Herschel Segal, the founder of Le Château, talks about how he started, why fashion as a form of expression has always been important and a passion of his, & his long and loving symbiotic relationship with the LGBTQ community since 1959.
In 1959, Herschel Segal opened his first Château fashion boutique on the corner of St Catherine street, right across from Ogilvy’s. After returning home to Montreal from studying at The New School in New York City from 1952-1954, his father had a job waiting for him at the family manufacturing business, Peerless Clothing. Filled with the inspiration he had felt from living in the Village while in New York, he knew that dealing with people and product was what turned him on, not sitting in a factory, behind a desk, and simply mass producing cloth. So he quit the family business to pursue something new. He wanted to do something different that had never been done before. Even though his father disapproved, he finally saved up enough to take a leap of faith and opened his first boutique.
The boutique did not do well that first year. He had poured every last penny of his savings into trying something new, and even had to sell his car to make rent. He was embarrassed by this, and his middle class friends driving by making fun of him while he waited for the bus on the corner of Cote-Des-Neiges didn’t help much either. He took the bus because he still needed to get to work, was determined to follow his dream and refused to ask his father for a handout, because that would be admitting that his father was right all along and that he had failed. He felt defeated and ashamed. He was one week away from having to close up shop for good when he stumbled upon a Men’s leather coat and matching leather pants from a local supplier who had just received it from London. He looked at the outfit and it fascinated him. It was tight fitting and completely different from the post war styling that had dominated the market at the time. Styles up until then had been loose fitting or a traditional suit, because after the Second World War ended in 1945, people had reverted back to the conservative styles of the 1930s—shell shocked from the atrocities of war and the political and social unrest it had caused.
Segal wanted to celebrate the body instead of covering it up. He had been influenced by the rebellious vibes of the 1950s Mods and Punk Rockers who were always trying to push the envelope and break free from the conservative attitudes of their parents. There was a natural sexiness to a pair of leather pants. Leather pants were by nature a tight fit—and tight form-fitting clothing was not common at the time. That provocative look spoke to Segal. He decided to immediately put that leather jacket and tight sexy pair of leather pants on the mannequin in the front window.
That very day, the principal dancer from Les Grandes Ballet Canadian, who also happened to be gay, walked by and bought the entire look on the spot. From that moment on, Segal couldn’t keep those sexy leather pants and sleek jackets on the shelves. Then the 1960s revolution exploded, and this new generation needed a legitimate uniform to express and distinguish themselves from a society that had been stuck in the past. Segal was able to give this new generation what they wanted, the clothing that they needed to express themselves, because Segal understood them. He was them.
Segal’s first employee that was hired when business started to pick up in 1960 was also a gay man. During the interview process, he was desperately trying to hide the fact that he was gay, thinking this would be the only way he could get the job. Segal knew the whole time and didn’t care because this man showed such a passion for clothing, a love for fashion and was amazing at sales. He hired him on the spot. From that moment on, Segal made a point of only hiring these young, vibrant, in the know go-getters. He wanted kids that had their ear to the streets, regardless of their sexual orientation, skin color or background. He wanted to create a store that he himself never had growing up, a place where people could feel comfortable and look good. He loved what the 60’s revolution was all about because he had always felt a bit repressed from his strict orthodox and very conservative upbringing, and craved rebellion and change. Along came this new youth movement that celebrated freedom and the body, concepts that he had longed to bring out of the shadows of his own life. These young kids wanted to show off their body, were proud of it and wanted to look good while they did it. Segal being 31 in 1960, felt the exact same way.
While interviewing Segal for this article, I asked him if he ever realized the amazing advancements he had pioneered for the LGBTQ community in Canada. He was the first company to ever extend health benefits to the partners of his gay employees, before gay rights were even recognized by the government and equal treatment of all employees regardless of sexual orientation was written into the laws. He looked at me inquisitively when I brought this point to his attention, and he said,
“I never really thought about it that way, they were just always good people with impeccable taste, and I just loved all my employees and wanted them and their families to feel taken care of and supported”.
Come take a virtual tour of Canadiana Threads: A Celebration of 5 Decades of Le Château Fashion, an exhibition curated by Emma Dora Silverstone-Segal. Available as a virtual tour on the Never Apart website and social media starting May 14th, 6pm EST.