This is the story of an expat who quite improvisationally found herself in the heart of the Golden Age of fashion in Paris during the 1980s and 90s, reporting front-row center and backstage for the internationally-syndicated Canadian program, Fashion Television. She unwittingly helped create a new way of reporting on fashion — but then left it all behind to return home with no regrets.
That latter part of the story surely resonates with many folks who come and go in the City of Light. But while we may leave materially, Paris stays in the heart. Years after leaving France, I decided at the age of 66 to go to grad school for a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts specializing in documentary media. My goal was to make a 75-minute film about the conversations I enjoyed with the lions of the era, including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, Manfred Thierry Mugler and Karl Lagerfeld. My film Carton d’invitation premiered in Toronto in June and will be coming to Paris this winter.
Trailer for the film Carton d’invitation by Nan Devitt Tremblay.
Living the Paris Dream
In September 1986, my future husband Pierre Tremblay and I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport from Toronto, approaching customs with a few large suitcases, full-size pillows flopping on top of a baggage cart and yes, you have to wonder why, a large framed photograph that went crashing to the ground, sending splintered glass across the floor. Airline baggage restrictions were quite different then, as were customs checks. We were waved through and headed off by public transportation to an address scribbled (in this pre-Internet era) on a piece of paper, a tiny studio on Faubourg St. Antoine.
We had left media careers behind in Toronto for the dream of six months in Paris. That dream turned into 12 years.
There were lots of trips to Emmaus and BHV, carrying large items of furniture on the Métro, and a wedding in the garden of the perfectly romantic little house we found in Meudon. Then, three children arrived at Hôpital Antoine-Béclère, and we moved through the rituals of expat mothers’ playgroups, goûters in the park with French neighbors, weekly dictées with leaky fountain pens, and generally navigating Paris with an English-speaking mother who missed a lot of the nuance involved in French social coding.
The Birth of Fashion Television
Before leaving Toronto and my job as an arts and culture TV reporter for the CBC, I’d chatted with some folks at CITY-TV, a fairly new and quite renegade DIY Canadian TV channel, home of MuchMusic. Producer Jay Levine was getting a program about fashion off the ground, mostly using canned runway videos. We agreed that I would see what I could do to help in Paris.
I started calling French fashion houses as soon as I arrived. I learned quickly to stick to speaking my terrible French because if I spoke English, the press attaché on the other end of the line would pretend they could understand me — and then we really would be in trouble.
From the start, very few fashion brands were willing to hand over their house videos. Most could not even understand why I would ask. Actually, many did not even have videos to give me at all. And so, the Fashion Television Paris Bureau was born. I told Levine we would have to start shooting the fashion shows ourselves and approached the imperious Denise Dubois of the Chambre Syndicale to get accreditation.
I hunted for a TV crew who could shoot in NTSC for North American screens and started covering fashion shows with the talented cinematographer John Cressey. In those days, there were very few TV crews on the scene.
Cressey’s charm took us past security guards and we started filming not just runways but backstage everywhere — gonzo style — interviewing designers, magazine editors, buyers and, eventually, models (which was a new idea).
Along the way, we helped create a new Reality TV style of reporting on fashion (before Reality TV existed) while we delighted in the flowing champagne, the entertaining characters and most of all, the beauty being created before our eyes.
Remembering the Gilded Era with fashion legends
Some of my indelible memories include: Yves Saint Laurent clutching my hand, unable to talk, weeping into the camera — perfectionism and probably some really strong illegal substances reducing him to nerve-endings; Hubert de Givenchy bringing all the white-jacketed members of his atelier down the runway with him at his last show before retirement; the electricity in the air when the first strains of Gypsy Kings’ music filled the Hotel Intercontinental ballroom and Christian Lacroix’s poufs and Arlésienne prints exploded into Parisian fashion consciousness; and, of course, there was the time I asked Vogue Creative Director, André Leon Talley, if a certain collection had been ugly and got quite an earful!
Over the years, I interviewed Karl Lagerfeld close to 100 times. And, given that I sometimes ran out of ideas about what to ask him, I posed some impertinent questions to keep things lively — including whether he could tell if the sycophants in the post-show crush were sincere or not!
I had the privilege of watching the evolution of the 90s supermodels up close. Television shows like ours created a new space for models to be identified by name, to speak about their thoughts and feelings and even offer impromptu reviews of designers’ shows. People tell me that my spontaneous encounters with models backstage helped them become stars in their own right.
What a kick I got out of interviewing the gloriously pretty Claudia Schiffer (a bundle of nerves) after her first Chanel show and Kate Moss (winsome and quite short in stature), grateful that designers had put her in very high heels. Carla Bruni with her gravelly drawl could be counted on to entertain our viewers with her “French” insouciance about posing topless. Linda Evangelista even took us along with her the day she set the fashion world abuzz by going blond.
An evolving fashion world
When I returned to Canada, I did a career re-tool and became a teacher, a career that offered me perhaps more fulfillment than my previous work in fashion. But as the years went along, I realized how unique my access to the Golden Age had been. Fashion became more corporate when I left. Access to backstage was limited and the runways were changing too. The archive in my film reveals catwalks that were quite diverse, but this also changed with the ascendance of Miuccia Prada and Jil Sander. A 10-year period called “The White Out” ensued only to end when model, agent and advocate Bethann Hardison publicly called designers out for their discriminatory hiring practices.
Another thing I realized looking around at the world today was that Jean-Paul Gaultier and Manfred Thierry Mugler anticipated the future. Maybe they were even ahead of our time with their tattoos, piercings, gender-fluid clothes, and especially their casting of trans, older and differently-sized models.
Back to school for creative skills
I realized I wanted to dive into the archive I had of my conversations for Fashion Television and make an essay documentary. This required a lot of discipline, so I enrolled in grad school at Toronto Metropolitan University to make sure I had the support to see my film through to completion. I decided to intercut some home movie vignettes of our children’s Parisian childhood with high-octane fashion visuals to underscore my adjacent realities.
To realize my project, I conducted practice-led research using social media. This means I launched @cartondinvitation on Instagram and TikTok, posting photos and reels from my archive. The posts were soon attracting thousands, even hundreds of thousands of views, an indication that people were indeed nostalgic for 90s fashion. More importantly, social media also allowed me to connect with models and designers I had lost touch with years ago. My film contains almost only archival footage, but it was very much informed by many current-day interviews, which are now part of a growing interactive media library of videos and podcasts available on multiple platforms.
Making something new by revisiting my past has been an affirming process. I guess it is what is called a full-circle moment — showing me that Paris will always be part of me, and I will always be part of Paris.
Despite us uprooting them, our children returned as adults to live in Europe, where they feel more at home. So, there appears to be another new and honestly daunting move for my husband and me on the horizon. As always, I’ll be checking INSPIRELLE for tips on retiring to France!