Gilbert Phillips graduated from art school in Toronto, studied hatmaking, and then spent three years in New York City studying at the Traphagen School of Design. He began designing hats around 1949 for Karen Ross in Toronto and also made dresses for private clients. Lured to Montreal by a manufacturer, he was established there by 1952. In 1954 he opened his own salon in Toronto, which went out of business after two years. Clients supported him with loans to reopen, but he was back in Montreal by 1956.
Under the name Mr. Gilbert, Phillips opened The Little Black Dress House ready-to-wear salon in Montreal on December 21, 1962, stating,
“I was starving as a couturier and decided that well-made little blacks were what women wanted and needed.”
He marketed The Little Black Dress House dresses as all-season, timeless pieces, noting “They are not dresses to be worn one or two seasons and discarded. They are meant to be worn by women who want beautifully crafted dresses in fine fabrics but can’t afford individual couturier prices.” His garments were distinguished from other ready-to-wear productions as “individually-cut and haute couture detailed.” One year into the business, based on retailer requests, he found that about one-third of his sales were dresses in bright colours.
Phillips expanded his ready-to-wear business to New York in 1964, showing dresses priced at $45 to over $400 to retail buyers at the Plaza Hotel. The Little Black Dress House was successful in the United States and featured in fashion pages in various city newspapers.
In February 1965, Mr. Gilbert won the Union Label Award for Best Suit after showing a green-blue suit as part of the National Collection presentation sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union on January 22, 1965. In June 1965, he won two Union Label Awards in the categories Best Evening Gown and Outstanding Fall Fashion for a high-waisted black velvet gown that featured a white strapless bodice beaded with cascading lines of white pearls.
Of all the designers represented in the National Collection show, he received the highest number of votes from fashion writers and commentators.
He won the Union Label Award in the category Best Evening Gown again in February 1966 for a light chiffon gown with a sheer beaded yoke.
Mr. Gilbert was unsatisfied with the ready-to-wear business, however, especially the fact that department store markets were dictating what he should create. When he shifted back to the couture business model late in 1967, he explained, “I had too many things to take care of, and my work suffered (translation).”
In November 1967, Mr. Gilbert opened the Monserrat Salon in Quebec City near the St. Louis Gate. He opened his Montreal-based haute couture salon a year later, at which time he appears to have expressed a desire to cease his boutique line. Mr. Gilbert described his business model as “ready-to-wear haute-couture.”
At the June 1968 National Collection showing in Montreal, Mr. Gilbert exhibited a spiral-tiered organza gown with a strapless, straight-across neckline featuring a large side bow. Described as feminine and “futuristic,” this gown won the Union Label Award in the higher-priced evening dress category. Phillips was last listed in the Montreal city directory in 1968-1969.
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———. “New Line Just for Little Black Dress.” The Globe and Mail, November 23, 1962, 10.
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