As told to Meghan Jeffery
What inspired you to start the brand, Marie Saint Pierre?
It all started with a crisis. In 1987, when I graduated, the economy was doing very badly. Many apparel companies had invested important sums of money at the stock exchange and when it plunged, they lost everything. Many shops were closing and it was one of the worst times for a recent graduate to find a job. I decided to see it as an opportunity and to launch my own brand. It was not my first plan as I thought I would start by gaining some experience while working for someone else and that I might even go back to school at some point before flying on my own. But all I knew was that I had an entrepreneurial spirit and I followed it.
When did you know you had a winning idea?
You never know. It’s not about having a “winning idea”. It’s about having the strength, the obstinacy, and the boldness to push your ideas forward.
What is your best advice for new entrepreneurs?
I have a lot of advice for them! First of all, you need to be a well-rounded person with good instincts. One should know as much about aesthetic as technique. Also, young entrepreneurs should seek talented people who will help them achieve their dreams, and convince them to be on board. One needs to accept that talented people surround them. Finally, I would say: work hard, don’t be too emotive about your work, and don’t get a big head.
You’re a woman of many firsts: the first designer to participate at the Fashion Coterie of New York, the first Canadian designer to present your collection in Paris. What inspired you to be a Canadian trailblazer on the global stage? How did you make it happen?
I’m a born anti-conformist. To me it’s not about being “the first” for the sake of it; it’s more about trying things nobody has tried before. I don’t like to follow the usual path. However, I must say that it’s not very hard to be the first to do something in the Canadian fashion industry because of its young history. But honestly, ranking doesn’t matter to me.
Who has been your biggest mentor and what was the biggest lesson you learned from them?
Jean-Paul Riopelle. He was a great friend of our family. Without knowing it back then, I learned a lot from him when I was young. The person he was, the way he worked, the freedom he expressed through his art, the independence of his mind—he forced me to question myself about many things, to look at things with different perspectives. And despite all his glory he was such a humble man. I think the greatest artists are humble, their immense need of love is more important than success.
As a successful entrepreneur and mother of two, can you explain how you find, or aspire to, work-life balance?
I want to find balance in my life as a whole, but I don’t need balance on a daily or weekly basis. I can be very busy during a certain period, and then make an effort to be at home more the following month. At the end of the day I think it is probably more profitable for my children to see me being passionate and working hard to achieve my goals then to see me at home all the time. I think they learn from what I do even when I’m away, and that contributes to who they are and who they will become. Obviously, there is a bottom line, a sort of minimal amount of time you need to dedicate to your family, and I would never sacrifice that. Sometimes, when we really need to fill up our heart with each other’s presence, we go for a road trip. No Wi-Fi, no email, no calls. We are stuck in a car and all we can do is talk, talk, talk and look at the landscape through the windows and stop at some magical place to enjoy the moment and the view.
Your sister, Danielle Charest, is the Vice President and Senior Partner of Maison Marie Saint Pierre. What has been the biggest lesson she has taught you since you began working together?
Danielle is a protector of the Maison Marie Saint Pierre brand. As a creative person, I sometimes feel like erasing everything we’ve done and to just start from scratch. Danielle keeps me from throwing everything away. She’s taught me the value of longevity and patience.
Obviously, with six collections a year, I have to be very productive and continually come up with new ideas. But at the same time, I’m always seeking perenniality, timelessness, and accuracy. I’m looking for that perfect garment, that iconic design that will build the brand identity through time. That quest keeps me focused.
How have you responded to industry changes – from the rapid growth of e-commerce to the changing landscape of fashion?
I’m a change agent. I don’t wait for changes, I initiate them. I can feel when something new is coming and I take the lead. That being said, we went through three major tsunamis over the last few decades. First came the abolition of the Multi Fibre Arrangement that started gradually from 1995 until it totally expired in January 2005. That allowed developing countries, such as China, to export textile products without any quotas. Then came Internet. All of a sudden, everybody had access to information and images in real time from runways in Paris or Milan and in the space of two seasons, I would say, fast fashion was born. The latest revolution was e-commerce, and as a Canadian luxury brand, we really pioneered the field. We have been ahead of our time, and therefore we are now able to compete with European brands that invest enormous amounts of money in e-commerce. Some players are not even online yet and we are already running our second e-commerce platform.
What sparked your desire to get involved in charity work and give back to the community?
I was born in a loving family, surrounded by beauty and art, and I now have a loving husband and kids that I’m proud of. I feel so lucky in life, and I feel the need to give back.
First, I act as a mentor for young designers. When I first started in the industry, I wished there was someone I could turn to for advice but I had to learn the hard way. Thus I want to be that helping hand for the new generation. Second, I started the Sous Zéro Foundation as a way to help women by providing their children with the skills and materials to succeed. The poorest segment of the population is single mothers, and those women will starve to make sure that their kids have all they need. I provide these families with snowsuits, boots, hats and mittens, which are given to them as anonymous gifts. Finally, I’m involved in the artistic community as a member on many boards. It just makes me immensely happy to do it. I prefer to spend time helping the cause of the arts than to go out and party! Well, I suppose I had my fair dose of fun and entertainment when I was younger.