The Genteel
March 9, 2021


This week was the Toronto launch of Wickabrod's memoir, Love Affair: Before and After Death.

Talk to anyone who lived and breathed fashion in Toronto in the 1980s and there are a few things that are guaranteed to come up almost immediately: getting your hair cut by Robert Gage (for less than $10!), cocktail sipping and celebrity spotting at Bemelmans on Bloor Street, Wayne Clark's ultra-romantic evening gowns, and - always - the dramatic oversized trench coats from Clotheslines Inc.

Launched in 1978, Clotheslines was the lovechild of husband-and-wife design duo Bernard McGee and Shelley Wickabrod. After a meteoric rise, they established themselves as a pillar of the Yorkville fashion district and enjoyed over a decade of prominence before McGee died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 1991.

[My guidance counselor] would tell me that a career as a fashion designer was almost impossible to attain and try to guide me towards something less creative...Years later she arrived in my store and apologised to me. I was very impressed with her after that.

This week was the Toronto launch of Wickabrod's memoir, Love Affair: Before and After Death, which tells the story of her remarkable relationship with McGee, and chronicles what is arguably the most exciting era in Canadian fashion history. In anticipation of the event, The Genteel's Charlotte Herrold spoke with Wickabrod about life after loss, forging a career in fashion and her advice for industry hopefuls. 

How did you first fall in love with fashion? 

Oddly, I came into this life knowing I would be a fashion designer. My mother maintains I had this career goal as young as the age of five. I used to dream clothing. I would wake up once a week with designs in my head.

When they made you go to a guidance counsellor during high school, she would tell me that a career as a fashion designer was almost impossible to attain and try to guide me towards something less creative. Being bold, I always just ignored her and went back to my dreams. Years later she arrived in my store and apologised to me. I was very impressed with her after that.

What was your first job in the industry?

My very, very first job in the industry was designing a line of sportswear in Montreal. The fabric was hideous and the market for the clothing was extremely limiting. I hated it.

Then Mildred Istona (then editor-in-chief of Miss Chatelaine now publishing as Flare) spotted me at a fashion show in Montreal. I was known for my avant-garde way of dressing in those early years and she liked what she saw. So she asked me to interview for the job of fashion editor. They were classic in their approach and wanted me to help them break into the more artsy side of fashion.

When did you know that you and Bernard had "made it" as designers?

Our first giant break came when Shirley MacLaine took a taxi to our store on Markham Street [where we were located before we moved to Yorkville]. She had been shopping on Bloor [Street, a major shopping street in Toronto] and asked where she could find the best fashion store in Toronto. I was thrilled. She bought a huge amount of clothing over a three-day period. She even bought clothing for all of her entourage. Shirley went on to become one of our most devoted clients. It was a long and enduring relationship and is written about with great sincerity in my book.

Photograph courtesy of Shelley Wickabrod. 

Tell me about your memoir. Why was it important for you to write it?

The book itself has a strange beginning. Back in mine and Bernard's "courting" years, we were having an argument about whether to get married and where we should take our relationship. I was and still am an essential feminist and I was pretty opposed to marriage. However in one of our letter debates (back then people still wrote letters!) I found myself allowing the concept of marriage to sneak in. I wrote to Bernard telling him that when this is all over I would write a book about our love affair and the trials and tribulations of getting there.

It was important to write it for a couple of reasons. The first being to chronicle our relationship for my own memories. The second is that I hope I can share with others my belief that we live many, many lives and are eternal spiritual selves. I hope the book helps to release some of the fear that surrounds death and to impart to those who grieve that opening their spirit to speak to the "other side" is indeed possible. I sincerely hope it helps all who have lost a loved one. On the flip side of that, I have also been told that the first half of the book is truly funny!

How would you characterise the fashion industry back when you first started? I have this phantom memory that it was much more authentic and collaborative back then. Do you think this is true? 

While we were in college, the Canadian fashion industry was very much focused in Montreal, but a real issue arose when Québec intended to enforce bilingualism in commercial enterprise. [We] were living in Montreal then and the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec) was making it hard to create a business. So we came to begin [Clotheslines Inc.] in Toronto. Actually, history shows that an enormous amount of talent fled to Toronto during the 1970s.

The business of fashion is to create clothing, manufacture said clothing and to sell said clothing to others. Stealing other people's creativity and mass marketing is not the way to go.

The early Toronto fashion industry was very collaborative, but admittedly my career as a fashion editor gave me the wit to hook up with the right people. The Festival of Canadian Fashion (started by Steven Levy) is when it all gelled together for the industry and everyone came together to form a cohesive showcase. The venue was spectacular and every designer had to raise the bar. It was competitive, but in a friendly way.

So yes, I would say the industry was very different back then. Most notably, in my years of manufacturing clothes, you could drive your car a block to pick up the trousers, go another block to pick up the jackets and head uptown to retail them on Bloor Street. This is unheard of today.

Who were some of your collaborators back then? 

Clotheslines Inc. was very lucky to have amongst our collaborators some of the savviest talent Toronto has produced. Elmer Olsen (hair and models), Robert Gage (hair), Larry Miller (photography) and Donna DeMarco (our house model) are still some of the best Toronto has to offer.

If I ever mention Clotheslines to anyone in the know, they immediately speak of your trench coats. How do you feel about being remembered by this particular garment? 

Fabulous! The coat was actually designed by my husband, Bernard McGee, and stems from his stint in the Canadian Army. He was the youngest captain ever ranked back then and when we met in college he was still doing stints in the reserve during our summer breaks. When we decided to form a design team he extricated himself as quickly as possible from the army (tough to do).

The coat was named by the Toronto Design Exchange as one of the top ten greatest designs to ever come out of Canada. I have heard that they get big dollars for them in vintage shops around the world. One person told me they saw an authentic one in Kensington Market in England for 500 pounds. That's a fair chunk of change for a used coat, but quality is quality.

After you ceased producing the line, did you want to remain connected to the fashion industry or did you have a desire to distance yourself from it? What were your next steps?

Truthfully, I had to distance myself from the industry because I ceased producing the line after the death of my husband and design partner. It was very, very hard to continue in a business that we had built together. After surviving the physical pain of grief I decided to land a job teaching my craft.

Photograph courtesy of Shelley Wickabrod.  

Do you think it's any harder or easier for people to make it in fashion today? 

Most of what is produced today is "fast fashion," so I think it is harder to stay ahead of the technical skills needed to actually secure a job in this industry today. However, it is definitely way easier to market the product than it was in my time. There was no Internet and no worldwide fashion culture when Clotheslines made its name known. These days you can take a picture with a cheap camera and splash it globally. It's much easier to create a brand using these tools.

What advice would you give to young people today hoping to break into the fashion industry?

My advice would be to always stay creative and design what you love and want, not just what sells. Fast fashion is fine for some venues, but unfortunately every retailer thinks that a private label of quick clothing is going to make them gazillions. For some it will, but for many it will only produce a large body of clothing that needs to go on sale and be gotten rid of.

As a new designer I would challenge myself to find a niche market and to grow it from there. Seeing everyone jumping on the fast fashion bandwagon is getting a tad dull and people need to re-think what the term "fashion" means. Unfortunately, many people today confuse styling with fashion. It is absolutely not the same thing. The business of fashion is to create clothing, manufacture said clothing and to sell said clothing to others. Stealing other people's creativity and mass marketing is not the way to go.



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