50-year reign for Ottawa’s most notable fashion designer
By Pam Dillon
When Richard Robinson was a boy, he’d return home from school and be transformed. As he donned his royal robe, a bedspread, and paused to descend the staircase, gone was the working-class Gatineau kid. “I was king,” he says, laughing.
He still is. With wit, drive, audacity and immense talent, this local boy, now 71, has parlayed playing dress-up into an illustrious career as an haute couture designer.
In the span of five decades, during which he dressed Canadian royalty, launched a fashion academy, made international headlines for a certain million-dollar catsuit, and starred in an exhibition at an art gallery, Richard Robinson has become Ottawa’s King of Fashion.
“I can’t believe it’s been 50 years,” admits the instantly recognizable couturier. He snaps his fingers: “It went like that.”
On a Friday, he’s in a classroom at the Richard Robinson Fashion Design Academy on Sussex Drive. Students are working on a project—sleeves—and despite his signature spiked white hair, chic, leather jacket and polished presence, the master at the head of the class still remembers how it feels to be in their place, with hopes and dreams of a future in fashion.
Those twinkly blue eyes were once those of a boy with a big box full of clothes and shoes for make-believe weddings and pageants. On Saturdays, when his father would spy him carting it out the door to go play with the girls, he’d say, “Richard, there are other things a boy can do.”
He was not dissuaded. In his teens, a teacher recognized his passion and potential. She was from France, and she encouraged him to apply to the École de la chambre syndicale de la couture Parisienne in Paris.
News of his acceptance was cause for both joy and alarm: Tuition was $2,000, a fortune in the 1960s for a blue-collar family with five kids. “My parents didn’t have the money,” he explains. They did find a way, though. While his father, a mill worker, would have preferred Richard to get a traditional job, instead he took his son to the bank to get a loan.
Soon enough, the 17-year-old was in the fashion capital of the world, making the very most of it. Following his studies, he landed jobs in the ateliers of both Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. At Dior, he learned to make cocktail dresses and evening gowns. At Saint Laurent, he learned to create suits and coats. “It was the real thing,” he recalls with awe.
Returning to Canada, he was determined to follow the pattern of the celebrated couturiers, so in 1969 at age 21, Richard opened his own fashion house on Sussex Drive. Then, along came a stunning young blonde looking for a ball gown for her nursing graduation.
Her name was Louise Charron. “She was a beautiful woman; she still is,” he says of his first customer and wife of nearly half a century. He asked Louise to model for him, and then to be part of his first fashion show, one that turned heads in staid old Ottawa.
Here comes the bride … and groom.
Pretty soon there was a wedding in the offing, and true to form, Richard saw the potential to make a high-fashion splash. With the ceremony set for Notre Dame Cathedral, he popped in ahead of time to measure the aisle. It was 100 feet long, so he designed Louise’s veil to span 75 feet. He fashioned her gown from white kid leather and tailored a white jersey suit for himself, with a royal blue bowtie.
Imagine, if you will, the ultimate runway show of love. In this made-in-Ottawa version, the groom showed up at the bride’s house before the wedding to do her hair, perfect her look and attend to the details leading up to the big moment—their big moment. Guests in the pews at the grand cathedral were shocked to see them arrive together, Richard recalls, his eyes gleeful. “We wanted to do things differently.”
That hasn’t changed. There have been many grand entrances in the decades since, and Louise has always encouraged him to set the standards and trends, rather than follow the crowd.
In life, with three children and eight grandchildren, and in business, they have operated in partnership. While he’s in his element designing a spectacular dress or teaching proper lace-insert technique, Richard admits he’s never had a head for paperwork. “Louise is a very good businesswoman.”
Those gowns, though, are superb. A few are hanging in the front office on Sussex Drive: an elegant, long-sleeved navy number, a strapless champagne confection and a feminine black party frock. Impeccably constructed, each has a certain element that makes it both covetable and timeless. You can see why high-profile women such as Mila Mulroney, Aline Chrétien, Michaëlle Jean and Louise Arbour have asked him to dress them. It’s also fitting that, a decade ago, the Art Gallery of Hamilton hosted a three-month exhibition of his work, called Runway: Contemporary Fashion by Richard Robinson. Curated by Sara Knelman, the show honoured the designer as an outstanding Canadian artist, and it featured some of his more show-stopping garments. Included was the outfit that put the designer—and Ottawa—on the fashion map: the catsuit with the gold breastplate and bling-encrusted nipple worn by socialite Marlen Cowpland.
Twenty years ago, it caused an international stir; today, Richard Robinson doesn’t even mention it. Instead, he thanks God for a celebrated career in haute-couture fashion. Asked what he’s most proud of, he talks about his wife, his family and his students. They are readying their work to be showcased at the academy’s upcoming Grande Premiere fashion show, and he wants them to know it’s possible to be successful and to have fun doing something they love.
Time spent with the man in front of the chalkboard attests to that: “I’m having a lot of fun,” he grins widely. “That’s why I don’t want to stop.”
Richard has mingled with many luminaries over the years. At the 2003 Grammy Awards along with Robinson model Kadija (centre), he socialized with Dustin Hoffman (centre), Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith (right) and Wynonna and Naomi Judd (left).
Photos: Richard Robinson.