The Genteel
March 3, 2021


Rosemarie Umetsu curated three gowns to accompany and visualise the world premiere of Alice Ho's composition, Breath of Fire (Photograph courtesy of Bo Huang Photography).

In the early morning of January 29, fashion designer Rosemarie Umetsu tweeted, "In the name of FASHIONISTA! I've just done something extremely un-fashionista like...woke up before 9:00am on a Sunday."

After an enterprising three days in New York City, filled with business meetings, client fittings, a night at the Metropolitan Opera, a CD launch and jazz at the Blue Note - all stylishly punctuated by late-night food, wine and wit (diligently documented on Twitter at @rosemarieumetsu) - any sleep-loving lady would be happily horizontal, recovering in bed. But not the tireless Rosemarie Umetsu. She was back home in Toronto to present a hand-picked selection of her couture gowns for Fashionista! Fashion as Art, the Sunday matinee concert with the critically acclaimed Amici Chamber Ensemble, featuring music by three composers, including a world premiere of Alice Ping Yee Ho's Breath of Fire.

Photographer Bo Huang and Ford models
performed a live photoshoot in the lobby
during intermission (Photograph
courtesy of Bo Huang Photography).

When asked how the concept of this concert event came together, Umetsu said that pianist Serouj Kradjian (one of the three Amici artistic directors) approached her with the idea of working with Alice Ho and producing a fashion visual for the commissioned piece, Breath of Fire. Not only did it marry Umetsu's two passions - classical music and fashion - but it also presented a rare opportunity to work with a composer.

"For Breath of Fire, Alice Ho and I sat down and listened to the work, which at the time was probably 90 per cent complete, and between us, threw a number of ideas around. It's an urban city piece of music. You hear the sounds of a big city - it's very rhythmic, and there is a huge tug between chaos and positive energy. There are three strong characters, which Alice identified as being Spirit, Breath and Air, or Mind, Body and Soul. I took this as my inspiration and saw three strong colours, red, green, and purple, which interestingly, later dawned on me are the three colours you see in a flame," she explains.

Reflected in the concert's powerful chamber music, Fashionista! was a collaboration of talented individuals making for a remarkable performance set in the intimate atmosphere of the CBC's Glenn Gould Studio. Amici's Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet), David Hetherington (cello) and Serouj Kradjian (piano) performed alongside notable guest musicians Lara St. John (violin), Cecilia String Quartet and Joseph Petric (accordion), while three models adorned in gowns from Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu provided an aesthetic interpretation of the music.

A dozen of Umetsu's gorgeous gowns took stage throughout the concert with the help of stylist Cameron Alexander Shahbazi. The models' hair and makeup was styled by Ivy Lam, and photographer Bo Huang also added to the event, providing a live photo shoot in the lobby during the intermission.(You can read a full review of the concert here.)

Hosting the event, Deirdre Kelly (fashion reporter, author and dance critic for The Globe and Mail) guided the audience through the historical love affair between clothing and classical music. Kelly took us back to Paris in 1912, when French fashion designer Paul Poiret (the Picasso of 20th century fashion) hosted classical music concerts in his studio - a tradition maintained by Umetsu at her atelier located in Toronto's Yorkville area. As Vanity Fair and Vogue took note, the chic coupling of designers and musicians quickly became an "it" thing to do - reminiscent of the Chanel and Stravinsky pairing.

Inspired by the strong personalities who wear her clothes, Umetsu's signature designs are not only defined by structure, geometry and linear lines, but also by the qualities of wearability for virtuoso performances.

Kelly introduced each piece of music, describing how each gown was thoughtfully chosen by Umetsu (and, in some cases, specially designed) so the colours depicted certain tones or moods, while the structure of a dress drew lines of a musical phrase and the textures accentuated a design the way dynamic changes bring dimension to the music. She later posted to her blog that part of her job consisted of "drawing parallels between the whimsy of fashion with the gravitas of classical music."

For Umetsu, the intersection where the worlds of fashion and classical music collide is her universe. Trained in piano performance at the Trinity College of Music (UK) and the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto), and influenced by her couturier grandmother, her first loves of classical music and couture flourished into her own clothing label in 2004.

Designed in her belief that "individuality is the heart of style," Umetsu's clothing designs have garnered the support and interest of artists, musicians, singers, dancers, writers and actors. Her impressive list of prestigious, international clientele includes: pianists Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Olga Kern; sopranos Isabel Bayrakdarian and Measha Brueggergosman; Toronto Symphony Orchestra Music Director Peter Oundjian; dancers Karen Kain and Veronica Tennant; actress Vivica A. Fox; and one dress even took a ride on Mary Murphy's hot tamale train in So You Think You Can Dance.

Inspired by the strong personalities who wear her clothes, Umetsu's signature designs are not only defined by structure, geometry and linear lines, but also by the qualities of wearability for virtuoso performances. "It not only has to look spectacular on stage and fit well, but it has to be functional.  How you cut something for a pianist is different to how you would cut for a conductor, or a cellist needs different functionality to that of a violinist or violist. It has to be easy to travel with and require minimal care (fabrics that don't wrinkle easily). It needs to suit the repertoire the musician is performing. It needs to work for the type of venue they are playing at, and of course, what's chosen to wear to a performance is not often the right thing to wear on an album photo shoot. Lastly, it has to work with the brand and personality of the musician," she explains.

Fashion designer Rosemarie Umetsu with
celebrated violinist Lara St. John, wearing
a dress by Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu
(Photograph courtesy of
Bo Huang Photography).

This innate sensitivity to an artist's needs plus a sincere appreciation for the art form has cultivated the continuing success of Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu. In line with the values of its founder, the brand is known for promoting, supporting and bringing visibility to the arts in Canada. In 2009, Umetsu collaborated with photographer Caitlin Cronenberg in "Iconic Beauty," an ongoing project to celebrate the individual style and art of the Canadian female artist through the medium of fashion photography. The following year, Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu received a DORA nomination for its costume design debut in Enda Walsh's, New Electric Ballroom, a production by MackenzieRo, Canadian Irish Repertory Theatre. On any given night, the versatile Atelier may be presenting an evening of salon performances, hosting artists and arts patrons, while sipping champagne and laughing late into the night, or Umetsu may be quietly designing her next couture creation to the music of Brahms, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Wagner, or lots and lots of opera, she says. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it!

The concert Fashionista! was promoted with the subtitle "Fashion as Art." For those who already believe that affinity to be true, this latest project between Amici Chamber Ensemble and Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu is better described by the statement "art is a collaboration." Based on the success of Fashionista!, one can look forward to looking back at Paris 1912 and seeing more classical music and fashion together in 2012 and beyond.

See more by Rosemarie Umetsu at



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