Articles

She sells glamour with a growl

Lillian Farrar can insult her richest patrons, scorn Paris, insist men have better taste than women and tell customers they’re wrong. But they just keep coming back for more

DOROTHY SANGSTER March 30 1957
Articles

She sells glamour with a growl

Lillian Farrar can insult her richest patrons, scorn Paris, insist men have better taste than women and tell customers they’re wrong. But they just keep coming back for more

DOROTHY SANGSTER March 30 1957

She sells glamour with a growl

Articles

Lillian Farrar can insult her richest patrons, scorn Paris, insist men have better taste than women and tell customers they’re wrong. But they just keep coming back for more

DOROTHY SANGSTER

Fashion expert Farrar pokes fun at fashion with these circus styles from her own notebook

Canadian couturiers, according to those who patronize them, are a tormented breed. Half dressmaker, half artist, and one hundred percent prima donna, most of them struggle in a schizophrenic environment that would pique the curiosity of any psychiatrist. Separated from other couturiers by the natural jealousy of merchants competing for a limited market, they share a devotion to European haute couture so slavish that they wouldn’t hesitate to encase their clients in ultra-violet pillowslips if Paris decreed it to be the fashion. Behind their glamorous façade, they’re apt to be as poor as church mice, enervated by a lifelong struggle to uphold art for art's sake in the face of the mighty dollar.

A sympathetic customer mourned for the whole species when she said, “Poor dears, most of them are so hard up they’d let you step on their neck if it meant a sale.”

A couturier on whose neck nobody steps is Lillian Farrar, a vigorous, red-headed woman in her late forties whose unique blend of talent and independence have made her one of the richest dressmakers in Montreal.

Ten years ago Farrar was a struggling seamstress with three hundred dollars between her and starvation. Today she lives in a two-hundred-a-month apartment, owns her own seventythousand-dollar salon on fashionable Peel Street just north of the Shcraton-Mount Royal Hotel, and counts almost four hundred women in her clientele. All of them are apparently happy to pay from $135 to $400 for a Farrar creation, and any one of them would just as soon go lion hunting without a gun as attempt to step on this couturier’s neck. Because Farrar—her father called her “Irish,” and not for nothing—is practiced at doing her own stepping.

“I won’t put up with insults just because somebody's got money,” she snaps. “I’d rather lose a customer.”

Farrar isn't kidding. She has lost customers. People who try to get something for nothing are her special hate.

Once a wealthy woman from Westmount dropped in for a fitting of an expensive blackvelvet evening gown. To show her the kind of ornament that would set off the dress to advantage, Farrar reached into a drawer where she keeps odds and ends of costume jewelry, held up a two-dollar brooch, and suggested that something of that sort would look nice on the shoulder. When it came time to pay, the customer remarked casually that she expected the brooch to be thrown in free. Farrar was so outraged she refused to sell her the dress.

Although she’s frequently brusque herself, rudeness in others makes her see red. When another customer, hearing that prices had soared since her last visit, flicked her eye over the newly decorated salon and observed acidly, “I suppose I'm paying for the carpet?" Farrar coldly informed her, “You’re paying for the dress and it’s the last one I'm selling you."

She has an extraordinary memory for those who have ever displeased her. Five years ago a customer accused her of using faulty material in a cotton dress that had frayed under the arms after two years of wearing. A few months ago the same woman wanted bygones to be bygones and turned up again at Farrar’s salon. Farrar met her at the front door and ordered her off the premises.

Incidents like these seem to boost Farrar’s stock. Customers flock to her from Quebec, Ontario, the Maritimes and south of the border. Last summer, determined to take things easier, she let seven of her fifteen seamstresses go and raised her prices sharply. The result was more business than ever.

A Boston woman Hies to Montreal regularly for her fittings; a Californian who discovered Farrar on a trip north two years ago now refuses to buy her clothes from anyone else; a Montreal matron demonstrated undying loyalty by requesting in her will that she be buried in her favorite red-velvet Farrar gown. A Montreal newspaperwoman clothed by Farrar was re-

cently stopped on Fifth Avenue by an elegant New Yorker who pleaded for the name of her couturier. Well-known Quebec actresses like Denise Pelletier. Huguette Oligny and Marjolaine Hebert, who might be expected to look to Paris for clofhes. don’t do this. Instead they holiday in Paris in all-Canadian wardrobes by Farrar.

Farrar, who thinks of herself as a combination of engineer and psychologist, says, "I know what to do with material and I know how to bring out a woman's hidden personality. Women have faith in me.” It's a good thing, too. she implies, considering the way they dress when left to themselves.

"lake off those awful rhinestones!" she snapped at one customer who turned up for a morning appointment decked in jewelry.

“White gloves before noon? You should be ashamed!” she rebuked another.

Once, when a customer turned up for her fitting in a bandana and bobby pins. Farrar stalked out of1 the room and refused to serve her.

She's ballled by the tendency of some women to wear as many colors as possible at the same time. She says. “There ought to be a full-length mirror in every woman's bedroom to tell her that she's wearing a grey hat with a beige* scarf and a red coat and brown gloves and a black purse.”

Sometimes a customer tells her. “I have that black dress you made for me, and the green dress, so now 1 want a blue dress.” Farrar retorts. “What on earth for? If you look nice in black and green, why venture into blue? Buy another black.” Farrar herself has five black dresses.

Women's desire for change also ballles her. She recalls, “One of my customers came in and said, 'How do you like my hat? It's that little black hat I w'ore all last year, only now I bought these cock feathers for it.' I told her, ‘It looked better plain.' and do you know what she said then? She said, But I

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She sells glamour with a growl continued from page 15

“She’s a rude witch,” said one critic. “I’m frank,” replied Farrar

paid twelve dollars for these feathers, so I’m going to wear them.’ Isn’t that

crazy?”

Women who won’t depart from fashion irritate her. A customer who comes to Farrar for a green dress because the fashion editors say green is tlic color for spring is apt to emerge with a pink dress instead. “You’re too sallow for green,” Farrar tells her. “Besides, why wear a dress just like everybody else’s? What are you, a sheep?”

A U. S. magazine, referring to her outspokenness, recently termed Farrar “a rude witch.” Lillian, whose brusqueness hides her sensitiveness, was offended. “When you feel responsible for your customers’ appearance, you've got to be frank,” she says.

When a tall young woman expressed a hankering for a yellow-and-grey dress, Farrar told her bluntly, “Certainly not! You’d look like a flag!" On the other hand, when one young customer came in after a miserable pregnancy to order a plain black frock, Farrar persuaded her to buy a red one. “You’ve had enough plain clothes for a while,” she told her.

Husbands, in spite of the stiff prices demanded of them, are Farrar’s staunchest allies.

“Men have better taste than women,” she says. “They hate bows and buttons and gewgaws. They know a good dress when they see one.”

Once, when she sold a taffeta dress to a woman who objected that she never wore taffeta, her husband sent Farrar an orchid with his cheque, and a note that said, “Thanks! She looks ten years younger and twice as pretty.”

Farrar has few male customers, but recalls one important man who brought her his problem. Jean Desy, later Canada’s ambassador to Brazil, was having trouble during World War II finding pyjamas to his size and taste, until he thought of bringing several yards of airforce blue and maroon material to Farrar. his wife’s couturier. He wanted three pairs of pyjamas, he told her. with the stripes running horizontal. Desy is not a tall man. and Farrar refused to clothe him in horizontal stripes. “With your height you’d look pomme de pomme (like one apple on top of another apple).” she told him. Desy accepted the verdict and his pyjamas were made with the stripe.; running vertical.

Rank and position impress Farrar as little as some of her customers’ bulging pocketbooks. “She's rich but I don't like her,” is her frequent over-the-shoulder comment on some new customer in the waiting room.

She is similarly unimpressed by the artfor-art's-sake approach of some of her contemporaries. Talking like this is all very well if you're not hungry, she says, As for herself, “I could have starved in the gutter for art’s sake and who'd have cared?”

The possibility of Farrar starving seems extremely remote today, from even a casual look at her luxurious establishment. Deep green carpet stretches from wall to wall in her two downstairs rooms, oval mirrors hang on pale-grey walls, and white-shaded lamps shine gently on dark polished tables. Above the mantel hangs a gold-framed painting of the couturier herself, soft grey curtains hang from floor to ceiling, and an elaborately carved Chinese chair decorates one cor-

ner, an enterprising customer having smuggled it out of her husband’s den and traded it to Farrar on a dress. Carpeted stairs lead to the upper floors, where busy seamstresses* sit at their machines, under the eye of Mme. Brosseau, the head operator, who has been with Farrar for seven years. Norman Watanabc, a Vancouver-born cutter, has his workroom down the hall.

Farrar’s day begins about ten a.m., when she hurries Lip the circular staircase of her salon on Peel Street. The door is opened for her by Nini (Mrs. Eugenie Dubé), a former school friend whose duties include looking after the books, making appointments, serving coffee, listening to customers’ small talk and soothing ruffled feelings.

Alter a small conference with Nini and a glance at her mail, she goes upstairs to Norman’s domain. Cutting fascinates her. Once a customer ordered a coat of a special black jaquard, and when the time came to cut it a yard and a half of the material was mysteriously missing. Farrar snipped out a long extra-slim skirt, made a tricky alteration in the shoulder and produced an original “creation” that delighted her customer.

After checking with Norman she makes for the third floor to see how the seamstresses are doing. Usually they have small problems: a pair of cuffs won’t behave—Farrar takes her scissors and hacks five inches off the sleeve; the

cuffs are pinned back on, a perfect fit. A collar won’t lie flat—Farrar takes a nip here and tuck there and the trouble vanishes. Somebody wants to know how much braid to put on the pockets of a cocktail dress—Farrar picks up the braid, tries it, shudders in distaste and finally discards it. “There’s beautiful material in that dress,” she says. “Let’s leave it alone.”

Material she loves most of all. She has an almost mystic approach to wool and silk. She was honored when manufacturers asked her to design the first Canadian dress in Terylcne, but admits that synthetics don’t excite her. She stocks bolts of imported wool, silk, cotton, lace, and gold and silver lamé, but no synthetics. She says, “Wool is the coat of a living animal. Silk is the fine thread a little worm winds around its own body. You can’t replace the real thing, kid!”

It’s her opinion that no fabric goes out of style if it’s used right. Although she tries to buy just enough to last for twelve months, her shelves still hold materials she bought six years ago. “I must make something lovely out of that blue wool (or pink silk or white lace),” she'll call out to Nini as she glances over her stock.

“Making something lovely” is Farrar’s privilege between the hours of eleven and one. when customers’ appointments begin. These are the two hours she looks for-

ward to. She'll take a bolt of material into the big empty room she calls her “snake pit,” toss it onto a table, and grab up her sketchbook. She’s never had an art lesson, but designing comes naturally to her. “I can’t explain it but I can draw it,” she frequently apologizes. She finds it easy to harmonize color and texture with design.

“Materials tell me stories,” she shrugs. “Once I bought a gold sari from a Hindu. It told me to make it into a torso dress. I did, and it was beautiful. I bet I could make something interesting out of oilcloth, if I had to.”

Once a woman turned up with a gold bracelet which her husband had had soldered onto her arm. She wanted a dress to go with the bracelet. Farrar came up with a sleeveless sheath in champagne velvet with a hood bordered in silk and nothing but one big gold buckle for ornament.

A couple of years ago a very bleached blonde came to the shop and offered her savings of two hundred dollars if Farrar would turn her into a lady for the week end. A man she’d fallen in love with had invited her to Chicago, and she wanted to look nice for him.

Nini recalls, “Lillian was fascinated with the possibilities. She outfitted that girl with a skirt and blouses and a simple sort of dress, and a coat. She must have given her four hundred dollars’ worth of stuff. She made her buy plain black pumps, and plain gloves and a good purse, and sent her to her own hairdresser to tone down her hair. You wouldn’t have known it was the same girl when we finished with her. She phoned the next week to say thank you, but we never saw her again.”

Seeing women properly dressed gratifies Farrar, but her real pleasure is to spend a morning alone in the snake pit with sketchbook and pencil. She claims she can turn out an original design in two minutes flat. “Lots of people take a designing course and get nowhere,” she says. “I bet I could take a factorydesigned dress that wasn’t moving and reproportion it so it would sell like hot cakes.”

Marvin Borkofsky, a salesman of imported wools, believes Farrar could do anything she set her mind to. After knowing her for several years, he’s learned, for instance, that the surest way to lose a sale is to tell her a material is all the rage. If other couturiers are fighting for it, Lillian wouldn’t take it for nothing. On the other hand, she’s likely to grab something nobody else has any use for, like the thick bolt of brightyellow cashmere she coaxed from him one day because, as she exclaimed in excitement, “It will make a big crazy coat with the belt in the wrong place.” When the citizens of Campbellford, Ontario, wished to present a warm coat to Princess Elizabeth for her Laurentian week end, and the mayor commissioned Farrar to design it, the yellow cashmere turned out to be just the thing. Fourteen yards of material went into a dramatic coat wrapped in two Union Jacks and presented to Her Royal Highness.

Wherever she goes, Farrar is on the lookout for new material. Last summer, when she went to Italy, she made a special trip to Florence because somebody told her the nuns there made a certain kind of hand-embroidered linen.

Farrar’s customers include a cross section of wealthy society figures, prosperous doctors’ and lawyers’ wives who entertain a lot, and more than a sprinkling of radio and television personalities, who admire her forthright personality as much as her dresses.

A busy young actress like Marjolaine Hebert of Pantomime Quiz, who bought

her first Farrar dress in 1951, may have upward of forty Farrar models in her closet. Last year, when she was injured in an automobile accident, Miss Hebert came straight from the hospital to her couturier, eager for new dresses to boost her sagging morale.

When Nini ushers in a new customer, Farrar looks her up and down eagerly. Some women have “personality quirks that need bringing out.” These are the ones she likes to work with. As the customer chatters away, she notes the hat, the gloves, the shoes, the way the woman holds her purse.

Like a medical diagnostician, she notes that her patient has heavy hips but a good neck, a flat bosom but a neat waist, and short legs that will have to be concealed. She leaves the room and comes back with a dress. The new customer tries it on, admires herself in the glass, and more often than not says, “Fine, I’ll take it.” Farrar shakes her head, goes out and comes in with a second dress, which she drops over the customer’s head, pins here and tucks there. She stands back to regard it from a distance. If she

doesn't like it she won’t sell it to the customer—not at twice the price. If there’s nothing suitable on hand, she’ll design something. She estimates that nine out of ten women leave her place with a dress they didn’t ask for. “That’s because they asked for the wrong kind of dress,” she explains. Sometimes a timid woman is afraid to buy the kind of dress Farrar prescribes for her. That’s all right with her. “Don’t buy it now. Go home and think it over,” she advises. Invariably the timid one phones back: “I’ve thought it over, and I’ll take it.”

Fashion-conscious customers boast that Farrar’s designs often foretell the fashion trend. Irene Kon, an advertising executive who is one of Farrar’s admirers, says, “Lillian was turning out capes last spring and Paris didn’t get around to them till summer. She was making coats and suits with low belts in the back long before Paris introduced them. And her bateau neckline anticipated the trend.” Farrar says she hasn’t got a spy in Paris and she isn’t interested in European fashion houses.

The way she tells it, women are forever coming home from Europe with Parisian dresses they bought just because they were Parisian, and begging her to make them fit. Says Lillian, “1 tell them. ‘You bought it from Dior? Take it back to Dior.’ ”

Her talent and her cheeky independence have brought Farrar up through

the garment trade of St. Lawrence Boulevard to where she is today. She was born in Iberville, a small town twentyfive miles from Montreal, one of six children of George Farrar, a needlework designer who ran a mail-order business and saw his designs printed in the old Family Herald and Weekly Star. Papa Farrar was poor but creative. When his English car (one of the first in the province) refused to run, he pushed it up on the front lawn, shoved a mattress in it and flower boxes around it, and was all ready for overnight guests. Lillian believes she inherited her feeling and love for good materials from her father. At twelve, she designed a crepe-paper butterfly costume that won first prize at a masquerade. At fifteen she was buying her own sewing machine on installments by doing the neighbors’ sewing. At eighteen, consumed with a desire to “be somebody,” she left home and went to Montreal.

Blouses for business girls

Of the next two miserable years she says only, “Everything they say about the garment industry is true.”

She offered a pattern maker $150 in installments if he would teach her the rudiments, and with $300 she had saved up she rented a little room on St. Joseph Boulevard. Customers undressed behind a screen, and her first “collection” consisted of dresses made of four dollars’ worth of materials, to sell for $10.95. “If I sold three a day I thought I was wonderful,” she recalls.

At the end of two years she moved to a larger room, and after that to a suite in the Ritz Carlton. In 1946 she rented her present salon on Peel Street, where she sold twenty-dollar blouses and thirtyfive-dollar skirts to business girls eager

to dress well on a small salary. Soon she was branching out into cocktail dresses and evening gowns.

By 1951, when the landlord put the building up for sale, she had saved fifteen thousand dollars. She borrowed ten thousand from the bank and collected another ten thousand on a mortgage. The remaining thirty-five thousand she contracted to pay within five years. Last spring she made her final payment and the building was hers.

From St. Lawrence Boulevard to the Ritz Carlton is no small jump, and Farrar isn’t sure where she goes from here. “I wish Í was an immigrant just off the boat. I’d show them,” she told a friend not long ago, in the wistful voice of an Alexander with few more worlds to conquer.

Should she cut down her business and go in for art with a capital “A”? Making “creations” that nobody will buy doesn’t appeal to her. Worse still is the thought that somebody might buy them.

She says, “I’ve seen people going to important soirees looking like damfool lampshades. Their friends could tell them they look awful, but they won't, and because they paid six hundred for the dress they’re satisfied, even if they look like ...” (Farrar draws a picture of a dress that looks like a lampshade, and scribbles “hell” all over it).

"Come to think of it”—and she grins wickedly—“one of these days I think I’ll put on a fashion show of my own. It will be full of wacky costumes. Eli have a dress with a leopard top and a chiffon skirt, and one with a velvet bodice and lizard pants, and there'll be evening dresses with rhinestone strap-* that can’t be cleaned, and skirts that cost a fortune and nobody can sit down in. People are so crazy, I wouldn't be surprised if someone didn’t buy them!” ★