Bilingualism in fashion

By Paul Davis

Qui parmi vous parle français?” It was the first question posed to us on the first day of class. The last word was stressed with typical Parisian repudiation, as if to welcome us and dismiss us simultaneously. The school director, well into her seventies, stood at the front of the class, lit a cigarette and waited for the response.

Of the hundred or so students assembled in the room, only a handful raised their hands. A few more then followed until just over three quarters of the room had raised their hands. The rest looked around nervously, fearing being singled out on the very first day. The school director took a long drag of her cigarette and smiled. It was a look of approval, sizing up the latest wave of aspiring fashion designers.

Of the little French I had, all of it I had learned in Montréal. Before moving to Paris, I moved to Montréal to do the groundwork in fashion design and to pick up as much of the language as I could. Growing up on the west coast of Canada, I had never been fully immersed in francophone culture and, despite eight years of French, my proficiency in the language was pathetic at best. Verb conjugation and grammar were solidly ingrained, yet carrying on a conversation was out of the question.

It was shortly after arriving in Montréal that I realized how true this was. I could barely order a cup of coffee without garnering a smile from the girl behind the counter. Yet it seemed everywhere I went, people switched effortlessly between the two languages. It was truly something to admire and something to strive towards.

Photo by Robert Brinkschulte

I was enrolled in the fashion design program at Collège LaSalle. A more demanding program and level of instruction I have seldom seen since. It meant, though, that I had little time for additional language courses. I had to learn it any way I could.

Street signs, television, radio—everything became a method of instruction. Most helpful were the free newspapers distributed in the subway. I would take them and go through the articles, underlining all the words I did not understand. My goal was always five new words a day. I would figure out what they meant, write them on my hand and try to use them in conversation throughout the day. Although I became perhaps a bit too familiar with the lives of Quebec celebrities, by the end of three years in Montréal I could safely say that I could “speak” the language.

That first day of school in Paris, I raised my hand. Admittedly not straight in the air, knowing full well that there were going to be many things over the coming year that would go clear over my head. But it was a defining moment, nonetheless.

Over the next few months, however, I came to realize that my mother tongue would play just as critical a role.

The school that I attended was well known for its connections within the fashion industry. All the major French fashion houses turned to this school first for interns, short-term work placements and to help out with fashion shows and showrooms—the sort of connections that every young designer hopes for, a foot in the door.

But for all these opportunities, it was a question of English. “Est-ce que vous parlez couramment l’anglais?

For the tens of thousands of buyers, journalists and industry professionals that descend upon Paris each season, a perfect level of English was absolutely essential. Stumbling over words at the Louis Vuitton showroom or losing precious seconds backstage at Dior simply could not happen. Even working in the design studios themselves, one had to talk with other designers while contacting suppliers from all over the world.

I realized that a proficiency in both languages was key. I have witnessed many hopefuls, some of them wildly talented, turned away due to a lack of proficiency in both French and English.

I believe that we Canadians are extremely fortunate to have the two most predominant languages of the fashion industry at our fingertips. Time and again I have seen Canadians rise to top positions within the industry, with proficiency in these two languages playing a critical role. People like David Dessureault, who went on to become a senior buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue. Or Calla Haynes, who became a senior designer at Nina Ricci and now has her own label. I would argue that Canadians are better equipped than any to really excel in this industry.

I would also argue that the true scale of Canadian talent has not yet been seen on the international stage, and I strongly believe that language will be a vehicle that will enable this to happen.

Published on Monday, November 21, 2011

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