d compare it to wearing heels-part of the change is physical, part psychological. You carry yourself better. I could sit and bend with no cutting or jabbing. The change in silhouette was astonishing. Suddenly, I had an hourglass figure, the shape of an odalisque! With strings tucked in, the shape adjuster can ostensibly be worn under anything. (Or, I suggested, outside, like a belt, perhaps in colors! Gilles agreed). One catch: you do need someone to lace you up. “That’s the fun of it. It’s like a ceremony.” Two notes: these are custom made because a good corset must close. Give the workshop your actual waist size, not the one you want. And always, always lace from the bottom up. Otherwise everything pushes down.
All the dresses begin with mousseline (muslin) on the dress form, a time consuming and exacting stage of craft. “It’s better because you see the 3 dimensions right from the start and avoid mistakes, plus, you can create things on the mannequin you don’t even imagine when you work with a paper pattern.” Bridal ranges from $4000-$7500.
Among Gilles’ other-than-bridal clients have been Mary Tyler Moore, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Deborah Messing, evergreen model Carmen Dell’ Orefice, and opera singers, Deborah Voight, Erica Sunnegardh, Natalie Dessay, and Susan Graham. Two of his pieces were used in the original Sex and the City film: The blue double-face satin Cocktail Suit with silk brocade and tulle inside trumpet flared sleeves (left and below), is one of his favorites (and mine). Above the elbow, where the sleeve begins to open out, sits a 4” folded, satin rose whose “petals” encircle a matching gem. It’s simply gorgeous. (About $3000).
A heavy, many layered, Chinese floral Opera Coat is the second. The most opulent of wrap cocoons, this piece has graced the cover of Texas’s bRILLIANT magazine as well as the charity auctioneer in the Sex & the City film. A show stopper in every respect. ($8000). Cocktail Suits run $1500-$2700. Gowns $2500- $7500.
A more reserved Opera Coat, one that might fit any body or time of life, has a top of black “Ponte de Roma-” thick, luxury, double knit wool which changes below the bust and elbows to tapestry green double-face satin. The sleeves finish to wrist-length in about 9” of widening, rounded, bell shape; the skirt, a gentle trapeze with hidden side pockets. Where the two fabrics meet, a 2 ½” jeweled band of deep, variegated blues designed by Gilles creates unostentatious, majestic shimmer.
I saw a butter soft, ruby cashmere suit with nipped waist and peplum jacket (third photo from top). Detailing includes a longer, shaped, pleated back and antique military brass with hand embroidery on the front.
An extremely flattering cream silk taffeta blouse with ¾ balloon sleeves and double pleated ruffles around the neck makes a head turning ensemble with the simplest pants or skirt. Gilles excels in flattering necklines.
His creations stage-whisper bespoke. Gilles buys fabrics in New York, often from foreign reps. Most of the decoration is made in house. “It’s like decorating a cake.” He’s drawn to European costuming from the 16th to 18th centuries whose influence subtly marries a modern take. Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gautier, and Alexander McQueen are his “heroes” because “they are unique artists.” As the cocoon Opera Coat indicates, Gilles could undoubtedly design gloriously over-the-top should the occasion arise. He’s making a long-line Chinese patterned corset for himself “To see what it feels like.” Until such time, the garments are assuredly not created merely to walk a runway. They are vigilantly executed, eloquently detailed, lush of fabric, graceful, stylish, and still practical. His unassuming workshop is a swan-maker. The man himself is soft spoken, charming and attentive. As he laced me into the corset, I imagined what it would be like to have something custom made by such an artisan. Think about it.
All quotes are Gilles Montezin
Bridal at Kleinfeld Bridal (by appointment only) 110 West 20 St.
Clothing at Gilles Montezin (by appointment only)
325 West 38th St. #510 917.860.0877
Yuta Powell 967 Madison Avenue 212.570.6880
* “Haute-couture is in Paris only. It has become a trademark with rules regulated by the Syndicale. Armani opened the Prive collection. It’s basically Haute-couture, but he cannot call it so because his house is in Milano. I guess, in my words, I am doing luxury made-to-measure garments for private clients. In the American language, it is called couture.”