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Jacques Auray

Born in Brittany, France, 1935 / Died in Montreal, 2018

Designer

1963 - 2006

Dress (détail), Jacques Auray, 1968. Gift of Grace C. Notman, M992.118.2 © McCord Museum

Jacques Auray had a single suitcase with him when he landed and decided to settle in Montreal in 1963. He was on a recommended detour en route to New York as part of a North American tour, but the young Frenchman cut the trip short. He never made it to New York on that trip, nor did he return home to Brittany to begin the law career his family expected. Instead, he embarked upon a career in fashion, and later interior design, though he had no formal training.

Auray was initially hired by Marie-Paule Nolin, who ran a boutique in a converted factory on Bonsecours Street, to assist her under the title of “Fashion Director.” He lasted only six months in the role before breaking away to open his own couture business with Nolin’s blessing, though reportedly he did not yet know how to sew. He operated this small atelier and salon directly out of his home, an apartment on Sherbrooke St. West in the Golden Square Mile. There, he presented collections of 20 to 25 garments to a select group of clients and media. The multi-purpose space was decorated flamboyantly with red furniture, art covering the walls, and a parakeet in a cage.

Personal relationships with clients were at the heart of Auray’s growing business, defining both the space (decorated over time with clients’ art and meaningful tokens of friendship) and his sales approach.

As one client described her in-home visits for fittings and showings, “the whole atmosphere is more like being invited to tea than going shopping.”

Auray’s aim was to always provide something personal, both in his customized designs and the experience of buying from him. Twice-yearly fabric buying trips to France ensured that he continually renewed his materials, never selling the same piece twice. His clients, drawn from the city’s wealthy stratum of older women, often became friends, appreciating his warm hospitality as well as the chance to buy couture-quality pieces at lower prices than in Paris (typically $250–275 for day dresses, $400–500 for coats and suits, and $300 and up for evening gowns in the 1970s).

Auray’s style was consistently described as classic, elegant, understated, and feminine. Inspired by the French couturiers of the mid-20th century (he even named his dogs Dior and Pucci), he stayed true to their more simple silhouettes, eschewing the more youthful trends of the 1960s and 70s. He was, however, noted for combining colours and textiles in unusual ways, as in a 1967 collection that featured a tweed evening shift with ostrich trim, a plaid dressing gown with yellow lining, and waistcoats in velvet and lamé.

Aside from his home studio and salon, Auray presented publicly at many larger events over the years, including the fashion show staged by the Association of Canadian Couturiers at Expo 67 in June 1967, and a special presentation at the French embassy in Washington the following year. At the latter, he showed pleated skirts for day with hemlines described as “laissez-faire—neither mini nor midi.” He also showed an opulent look in lime, beige, and pink, and another in beige mohair with ostrich feathers. Also in 1968, Auray created a white gown with a raised floral motif in Du Pont’s new Qiana fabric. The gown was shown on three separate occasions, at fashion shows organized to promote the versatility of the new textile.

The early 1970s saw Auray move his couture salon to a new apartment in Côte-des-Neiges, which he decorated in his trademark eclectic, welcoming style. While his living room served as a space for business, his staff of two tailors and four seamstresses worked out of a back room. He also accepted, in 1972, a commission to design the staff uniforms for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The designs featured a choice of skirt length, paired with a wide-collared blouse and options of a vest or short-sleeved top with button detailing, as well as a belted coat dress.

Gradually closing his couture business over the next few years, Auray eventually left Montreal for London in 1977, only to return in 1982 to launch another collection of 30 ensembles.

Over the next two decades, he continued to be involved in the cultural scene of the city in a variety of ways, including providing costumes for theatrical productions, special occasion gowns for private clients, and decorating spaces to raise funds for charities and cultural organizations, including the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

Working alongside his partner, Yves Lefebvre, decorating interiors became his focus, particularly for fundraising events (for causes like Cystic Fibrosis, the McGill AIDS Centre, and the city’s major arts institutions). His own description, in 2013, of his interior design process and interests drew connections to his work in fashion. “I like to use different patterns and different textures, I like to use silk with linen, to mix tweed and brocade,” he said. “Nothing goes together—but it all works.”

Auray passed away in 2018 at the age of 83.

Sources

McDermot, Anne. “Designer to Open Salon in Montreal Market Area.” The Globe and Mail, March 28, 1963.

Rider, Wini. “A Well-Dressed Home- on a Shoestring,” The Gazette, May 1, 1971.

Rider, Wini. “Designer Boosts Canada,” The Gazette, December 16, 1967.

Rider, Wini. “Parisian Elegance Inspires Fifth Auray Collection.” The Gazette, March 6, 1969.

Rochon, Jules. Portraits Du Dessinateur De Mode Jacques Auray Et Présentation Des Nouveaux Costumes De Canadian Pacific Railway. Montreal: Fonds Ministère des Communications.

Shelton, Patricia. “Montreal’s Jacques Auray: Couturier Torn between Two Worlds.” The Sun, August 3, 1972.

Stephens, Anna. “Designer Sets His Own Rules.” The Gazette, October 13, 1967.

Publication date

01/02/2019

Author

Laura Snelgrove, Contributor

© McCord Museum 2019