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Jean-Claude Poitras Fonds (P689)

Letter written by Claire Kirkland-Casgrain, Minister of Cultural Affairs, to Jean-Claude Poitras (detail), 1972. Gift of Mr. Jean-Claude Poitras, Jean-Claude Poitras Fonds P689, M2005.78.77 © McCord Museum

Jean-Claude Poitras: Designer, entrepreneur...and author?

"Further to our conversation about the play script you would like to submit, I've been told that you should contact Mr. Roland Laroche at the Centre d'essai des auteurs dramatiques, 1958 Dorchester Boulevard West [sic], Suite 1, Montreal. I wish you every success with your work."

Jean-Claude Poitras was working at Eaton's as a stylist when he met Claire Kirkland-Casgrain in 1972. The first woman ever elected to the Quebec National Assembly, she was Minister of Cultural Affairs at that time. In this gracious, supportive letter, the legendary politician offers the young man advice and encouragement in his efforts to become a playwright.

Although Jean-Claude Poitras' literary aspirations may not have been realized, his future as a designer was full of promise.

P689 Jean-Claude Poitras Fonds. - [1949-2006]. - 276 cm of textual records and other material.

Biographical SketchJean-Claude Poitras is one of Quebec's most respected and celebrated fashion designers of recent decades. His curiosity, resilience and rapport with the press and public have marked his career of more than thirty years working in Montreal's high-end ready-to-wear fashion industry. Poitras has weathered successes and failures in business, seen enormous changes to the industry and production methods, and still managed to stay passionate and enthusiastic about designing clothing.

Born in Montreal's Cartierville neighborhood in 1949, Poitras was interested in fashion from a young age. He earned a diploma in Fashion Design from the École des métiers commerciaux in 1969, and a diploma in Graphic Design from Studio Salette in 1971.

In 1972, with a $400 loan from his father, Poitras opened his first atelier, Parenthèse, in Montreal's Old Port. He designed men's and women's fashions and accessories, which were sold to private clients and at the Lily Simon boutique. To help support his fledgling fashion business, in 1973 Poitras took a part-time job as a salesperson at Eaton's Adam Boutique, the department store's high-end European menswear shop. Later that year, he closed Parenthèse to work full-time at Eaton's.

Poitras quickly rose through the ranks at Eaton's, becoming the buyer, then the director of the Adam Boutique, and eventually the director of the high-end women's Ensemble Shop. It was through Eaton's that he first travelled to France and Italy and discovered a love of travel that would inspire his creative practice throughout his career. For spring-summer 1993, for example, Poitras designed a womenswear collection titled La Dolce Vita, which contained garments inspired by his favourite places in Italy.

In 1976, Poitras accepted a position at Beverini Inc., the Montreal-based manufacturer founded by Auckie Sanft and run by his son Arthur Sanft. Poitras originally worked as a salesperson for an imported French brand, Peroche. He was promoted in 1977 to designer of his own womenswear collection, a line called BOF!, which was very successful in Quebec. Menswear was added in 1978, and a BOF! boutique was opened on St. Paul Street West in 1979. Poitras finally left the company in 1983 to pursue other projects, and the boutique closed soon thereafter.

In 1977, just after Poitras started at Beverini, he also founded his own company: Les modes Jean-Claude Poitras Inc. The new company enabled Poitras to license his name for collaborations with garment, accessory, fur and uniform manufacturers. In 1983, he renamed his company Nota Bene Design Inc. and, with the backing of private investors, opened his Jean-Claude Poitras Boutique in Rockland Centre. The designer envisioned creating special men's and women's collections for the store, but it closed by the end of the same year.

From 1983 to 1988, Poitras worked for Franck Importations Inc., a Montreal-based manufacturer and importer of womenswear, founded in 1977 by husband and wife team Annie and Armand Coriat. Poitras signed licensing agreements with the Coriats to manufacture his women's collections, and he designed for the company's Ronsard Sport brand. With Franck, Poitras travelled to Hong Kong twice yearly to source fabrics and oversee production of his collections. This connection with Chinese manufacturers led Poitras to start working with silk fabrics. His asymmetrical, often layered designs during this period were heavily influenced by the Japanese avant-garde fashion that had taken the world by storm in the early 1980s.

From the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, Poitras' Nota Bene Design signed licensing agreements for the designer to produce namesake collections for Montreal furrier Amsel & Amsel and sheepskin coat manufacturers International Trademarks Apparel and Sawyer of Napa.

In 1987, Jean-Claude Poitras, with business partner Jacques Pelland, founded a new company, Poitras Design Inc. At first, due to limitations imposed by licensing agreements with Franck Importations, the company produced menswear only. Womenswear collections were added in 1988.

Poitras briefly worked for Le Château as a design consultant in 1988. In 1990, he was approached to design a capsule menswear collection for the brand consisting of suits, coats, shirts, pants, shoes and accessories. Poitras welcomed the collaboration as a way to make his designs more accessible and reach a younger clientele. The licensing agreement lasted until 1991 and, at the time, was the designer's most lucrative contract of his career.

In 1990, partnering with the Fonds de solidarité des travailleurs du Québec, Poitras Design Inc. merged with Irving Samuel Canada Inc., the leading high-quality coat and suit manufacturer. Jean-Claude Poitras became executive vice-president of the company and head of design and production for his collections, which were separate from the Irving Samuel brand. He designed his exclusive namesake label and, in spring 1994, relaunched the women's BOF! brand as a more mass-market line. Irving Samuel-Poitras Design closed its doors in 1995 after failing to reach cost-cutting agreements with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Jean-Claude Poitras was able to retain the rights to his name as the company declared bankruptcy.

Soon after the Irving Samuel-Poitras Design closure, Arthur Sanft offered the designer a new partnership in his company, Fashion Société Design Inc. The company manufactured two womenswear collections for Poitras: Qui m'aime me suive was a line of dresses and eveningwear, while BOF! continued to be produced as an affordable line for wide distribution. By mid-1998, Fashion Société Design had run into financial difficulties and Arthur Sanft decided to leave the company. Although it was purchased by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which continued to work with Poitras, it ultimately ceased all operations by the end of the same year.

In 1999, Poitras became associated with Montréal Mode, a subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec created to promote Québec's fashion industry internationally. By investing $30 million in local companies, Montréal Mode aimed to provide select designers with production, distribution and marketing support. Poitras sold his name and part of his company to the organization. In 2000, Poitras left Montréal Mode amidst a series of widely publicized internal financial scandals; he was eventually able to regain control of his name. Montréal Mode ceased all activities in 2001.

Poitras designed his final ready-to-wear collection for fall-winter 2002-2003 -- a line of women's coats for Me-Jay International Inc. He has continued to design custom garments for private clients and special projects. In 2015, he collaborated with embroiderer Jeanne Bellavance and bespoke tailoring studio Sartorialto to create the ensemble worn by Haitian-Canadian journalist and writer Dany Laferrière for his induction into the Académie française.

Poitras' style often made use of ample cuts; he appreciated the sensuality in garments that covered most of the body. He preferred an architectural and severe silhouette. His women's fashions were often influenced by menswear, taking inspiration from the masculine chic of film stars Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn. Coats and outerwear were the most commercially successful garments for Poitras throughout his career; their high quality and stylishness were admired by the press and the public.

In addition to his fashion work, Poitras designed numerous uniforms throughout his lengthy career. His first was created for Radio-Canada's announcers during the Montreal 1976 Summer Olympic Games. Others were for White Cross, Air Canada, the Canada Border Service Agency, Canada Post, Hydro Québec, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Société de transport de Montréal (STM), among others.

Always influenced by the cinema, Poitras also designed film and theatre costumes throughout the 1980s. Andrée Lachapelle, a long-time friend of the designer, wore a Poitras dress in Pierre Blackburn's 1989 film Le jeune homme et la dame.

Poitras has received numerous awards and distinctions including the Maison du Lin's Fil d'Or in Monte Carlo in 1989. Past recipients include Karl Lagerfeld and Gianni Versace -- Poitras was the first Canadian to receive the prestigious award. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1995. In 1996, he was named a Knight of the Ordre national du Québec and promoted to Officer in 2012. He won both best women's and men's wear designer in 1991 at the first edition of the Griffe d'Or; he was also awarded the Griffe d'Or for lifetime achievement in 2000.

As of 2019, Jean-Claude Poitras was still pursuing multi-disciplinary design, art-making, teaching, writing, lecturing and philanthropic activities. He enjoys being remembered for his fashion design career the way one of his clients once characterized him: "the man who made nice clothes." He recently published a memoir, Quand la vie défile. His archives and garments are held by the McCord Museum and the Musée de la civilisation.

Scope and Content

This fonds focusses primarily on Jean-Claude Poitras' career as a creator, designer, entrepreneur, consultant, speaker, columnist, judge and spokesperson in the worlds of fashion and design. In particular, it documents the clothing collections created by Jean-Claude Poitras, the fashion shows and events that featured his creations, and his business ventures in the field of fashion. The fonds also chronicles his administrative efforts, creative activities, and multiple collaborations in the field of home design. There are numerous press clippings tracing the designer's dealings with the various media that have covered his career. In addition, the fonds contains biographical documents and numerous personal documents chronicling his life and that of his wife, Colette Chicoine. Photographs of various collections created by Jean-Claude Poitras and video recordings of fashion shows, events, news reports, interviews and other television appearances featuring the designer complete this collection of documents.

Source of title proper: Based on the creator of the fonds.

Physical description: The fonds includes nearly 1,000 photographs, several dozen iconographic documents (sketches, drawings, engravings, posters), 2 electronic documents (CD-ROMs), 2 architectural drawings, 6 objects, 3 audio cassettes and 87 videocassettes.

Conservation: Several newspaper clippings and faxes have been photocopied and the originals removed.

Language: The documents are primarily in French, but some documents are in English, Italian, Spanish or Cantonese.

Restrictions on access: The fonds contains several records with confidential content. Restrictions on access apply to some records in the series Fashion Creations and Collections (P689/A), Home and Lifestyle Design (P689/B) and Personal Documents (P689/D).

The fonds is divided into the following series, subseries and files:

  • P689/A Fashion Creations and Collections
    • P689/A1 Press review of fashion creations and collections
      • P689/A1,1 Articles from 1978-1987
      • P689/A1,2 Articles from 1988-1998
      • P689/A1,3 Articles from 1999 to the present
      • P689/A1,4 Undated articles
      • P689/A1,5 Press kit. - [1983-1999]. - 3 cm of textual records.
        Digitized documents
      • Scope and Content: This file chronicles Jean-Claude Poitras' efforts to promote his various clothing collections to the media. It includes press releases and a promotional album from Beverini.

        Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the file.

        Language: The documents are in French and English.

    • P689/A2 Promotion and advertising
      • P689/A2,1 Clothing collection labels. - [ca 1987-1998]. - 2.5 cm of textual records.
        Digitized documents
      • Scope and Content: This file documents the visual identity of certain clothing lines created by Jean-Claude Poitras, including Jean-Claude Poitras, Jean-Claude Poitras Design, Qui m'aime me suive and Bof! It contains cardboard tags, woven labels, and proofs and style guides for some logos.

        Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the file.

        Language: The documents are in French.

      • P689/A2,2 Collection flyers and brochures. - [1986-1995]. - 4.5 of textual records.
        Digitized documents
      • Scope and Content: This file chronicles the promotion of certain Jean-Claude Poitras collections. It primarily contains flyers and brochures from the 1980s and 1990s.

        Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the file.

        Language: The documents are in French and English.

      • P689/A2,3 Business cards, corporate documents and promotional items. - [1987-2003]. - 4 cm of textual records. - 6 objects.
        Digitized documents: Part 01 - Part 02
      • Scope and Content: This file chronicles Jean-Claude Poitras' various business ventures, along with activities and tools used to promote his creations and brand image. It contains business cards, corporate folders, t-shirts and bags (paper, cloth and plastic).

        Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the file.

        Language: The documents are primarily in French, but several texts are in English.

      • P689/A2,4 Promotional materials
    • P689/A3 Fashion collection creations and productions
    • P689/A4 Fashion shows and events. - [1983-2001]. - 11 cm of textual records.
    • Scope and Content: This subseries chronicles fashion shows and events that featured Jean-Claude Poitras creations, essentially from the 1980s to 2000. It contains correspondence, various promotional documents, press releases, notes on fashion shows, and activity reports.

      Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the subseries.

      Language: The documents are in French, English, Spanish and Cantonese.

    • P689/A5 Specific creations and collections
    • P689/A6 Correspondence. - [1970-2005]. - 1.5 cm of textual records. - 1 photograph.
      Digitized documents
    • Scope and Content: This subseries documents the letters exchanged between Jean-Claude Poitras and his professional associates for a period of over 30 years. It is comprised of letters, faxes and greeting cards from Poitras himself and various correspondents, several rough drafts of letters written by the designer, and one photograph. The subseries covers the period from 1970 to 2005.

      The subseries chronicles Poitras' professional relations with various politicians and members of Canadian and Quebec institutions. For example, one letter documents his 1972 encounter with Claire Kirkland-Casgrain, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, when he was working at Eaton's as a designer. There is also a letter from Canadian Senator Serge Joyal (1998), greeting cards from Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and Quebec Lieutenant Governor Lise Thibault (1999), and an undated letter from Carole Goudreault, the wife of Jean-Claude Scraire, chairman of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.

      Some missives document Poitras' interest in and coverage by the media. An undated letter from a journalist working at The Gazette requests his help writing a special supplement for the paper, while another letter chronicles his appearance on the Canal Vie television show La santé en vedette (1998). In a letter sent to Roger D. Landry, the president and publisher of La Presse, Poitras expresses his appreciation for the work of journalists Viviane Roy and Pierre McCann. The designer also sent a letter to the CRTC in support of the Musique Plus application for an operating license for Perfecto, a channel dedicated to fashion and design (2000).

      In addition, the subseries documents some of Poitras' awards and accolades and his involvement in various networks and organizations. For example, a letter from Hydro-Québec Chairman André Caillé congratulates him on having been named "Personality of the Week" by La Presse (1997). There are congratulatory messages sent after Poitras was awarded the Griffe d'Or for lifetime achievement in 2000, including one from Bernard Landry, at that time Deputy Premier and Minister of State for the Economy and Finance (2000). There is also correspondence documenting his involvement on the Matinée Fashion Foundation board of directors and participation in various events, lectures, and charitable causes. Finally, the subseries contains several letters from suppliers.

      Although this collection is comprised essentially of business correspondence, there are also rough copies of letters hand written by Poitras in a style that is often sensitive and personal, and at times poetic, in which he shares his thoughts about the unpredictable nature of life, occasionally even quoting some lines from the song Me voici donc, by French singer Anne Sylvestre. Some messages, including a fax the designer sent while on a trip to Bali, chronicle his relationship with his wife Colette Chicoine and her professional endeavours.

      Source of title proper: Based on the contents of the subseries.

      Language: The documents are in French and English.

    • P689/A7 Contracts, administrative and legal documents
    • P689/A8 Irving Samuel Company
    • P689/A9 Montréal Mode inc.

  • P689/B Home and Lifestyle Design

  • P689/C Writings About Jean-Claude Poitras

  • P689/D Personal and Social Activities and Other Professional Commitments

  • P689/E Photographs

  • P689/F Audio-Visual Materials


Last update: March 29, 2019