In 1918, when she was not yet 12 years old, Yvette Brillon began making hats as an apprentice to Madame Fafard, whose workshop was on the corner of Mont Royal Avenue and Rivard Street. Although she was full of dreams and ambition, Yvette Brillon had no idea that she would become Montreal’s leading milliner and a leading French-speaking businesswoman.
She learned her craft notably by working at the Palais des Modes, from 1922 to 1933, where she acquired experience in both production and sales.
At the age of 26, she opened her first hat shop on St. Denis Street, in a space that immediately proved too small.
Having established a clientele, she was able to move into a true fashion salon in 1936, in another space on St. Denis Street previously occupied by renowned French restaurant Kerhulu.
At that time, there were dozens of small hatmaking businesses on Mont Royal Avenue and St. Denis Street, run by milliners who earned an honest living in cramped premises with the help of two or three employees. However, Madame Brillon’s store at 1280-1284 St. Denis Street offered a distinctly different experience. Even the most demanding clients were captivated by the sumptuous decor: dozens of gilded mirrors, lovely tables, consoles, upholstered chairs and, above all, a carpeted floor, a very rare feature in hat shops of that era.
By the year 1945, the old building on St. Denis Street offered the most luxurious setting of any store in Montreal, or even Canada. Its Art Deco inspiration was very much in vogue in both Paris and New York.
During the busiest times of year, the store was full of as many as 65 employees, at a time when the biggest businesses run by women in Montreal rarely employed more than seven or eight people.
Surprisingly, Yvette Brillon was not aware that she was setting a precedent, blazing a path for other women wishing to go into business. She thought only of forging ahead, and constantly of making hats. Following the lead of the major department stores that regularly presented fashion shows, Yvette Brillon began organizing presentations to feature her hats in 1939. Working with Montreal’s top fashion designers, like Raoul-Jean Fouré and later Michel Robichaud, she was one of the first to self-produce such shows in the most exclusive hotels. For over 20 years, her creations took centre stage at the Ritz-Carlton, Windsor, Château Champlain, Mont Royal and Queen Elizabeth hotels. Twice a year, she would send out 5,000 to 6,000 invitations, one for the spring-summer collection and the other for the autumn-winter, and the ballrooms hosting these events were always packed.
Yvette Brillon’s renown made her a leader in Montreal’s fashion community. Her talents, both creative and business, became almost legendary. Her label epitomized elegance, which drew clients from all social strata and across Canada. Even before the concepts “advertising,” “marketing” and “customer service” entered the common parlance, her approach stood out. Her window displays attracted not only clients, but also fine arts students, those studying at the École de meuble, and even her competitors! Admired for her discriminating taste, she was famous for her originality and infinite creativity. Her meticulousness, personal discipline, perfectionism and constant concern for satisfying her immense clientele without compromising the quality of the finished product were all characteristics that made her a unique figure. Furthermore, mid-way through her career, Yvette Brillon married Dr. Eugène Giroux, with whom she had two sons, Michel and Luc. She thus juggled both family and business ownership, unusual for that era. She was generous with her advice to clients, who jockeyed for something exclusive for weddings, first communions, and official functions in Quebec City or Ottawa.
Her clientele included the wives of federal and provincial politicians and business people, along with and radio hosts and actresses from the early days of television.
Her hats were popular not only with very prominent women, but with thousands of others who wanted to dress elegantly.
In 1954 when Yvette Brillon’s St. Denis Street store was ravaged by fire, she moved first into a temporary space on University Street, and then opened a new salon at 1122 Sherbrooke Street West. However, she renovated the St. Denis Street store and kept it open for almost two more years before closing it in 1956. In the 1960s, radical changes in fashion saw women completely rethink their ways of dressing and styling their hair. As hats drifted out of fashion, Yvette Brillon had to gradually downscale her activities. In 1970, she left Sherbrooke Street to work from her home in Longueuil. At the age of 63, she took up custom dressmaking, with her typical creative fervour. Although hats have long since fallen out of favour, thousands of women still consider Yvette Brillon the greatest milliner in the history of Canadian fashion.
Hatbox (detail), Yvette Brillon, about 1960. Gift of Annette Doré Rochon, M922.214.171.124-2 © McCord Museum
Hat (detail), Yvette Brillon, 1950-1951. Gift of Nicole Thibodeau Charrette, M2016.20.2.1-3 © McCord Museum
Giroux, Jacqueline. Yvette Brillon. Femme de cœur et femme de têtes, Longueuil, La Société historique du marigot de Longueuil, 1989, 116 p.
Jacqueline Giroux, Dicomode
Cynthia Cooper, McCord Museum
© McCord Museum 2020