Born in Montreal, 1934 - Died in Montreal, 2000
mid-1960s - 1990
Dress (detail), Leo Chevalier, late 1960s. Gift of Katherine Cleaver, M2014.111.73 © McCord Museum
After studying fine arts and receiving a diploma in haute couture from the École des métiers commerciaux de Montréal, Leo Chevalier began his career in the 1960s with several department store jobs, notably as a window dresser for Morgan’s and Simpson’s, then as a manager-buyer at Fraid’s. During the same period, he made costumes for the Montreal Theatre Ballet. Recruited by Madame de Saint-Victor, who ran a Sherbrooke Street fashion salon, he created custom-made evening gowns that were popular with a select clientele.
In 1966, he opened his own salon called Cheval, in a former stable!
He presented his first collection of couture and high-end ready-to-wear in this modest St. Mathieu Street venue.
From 1969 to 1971, Leo Chevalier tried to establish a a couture house in Montreal, true to the Parisian haute couture model.Despite the designer’s strong will to succeed,this bold undertaking was doomed by the market’s turn to designer ready-to-wear. At that point, Chevalier changed his strategy, showing remarkable business savvy.
Combining his talents with the production capacity of established companies, he entered into long-term associations with manufacturers that ensured his creations were widely publicized and distributed.
In the case of Montreal manufacturer Montroy Coat, the partnership lasted approximately 10 years, while his association with Canadian company Brodkin Brothers endured 13 years. His creations for Les Fourrures Naturelles were popular around the world, and he was known for designing numerous uniforms, which he did for 19 years for Air Canada.
At the height of his career, in 1979, he launched his own perfume. A man of style, Leo Chevalier brought a touch of elegance to all his projects. In fact, he wrote a column for Montreal newspaper The Gazette in 1985 and 1986 entitled, “Man of Style.” Struck with Alzheimer’s disease in the late 1980s, he nonetheless produced a final collection in 1990, for Vancouver company Aljean.
In 1980, after telling a journalist that, when he was five, he wanted to become a cardinal “because of the beautiful red coat,” he was dubbed the “pope” of Canadian fashion by L’Actualité magazine. Admired for his elegance and refinement, Leo Chevalier had a conservative streak that was consistent with his brand image.
Though a great admirer of his French counterpart Yves Saint Laurent, who was two years younger, he thought innovations like the miniskirt and hot pants were vulgar.
Combining his studies in fine arts and couture with a refined intelligence, he worked like an architect, planning every construction detail of his structured garments, using materials that helped define volumes.
Along with Marielle Fleury, Michel Robichaud and John Warden, he was an ardent champion of creating a true alliance between Quebec fashion designers and manufacturers.
Convinced that uniting fashion designers in an official association would be good for Canadian fashion, he played an active role in the 1974 founding of the Fashion Designers Association of Canada.
The recipient of many prestigious awards over the course of his career, he won the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) award for outstanding Canadian fashion designer in 1968. In 1979, he became the first designer ever to receive the Order of Canada and, in 1992, was awarded the Griffe d’Or for lifetime achievement to mark his over 25-year career.
Leo Chevalier was a role model for many designers, including Michel Desjardins, who worked closely with him in the early 1980s. When Chevalier died on June 16, 2000, the Globe and Mail and National Post hailed him as a legendary man of style and one of the greats in the history of Canadian fashion.
Amiel, Barbara. “The sweet smell of decadence”, Maclean’s Magazine, 22 October 1979, p. 46-48.
Demers, Dominique. “Une réussite signée Léo Chevalier”, L’Actualité, vol. 5, no 7, July 1980, p. 46-50, 56.
Dumont, Monique. “John Warden et Léo Chevalier. L’aventure couture”, Elle Québec, no 35, July 1992, p. 52-54.
Lambert, Eleanor. “Léo Chevalier”, dans World Fashion : people, places, resources, New York, R. R. Bowker, 1976, p. 188.
Lavigne, Lucie. “Hommage. Léo Chevalier.”, Créateurs québécois, edited by l’APDMQ, free supplement of Clin d’œil, no 166, and of Flare, vol. 15, no 16, April 1994, 15c.
Livingstone, David. “Reinventing the classics. The shrewd approach has made Leo Chevalier Canada’s most renowned designer”, Toronto Life Fashion, Summer 1980, p. 23-25, 56-58, 60, 62.
National Post, “Leo Chevalier. Canadian Fashion Designer a Man of Style”, 21 June 2000, p. A16.
The Globe and Mail, “Leo Chevalier. Montreal Designer possessed a legendary sense of style”, 19 June 2000, p. R8.
Cynthia Cooper, McCord Museum
© McCord Museum 2020