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A CONVERSATION WITH PARACHUTE’S NICOLA PELLY

It’s not every day a publication gets the chance to reintroduce an iconic fashion brand to a new audience. Created in 1977 by internationally-recognized architectural scholar Harry Parnass and exceptionally gifted fashion designer Nicola Pelly,PARACHUTE was the epitome of forward-thinking fashion and lifestyle in the 80’s and 90’s. Their designs were undoubtedly some of the most innovative of the era and each archive we had the chance to see strongly resonated as still current in terms of styles and aesthetic. Think drop crotch military linen pants, floor-length silk coats, utilitarian dress shirts and Japanese-inspired dresses. Needless to say, the brand took the world by storm with a presence on all five continents, from Tokyo to New York, and is now recognized as a significant design legacy by those who remember their garments. Madonna, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, Cher, just to name these few, rocked PARACHUTE on the daily and dressed their entire crew in the coveted garments. For all you a-listers out there, check out if your grandpa is on their celeb list of clients (although he might not, he most definitely knows how cool PARACHUTE was if he cared at all about his looks).

Given the gold mine we have within our grasp, THE FINE PRINT is curating a collaborative project between the iconic PARACHUTE and up-and-coming brand WHITEWALLS/WORLDWIDE. These two generations of designers are meeting for an exclusive intergenerational creative concept focusing on contemporary socio-cultural questionings of the current fashion system and industry. One brand is establishing their heritage while the other is breaking through, creating a clashing encounter of the minds. The interest in ethical production, quality of the garment and intertemporal utilitarian designs are shared values and aesthetics to PARACHUTE and WHITEWALLS/WORLDWIDE. This collaboration will consist of interviews with both brands, a runway show at Montreal’s Festival Mode et Design, exclusive editorials and a short documentary on the manufacturing industry. Stay tuned for all these goodies.

PARACHUTE must not be forgotten. Would you dare forget CDG’s Rei Kawakubo? Didn’t think so. A major retrospective on PARACHUTE, curated by knowledgeable journalist Stéphane LeDuc, is coming up in Montreal. We’ll most definitely keep you in the loop on that front but, for now, let’s get to know better Nicola Pelly, the fashion brain behind it all, in this exclusive THE FINE PRINT conversation with editor-in-chief ESTELLE GERVAIS.

Photography LIONEL PERRON

Creative Direction and Styling BIANCA DI BLASIO (Dulcedo Artists)

NICOLA PELLY is wearing PARACHUTE ARCHIVE throughout.

THE FINE PRINT: How did this collaboration between Harry Parnass and yourself start back in 1977? 

NICOLA PELLY: After college, I visited North America on a travel scholarship. I took a Greyhound bus around the U.S. and ended up in Montreal in the summertime staying with a family of sailors. I spent a wonderful few days on the lake and decided Montreal was for me. I was offered a job and I planned to emigrate. London designers were a hot commodity in the early 70’s! I went back to London where I had a job waiting and emigrated the following year. My then boyfriend followed me over!

Later I was hired by Le Chateau as a designer. Harry [Parnass] was director of design and as an architect had designed many of their stores. We started working together and soon realized that we made a good team and decided to start our own label that would appeal to a more advanced fashion market. Le Chateau was very supportive; they let us use their design studio initially and gave us a retail space, an “instore” in their Ste. Catherine store.

THE FINE PRINT: PARACHUTE was way more than your typical fashion house; it is still considered by many as the most forward-thinking lifestyle brand at the time. What was the main concept behind the creation of PARACHUTE?

NICOLA PELLY: Initially, when we started in 1977, we followed the traditional industry model of doing the designing and licensing a local manufacturer to manufacture, sell and distribute the clothing. We soon became frustrated by this arrangement, we felt it didn’t give us enough control over our designs so we found an inexpensive hidden away location at the back of a courtyard on Crescent St. It was in a building that had been part of a design project for Harry’s architecture students at the Université de Montreal. Initially, our inventory was stock that we had designed while at Le Chateau. They sold it to us and we changed the labels to Parachute labels! We felt that by having our own store we could reach our customers directly. We could get immediate feedback and react more quickly to keep the store stocked with garments that our customers wanted. We developed systems whereby the salespeople could give us fast and accurate feedback as to styles, colours, sizes etc., that were selling. We streamlined this as we opened more stores. This was before the days of computers!

We chose Parachute as a brand name as it was bilingual and we liked the freedom and free floating aspect plus the military association. It presented many neat opportunities graphically for designing the labels as well.

Almost immediately that Parachute store became a destination for fashion buyers from big U.S. department stores to buy samples and have them copied for their own stores. I believe we were one of the first designers to open their own stores. It was a new concept.

The 1980’s was an era when nightlife in Montreal took place in the clubs and Montrealers came to Parachute to find special outfits to wear to dance and hang out with their friends. The key themes in Parachute’s design philosophy were and still are “collage” and “hybrid”.

We mine the “collective memory” of our generation to produce new hybrids or combinations of ideas for our time. Images of colonial Raj vests, Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in the 30’s, sports gear, rebel guerrillas, Hollywood glam and always the military of every era — these are all part of our intellectual resource.

As a culture, we all share these same memory images. Our clients can shock, surprise, sexually provoke, and politically challenge with our designs. Due to the pervasiveness of social media, these images are universal and appreciated by our clients in Tokyo and Singapore, Milan and London as well as Montreal, N.Y. and L.A..

By putting seemingly alien garments and details in combination or “collage”, such as a baseball style pant with a tuxedo style jacket, we change the context of their original use and force the viewer to see each outfit in a new light. As in any art, the stimulation of the viewer/client and his participation in the search for meaning is the name of the game. Fashion is a contextual art, and we use the design tools of irony & wit to provoke and challenge, in the politics of fashion.

We traveled extensively as we sought resources for fabrics and manufacturing and, wherever we went, we were inspired by local costumes and traditional styling. We would note the way a rice picker tied his sarong in a paddy field in Thailand and the cut of a pant worn by a Shinto priest pant in Japan and then incorporate these ideas into our own interpretations.

THE FINE PRINT: Your partner Harry Parnass is an internationally recognized scholar in architecture and urban design. What kind of repercussions did his extensive knowledge in these fields have on the brand you created together?

NICOLA PELLY: Harry and I both liked clean lines and minimalist looks, dramatic silhouettes and exaggerated details. We believed in bold looks. The client was challenged to wear the clothes but they gained confidence because they knew they looked strong!

Harry used to talk about clothing being the “2nd skin”. The “3rd skin” was the buildings we lived in and the “4th skin” was our cities. All of which he was involved in designing.

When he designed the Parachute stores he used a very minimalist and industrial approach. He used plumbing racks and cement blocks. The walls and floor were raw concrete. The only luxury we believed in was space. We rented large spaces off the beaten track. The first New York store in Soho was 10 000 sq ft and there were only galleries in Soho in those days. We felt that it showed confidence and if the location was large enough with exciting merchandise the customers would seek it out. Even before we were open, Japanese customers were lining up outside!

THE FINE PRINT: Your brand was sold worldwide to an engaged crowd of followers, counting every cool kid of your generation and major musicians of those decades. To what would you attribute the international popularity of PARACHUTE?

NICOLA PELLY: As we opened stores and franchises and sold our Parachute designs worldwide, we very quickly attracted editorial coverage from fashion magazines and business magazines worldwide. They wrote about the celebrities who were buying our clothing and wearing them on stage and in videos.

Andy Warhol used to sit on the bleachers of the Soho store and check out the customers while young urban mothers pushed their kids in their strollers around the columns searching out the latest Parachute children’s clothes in black.

Mick Jagger came to buy clothes for his concerts and tested them out by running and jumping on the runways in the store to the fascination of the customers!

THE FINE PRINT: Was there a specific collection and/or collaboration that was particularly groundbreaking to you?

NICOLA PELLY: I would say that our longtime collaboration with Peter Gabriel was the most exciting. He had admired our designs for many years and had shopped in our stores to outfit himself and his band all through the early 1980s. Finally, he approached us to work closely with him to design and make clothing for all his tours. He is a very inspirational person spearheading many environmental and human rights initiatives and uses groundbreaking technology for his productions. It has been very satisfying to collaborate and work with him right up till the last few years.

We also designed the clothing for the 1980’s TV series Miami Vice which was fun. We mostly dressed the villains who needed black outfits!

THE FINE PRINT: What were the factors that contributed to closing shop in ‘93?

NICOLA PELLY: We closed the final store in 1993, we felt it was the end of an era. We had only intended that Parachute would run for maybe 5 years! It was getting harder and harder to find time to design. We had too many stores and we weren’t very good at delegating. Many other designers had followed our lead, there was more competition and it just wasn’t fun anymore. Many of the store leases were up and rather than renewing them we decided to close up shop and move on to something else.

THE FINE PRINT: How do you think the fashion system has evolved since Parachute presented their last collection in 1993?

NICOLA PELLY: I worry that there are still so many designers training and labour prices are increasing around the world. Here in Montreal, the industry changed from a manufacturing to an importing one and there is no labour market here anymore. No-one wants to earn minimum wage sewing today. Shopping Malls and many large department stores are struggling. It is a challenge and I salute today’s designers who are testing out new formulas in the fashion industry.

I just believe that all design moves in cycles and today’s cycles are very fast moving and less defined. I think that the Parachute looks and philosophies were advanced and groundbreaking for their time and in a way they remain timeless because of that.

THE FINE PRINT: You are currently making steps towards reviving PARACHUTE and establishing a legacy for it. With the upcoming retrospective on the brand, what are you hoping to accomplish?

NICOLA PELLY: We are planning a Parachute Retrospective Exhibit which will celebrate the brand and the 1980s era in Montreal. We have a large archive of clothing, press editorials and photo campaigns from well-known photographers and videos of some of our innovative fashion shows which we believe will interest those who were around during Parachute’s time.

THE FINE PRINT: How do you think the current generation can relate to the clothing you’ve designed over 30 years ago?

NICOLA PELLY: Our clothing was always very “functional”, all the details on the garment worked. The pockets were generous, the armholes deep, the funnel collars wide. It was their utilitarianism that attracted us to military styling.
I think the current generation can relate to the boldness and minimalism of the designs and the rather exaggerated silhouettes of the Parachute look.

We hope to excite those who were too young but can relate to what the brand stood for and its relevance today.