Marseilles, 1884 - Montreal, 1964
1924 - 1964
Dress (detail), Alfandri, 1946-1950. Gift of Katherine Cleaver, M2014.111.90 © McCord Museum
Alfandri was once one of Canada’s most well-known fashion designers. Albert Gabriel Alfandri was born in Marseilles, France, and moved to New York with his family in 1894. At the age of 16, he began working as a men’s tailoring apprentice and five years later, a menswear designer. In 1911, as Albert the Tailor, he filed for bankruptcy, then moved into women’s apparel design the following year.
In addition, he applied his creative talents to other types of garment design, as evidenced by his patent for a “life-saving jacket” granted in 1919, at the end of a decade marked by both the Titanic and Lusitania disasters.
He became the assistant buyer for L. Schwortzreich Co. Inc. before becoming the head of the dress department of Morris Nagle Co. in 1921.
Alfandri moved his family to Montreal in 1924. He would later recount that he came to Canada “for 30 days and stayed 38 years.” In 1928 he founded a partnership with manufacturer Simon Levin, and in 1942 he opened his own firm, Alfandri Inc., in the Hermes building at 1470 Peel Street, where he designed and manufactured women’s dresses and blouses. His garments ranged from evening dresses to casual wear, and he was known for his long flaring lines, pleated effects, and minimalist approach to ornamentation.
Throughout the years of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, Alfandri was consistently recognized as a leading Canadian designer and voice in the Canadian garment industry.
He championed Canadian quality, saying that New York looked to Canada for inspiration.
He upheld the design superiority of Paris and often drew inspiration from Parisian designers. He was a member of the Dress Designers Guild of Montreal, showing at their first annual dinner in 1943, and the Montreal Fashion Institute from its founding in 1945, showing in their Montreal Fashion Week each season until around 1951. A 1946 short by the National Film Board of Canada called “Fashions by Canada,” part of the “Canada Carries On” series, featured Alfandri and a 1947 Chatelaine magazine cover of a glamorous custom-made lamé evening gown in a shade referred to as “tapestry rose.”
Alfandri had notable collaborations with other designers and retailers. In 1945, McNellis Ltd. of Sydney, Australia, produced a line with his label. In April 1949, A. J. Freiman’s of Ottawa carried Alfandri copies of Dior dresses. In the spring of 1950, Alfandri announced a collaboration with Townley Frocks Inc. of New York to reproduce Claire McCardell designs for the Canadian market, an agreement which continued at least through 1951, when they were featured in a Chatelaine spread.
He also endorsed fabrics and other products. In 1943 and 1946, Alfandri dresses were featured in advertisements for Courtaulds rayon fabric. In 1946 and 1947, Alfandri created dresses using Bruck Mills “Soap n’ Water” washable rayon fabrics, advertised at Ogilvy’s, Simpson’s, and Eaton’s. In 1948, Alfandri garments were shown in advertisements for Warner’s Le Gant “Sta-Up-Top” girdle by Parisian Corset Mfg. Co. Ltd., in 1949 for Mercury Dark-Seam Nylons, and even for Unik wooden doors in Architecture magazine.
Retailers who carried Alfandri dresses in the 1930s and 1940s included Devlin’s Dress Salon in Ottawa, A.J. Freiman’s Co. in Ottawa, Holt Renfrew in Quebec City, Hudson’s Bay in Winnipeg, Fairweather’s in Toronto, and Florin Mullins in Sherbrooke.
Alfandri recalled how his garments had always been distinguished by daring styling, particularly low décolletage, stating
“I wanted women to look indecent. I created dresses that had sex appeal.”
Alfandri retired in 1957, but in 1963 came back to the industry, saying that he was “tired of retirement and time with nothing to do.” He created a line of wedding and evening gowns for Bridal Modes stores in Montreal, Toronto, and London, and a second collection in January of 1964, the year of his death. Reporters referred to him as the “dean of Canadian couture” and the “old master” of Canadian fashion.
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© McCord Museum 2019