Mémé Dysthe was born Martha Matilda Frisch in Oslo, Norway. She trained in fashion design there from the age of 16 before leaving to study art and fashion design in Paris at 18. On returning to Oslo, she first worked as a designer for a leading couture house, and then went on to open her own couture salon, probably around 1937. She had sufficient time to become established producing her original designs before the fabric and labour shortages brought on by the war slowed down her momentum. When her private clients began asking her to remodel outdated garments, she channelled her creativity into repurposing the scraps into hats, peplums, and other accessories. As fabric became harder to obtain, she also developed an interest in handwoven fabrics.
Her shop grew quickly and eventually employed over 50 dressmakers.
In July 1949, Dysthe, her husband Gunnar Rachlew Dysthe, and their two-year old son visited Canada where Dysthe’s father had emigrated in the 1920s. They studied the possibilities of opening a similar business in Canada, settling on Montreal, where Dysthe began designing a collection that she released in July 1950. Media coverage of this first collection emphasized her use of handwoven fabrics created by the MacKay Homecraft Studio, which was run from the MacKay School for the Deaf under the direction of a fellow Norwegian expat, Mrs. C. Svanaug Bang. Her subsequent collections in the 1950s continued to employ these fabrics, but also made use of imported French, English, Italian, and Swedish textiles. (An extant suit from 1959 in the McCord Museum collection is of English fabric from Dormeuil.) Textile sourcing became her husband’s end of the business, while she turned her attention to designing.
Between 1949 and 1951, Dysthe opened her salon at Cybele Gowns at 1980 Sherbrooke Street West. Although she ran her business from that location again in the 1970s, in the 1960s she moved her studio to Claremont Avenue and briefly to Cote-des-Neiges before returning. In 1956, she established her wholesale business, Dysthe Fashions Reg’d, with her husband as her business manager. Meanwhile, the Oslo business remained under their ownership, and she also ran a dressmaker business for private clients in Montreal. Her Canadian advertising in the 1950s refers to her as the “renowned Scandinavian fashion designer and stylist from Montreal.”
Dysthe sold her ready-to-wear suits through department stores in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.
She felt there was “an untapped market for ready-made suits that look like custom-made ones, made of good materials with fine workmanship.”
She and her team of European tailors finished each garment by hand.
She made frequent visits to Toronto for showings of her collection at Henry Morgan & Co. on Bloor Street, offering to take custom orders for suits, dresses and evening wear. She used the same formula in Ottawa at Devlin’s in the 1950s and at The Little Shop in the 1960s. In 1957, she showed 18 spring suits to buyers in New York. They were picked up by Bergdorf Goodman’s, who sold a number of them exclusively. She produced 30 at a time in French and English fabrics. I. Magnin carried them on the West coast of the United States.
In fall 1951, Mémé Dysthe launched her first version of a travel wardrobe called the “Air Pack,” a convertible outfit designed to give women all the essential elements of a wardrobe while adhering to air travel baggage restrictions. The six pieces of the wardrobe in her signature Canadian handwoven wools could be converted into a dress, a suit, a coat, a cape, and a cocktail dress.
Everything in the Air Pack was to be worn in flight, except for a peplum and a blouse weighing a total of eight ounces.
Dysthe revived the concept again in 1961 and 1962 with her “Air Robe,” weighing in at under 15 pounds, presented at a show sponsored by Scandinavian Air Services.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Mémé Dysthe marketed her collections specifically to women aged 40 and over, emphasizing the high-end, exclusive quality of her garments. In 1963 she went so far as to establish a permanent employee in Ottawa. By the 1970s, she was meeting private clients monthly in Toronto at the Park Plaza Hotel, and in Ottawa at Henry Morgan & Co., along with various ready-to-wear buyers in New York and California, notifying them of her visits via mail flyers and newspaper advertisements. Dysthe clients were wealthy members of the Canadian establishment and included the wives of prominent politicians.
In 1976, Gunnar Dysthe described the business as “old-fashioned couture.” He stated that they never solicited clients, but rather relied on existing customers to bring new clients to their showings, and avoided selling identical styles to women in the same social circle.
Nor did they create seasonal collections.
Patricia Harris of Toronto recalled her first appointment with Dysthe in a suite at the Park Plaza Hotel, Toronto:
“I remember Mémé Dysthe appearing tall, very slim, trim and elegant in a dark dress in the manner of the Duchess of Windsor. Her dark hair was smoothly rolled and tucked at the back of her head. Her husband acted as host, taking my coat, offering tea or coffee, showing me albums of sketches, swatches of fabrics from suitcases, draping lengths of fabric over the chairs and sofa. A model-assistant moved casually between the bedroom, where the fittings took place, and the sitting room, selecting from the closets and changing her costume every few minutes to show me models that might appeal to me and fit my needs… One month later I returned at the appointed time for a fitting.”
Harris recalled that an outfit was often ready after minor adjustments at that fitting, but occasionally had to undergo further alterations in Montreal and then be shipped back to Toronto. Both Harris and another client noted that the excellent fit of their garments, particularly those in Ultrasuede, was ensured by an Italian assistant trained as a tailor. They also recalled a female fitter who worked on dresses and evening gowns, identified as a Finnish sculptor named Umia, who may have tried to continue with the business after Dysthe’s death.
Although she closed her salon in 1979, Dysthe continued to see private clients into the 1980s. A theft from the business in 1983 was a significant setback. Dysthe passed away the following year.
The Ottawa Journal, October 1, 1963.
Carter, Joyce. “Any-Season Fashions Suit a Special Breed.” Toronto Globe and Mail, May 20, 1977.
———. “Old-School Couture a Success with Successful.” Toronto Globe and Mail, June 17, 1976.
Dempsey, Lotta. “Women Add Imagination to Succeed in Business.” Toronto Globe and Mail, September 19, 1950.
Evasuk, Stasia. “Clothes to Wear at Fourty.” Toronto Daily Star, June 14, 1969.
Gougeon, Helen. “Convertible Costume.” Montreal Daily Star Weekend Picture Magazine, September 22, 1951, 25-29.
“Hand-Woven Fabrics in Montreal Separates, after-Ski Collection.” Women’s Wear Daily, October 31, 1950.
Harris, Pat. “Mémé Dysthe- Notes and Memories from Pat Harris.” February 1994, 2.
“Head of Montreal Couture House to Present Fashions, Past-Present.” Sherbrooke Daily Record, February 14, 1966, 6.
“Henry Morgan & Co. Ltd.”. Ottawa Citizen, September 8, 1960.
Laurier, Marie. “Collections Défilent…” La Presse, October 13, 1961, 10.
“The Little Shop.” The Ottawa Journal, March 19, 1964, 73.
“Meme Dysthe.” Toronto Globe and Mail, August 1958.
“Meme Dysthe.” The Ottawa Journal, November 28, 1950, 13.
“Meme Dysthe (Salon Du Haute Couture).” In Annuaires Lovell, edited by Annuaires Lovell, 169. Montreal, QC: Lovell Publishing, 1978-1979.
“Meme Dysthe Boutique Collection.” The Ottawa Journal, November 28, 1966, 37.
“Meme Dysthe… Internationally Famous Designer.” Toronto Globe and Mail, August 21, 1958.
“Montreal Designer Uses Hand-Loomed Fabrics.” Women’s Wear Daily, July 19, 1950.
“Montreal-Made Suits Shown.” Women’s Wear Daily, November 20, 1957.
“New Canadian Designer Fashions Presents Distinctive High Styles.” Montreal Gazette, June 22, 1951.
“Norwegian Designer at Home in Canada.” The Ottawa Journal, September 10, 1957, 11.
“Oslo Couturier to Show in N.Y.”. Women’s Wear Daily, November 18, 1957.
Redelmeier, Flavia. “Mémé Dysthe- Notes and Memories from Flavia Redelmeier.” Febraury 1994, 1.
“See… Weekend Tely.” The Globe and Mail, September 22, 1951.
Walpole, Mary. “Around the Town.” Toronto Globe and Mail, March 30, 1962.