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My Montreal: Fashion Designer Joseph Ribkoff

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"No one knows me like Joseph Ribkoff" is the tagline you will find in silver lettering on the wall in Joseph Ribkoff's all-white showroom. These words came from the mouths of customers, says Ribkoff, who’s been in business for 58 years.

Ribkoff's namesake brand began with a business plan at the age of 21.

"I didn't really have any great vision. I think I was more interested in surviving then thriving at that point," Ribkoff says.

He left school when he was 15 years old and worked for a young couple who had their own apparel company,called Town & Country Wear. Ribkoff who was initially hired to sweep floors and take phone calls, slowly started to get called on to help with the styling. When he discovered there was no opportunity to move up in the company, he took the advice of a local buyer and created his own business. Town & Country Wear would eventually close their doors and the owners would go off to open what they always wanted, a golf course.Ribkoff maintained a relationship with the owners until they passed away.

He sold his first shipment of dresses to that same buyer. He stuck to what he knew, which was womenswear and dresses. His attention to quality differentiated his designs.

Today, he describes the Ribkoff woman as somebody who likes to stand out of the crowd. “If you want the attention when you walk into the room – that’s us.”

Ribkoff has seen the Montreal fashion industry at its highest, through to its more recent struggles. When I met with him at the company’s head office in Montreal’s West Island, 78-year-old Ribkoff showed no signs of slowing down. He reminisced about his favourite Montreal memories, the neighborhood he will always call home and the days where he once wore a “monkey suit.”

Are there any Montreal designers that you admire?
There were a lot of designers, but they’re not around anymore. I can honestly say I’m not that in tune with the other players. But definitely Marie Saint Pierre is one of the designers I admire. She’s unique and different, there’s no question. I respect her individuality and that she’s moving to her inner drummer, it’s her art. And that’s actually what I respect about any designer.

How would you describe your personal style?
Well I didn’t get dressed up for you, that’s for sure! This is me. I wear a denim shirt, a cardigan and corduroy pants, that’s the norm for me. I use to come home at night and the first thing I would do is take off what I call “my monkey suit.” My friends are always surprised when I don’t wear a tie, but I say for what? I don’t have to. I’m very casual. But of course I conform to be respectful, depending on where I’m going.

Where do you like to shop in Montreal?
For the way I dress today I don’t have a problem finding clothes, but I am picky about the quality. I can’t say that anything will do. And I’m picky about what I like, even if it’s casual. I can say it doesn’t make a difference, but it does make a difference. I love fashion; it’s a part of my personality. I don’t have a favourite store or a favourite line, it just depends when I find something that I like and it fits. I find clothes mostly when I travel. In Montreal I’ll go into Harry Rosen, but the clothes don’t always speak to me.

Where do you like to go out to eat?
Depends what I feel like eating. If I want good fish, I go to Milos. It’s expensive, but the quality is great. I also enjoy going to Le Gladstone, which opened about a year ago.  It offers excellent service and dining.

And if you’re going out for just a casual bite to eat?
Beautys is a place that I know since childhood and it’s a landmark. I also like to go to Chez Nick for a casual bite with friends. Once every three months, I’ll make a stop at Schwartz’s for smoked meat and fries. And when I’m in the mood for Chinese food, the best I know of is L’Orchidée de Chine.

What’s your favourite coffee shop?
I’m fussy with coffee and it’s not that easy to find. But there are a lot of places in Montreal’s Little Italy and they’re all excellent. When I’m on my way to the Laurentians, I’ll stop off at any one of them on St-Laurent.

Which neighbourhood do you call home?
They say you can take the boy out of de Bullion, but you can’t take de Bullion out of the boy. My formative years were there , my innocent years, and there is nothing that could replace that. I have friends to this day from that neighborhood that I still get together with, and they’re always going to be my friends. I have memories of good times and bad times, and the type of families that my friends and I came from. It shapes you. Today I live in Westmount, but it will never be the same as my humble beginnings.

Finish this sentence: You know you’re in Montreal when…
You know you’re in Montreal when you recognize… You know you’re at home, you know the places, but most importantly you know the people.

What’s your favourite Montreal memory?
The first thing that comes to mind is the 1967 Expo. That was a very special period. It was an experience. All the countries in the world were exposing their best faces and Montreal was at its best.