Born in Montreal, 1905 - Died in 1996
1933 - 1976
Dress (detail), Lawrence Sperber, about 1950-1955. Gift of Mary O'Meara, M2003.144.1.1-2 © McCord Museum
Lawrence Lazarus Sperber was once one of Canada’s most prominent representatives of the Montreal garment industry. Born in Montreal, he worked briefly for local manufacturers and attended McGill University for one year before leaving for New York. There he studied for six months at the Women’s Textile School, went on to train with Hattie Carnegie, and then worked as a cutter and patternmaker in dress houses on Seventh Avenue.
Upon his return to Montreal in 1933, Sperber opened a manufacturing business, Sperber Bros. Ltd, at 1470 Peel Street, with his older brother Sydney. Lawrence’s 1933 wedding to Gladys Epstein from Hamilton, Ontario, brought him family ties to Freiman’s Department Store in Ottawa. This connection was a factor in his early success and helped support his business throughout the Depression and the Second World War.
Sperber was primarily a dress manufacturer. For his fall 1934 collection, he designed a series of velvet and fur-trimmed evening gowns.
He took inspiration from the 19th century for a fall 1936 collection with hoop skirts.
Sperber expanded into sportswear and “informal townwear” in 1938. He began exporting to Australia and South Africa as early as 1934, and opened a London office in 1936, but the war brought an end to these endeavours. He continued to export to the US, however; in May of 1941, Lord & Taylor in New York displayed a Sperber pantsuit in their window. That June, Sperber launched a collaboration with Quebec-born American designer Nini Turcotte, producing a series of “lounge suits” with soft blazers and wide-legged trousers in Courtauld rayon fabric.
Sperber’s wide range of price points helped his business thrive and prepared him for the restrictions imposed by Canada’s Wartime Prices and Trade Board.
In June 1942, he presented a collection of styles designed to accommodate W.P.T.B. regulations and emphasized the durability of his fabrics.
By 1946, Lawrence was president of his own company Lawrence Sperber Ltd. and gained a higher media profile around this time. He was a member of the Montreal Fashion Institute and would host both a press breakfast and fashion show twice a year at both Montreal Fashion Weeks.
Thanks to his international acclaim and exports, Sperber was hailed as the designer who put Canada on the map as a garment producer.
He proclaimed himself “Canada’s Foremost Fashion Designer” in numerous advertisements. He was amongst the designers named in the National Film Board of Canada’s 1946 Fashions by Canada, and in 1951 was the featured designer in It’s the Fashion! Both films were created to promote Canada’s post-war fashion industry.
Sperber received publicity for a number of collaborations with fabric manufacturers. In May 1946, he created a dress from print fabric produced by Bruck Silk Mills that was inspired by Toronto illustrator Alice Bradshaw’s design for a cover of Mayfair magazine. He also designed gowns in “Ultra Violet” fabric by Bruck for Revlon’s makeup collection of the same name and garments that were featured in Celanese Designer Fabrics and Celanese Creative Fabrics advertisements in 1946 and 1947. In the fall of 1947, Sperber designed a series of dresses in a Bruck “Red Feather” print for the Welfare Federation Community Chest charity drive, and in summer of 1948, a dress in a Bruck “Maple Leaf” print for the Toronto Trades Fair. His continued use of novelty fabrics was also seen in his fall 1948 collection, with one named “Canada Goose,” and in fall 1951, with newsprint fabrics.
In 1947, a Lawrence Sperber dress was advertised in Vogue. A collection of his dresses offered at Galeries Lafayette in London sold out within a day. Sperber was the only Canadian designer to participate in the International Trades Fair in Casablanca. He did not initially like the “new look” style of 1947 because of the increased amount of fabric required for a dress, but in the fall of 1948, Sperber designed “new look” doll clothes for a department store display.
In 1949, he participated in an all-Canadian fashion show at the Club France Amérique in Paris and the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver. In spring of 1950, Sperber sold dresses at Blum’s on Madison Ave in New York. He designed a black cocktail suit for British actress Nadia Gray and a series of garments for a wool promotional event in Mexico. In November 1951, Sperber acquired licensing rights to produce garments with the Kymont Sleeve, a sleeve design with a gusset patented by Nini Turcotte and her husband. He licensed the sleeve to other firms for low-priced men’s, women’s, and children’s wear.
Sperber also endorsed a number of products made by other manufacturers.
He was quoted in ads for Dominion Corset’s Nu-Back model in 1949, Mercury Dark-Seam Nylons in 1950, and the Playtex Fabric-Lined Girdle in 1952. A Sperber gown also featured in advertisements for Rubberset toothbrushes.
In late 1953, Sperber closed his dress manufacturing plant and opened a shop at 1442 Mountain Street, which he ran until 1976, the year it was destroyed by fire and his wife passed away. In the 1980s and 1990s, he split his time between Montreal and Palm Beach, Florida, enjoying a retirement career as a sculptor.
© McCord Museum 2020