Canadian romance: girl meets coat

Women have a tendency to get emotional about outerwear designed by Hilary Radley

“I was a first-year student at the Université de Montréal when my aunt bought me my first designer coat—a forest-green Hilary Radley with a princess waist and gold buttons,” sighed Montreal stylist Alexandra Mélançon. “It was warm and exquisite. I’ll never forget it.” It’s the classic Canadian romance: girl meets coat. When that coat is a Hilary Radley, women get emotional (ask around). But Mélançon’s nostalgia for her coat is tempered by her professional opinion of the Hilary Radley line. “Her coats used to be more tailored, more fitted, more design-oriented. But several years ago, they became bigger, more puffy, as if to please the mass market. They lost their edge.”

In a bold move to disabuse people of this notion, Hilary Radley is back at the drawing board, literally, directing the day-to-day operations of her iconic label. “The buck stops here again,” said Radley, sitting in her Sherbrooke Street atelier in Montreal, looking stunning in a recycled mink sweater and Prada pants. This fall, Radley ended an 18-year licensing agreement with Utex Fashion Group, a Canadian outerwear manufacturer, and signed with the Levy Group. “It was a hard decision to leave Utex, but a new team came in, they downsized their designer division and it was time to re-address the business,” clarified Radley, touching fabric swatches of alpaca boiled wool in colours with names like ink and clay. “You need to keep the label consistent. You need to be vigilant about the brand.”

Noah Stern, president of Levy Canada, is eager to have Radley keeping watch. Some years ago, “Utex and Hilary decided to take Hilary out of the design process,” said Stern. “We saw a change in the product and the price came down. It went off its core message. They decided to part ways, and now she’s poised to reclaim the label.” Utex Fashion Group claims the split was amicable. “We decided to focus on the mass market,” explained Marian Gurberg, whose family started Utex in 1943. “Designer labels require better quality fabric and trim, more time and facilities. We had to pull back and refocus. Did the lousy economy help? No.”

The Hilary Radley brand still has a firm hold on the better U.S. department stores, including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, and Ogilvy in Montreal. “Her use of textured fabrics and luxury fibres such as alpaca is very appealing to our guests,” said Jeff Binder, VP and divisional merchandise manager for coats at Bloomingdale’s. “The brand sells well for us. For the current fall season, we purchased about 20 styles.”

Radley spent the last four years travelling extensively—including treks in the Himalayas, three trips to China, and seven trips to Europe last year alone. “But I never considered myself retired. I still went to the shows in Paris and Europe,” explained the designer, whose coats have been spotted on Hilary Duff and Meryl Streep, among others. “I’m just thrilled to be back.” So are her fans. “You can’t underestimate how influential Hilary is,” said Claude Laframboise, editor-in-chief at LOULOU. “She put Canada on the map for outerwear. She brought the designer concept to the masses—sort of a designer democracy. Girls and women of all ages were proud to say their coat was a Hilary Radley.”

To understand another key to her success, talk to redheads. Radley, who is a dark strawberry blond, is a favourite among that group because of her devotion to shades that suit their colouring—like the forest-green princess coat that suited Mélançon’s strawberry curls. “Oh, we can always count on Hilary Radley to have dark greens in her collection,” confirmed Monique Lessard, merchandising director for accessories at Ogilvy, where they do a brisk trade in Radley’s wrinkle-resistant gabardine twills and taffeta polyacrylic raincoats. “Hilary is a ginger at heart,” enthused redhead Alison McGill, the editor-in-chief at Weddingbells and owner of a burnt-red, ankle-length boiled wool Radley coat. “She understands that colour and drama are paramount. She makes bold coats that work with our colouring.”

Aside from the ginger contingent, is Hilary Radley still the coming-of-age coat for women in Canada? “Absolutely,” says Montreal writer Juliet Waters. “At the age of 21, I bought a classic Hilary Radley duffle trench at Holt Renfrew with money from my first full-time job. It made me feel like a young woman set for a life of stable affluence. Twenty-five years later, I’m still not stable, but I just found a perfect camel hair coat with chocolate pinstripes by Hilary Radley at a second-hand store for six dollars. I have arrived.”

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