INTERVIEW BY TOMMY LECOMTE
With a keen sensibility to social realities, Roxanne Ouellet-Bernier turns fashion collections into storybooks indexing French-Canadian identity. Ouellet-Bernier is currently pursuing her education as a second-year BA student in UQAM’s fashion design program. Her practice deals with collective memory, addressing questions surrounding French-Canadian identity in its various forms.
Primarily working in menswear, Ouellet-Bernier brings a refreshing take on the standards of men’s attire through a meticulous exploration of materiality and garment construction. She challenges our expectations of clothes by incorporating a tasteful dose of rural kitsch into formal garments. Marked by wistful prints and textures, her collections Les fleurs du tapis evokes a longing from times past and judiciously frame the narratives she constructs from her research. Through her projects, Ouellet-Bernier addresses the intergenerational fabrication of identity and cultural legacy. Her creations emerge from a process of referencing various histories, accumulated into open-ended assortments, which rely on the shared pool of a nation’s memories to suggest meaning.
Les fleurs du tapis is a tribute to French-Canadian identity to reconsider how apparel can act as a medium for narrative development. From allusions to personal stories, to cultural symbols and traditions, Ouellet-Bernier carefully weaves tales surrounding the nation’s past into visual and tangible capsules. In this second project of her undergraduate studies, she establishes the relationship between literature and fashion, referencing the notion of the idyll and its place in the definition of Quebec’s identity. Inspired by the Quebecois idiom “s’enfarger dans les fleurs du tapis” (stumbling over the flowers of the carpet), meaning to dwell on imagined details, this project considers the nation’s idyllic tendencies.
“My goal is not necessarily to protect our culture, but more so to make it evolve. It’s a very soft critique of how we [French-Canadians] can be very closed off to the rest of the world and see it as Quebec being ‘against the rest of the world’, or how we perceive Quebec as a minority society,” she says.
Ouellet-Bernier’s work begins with a thorough consideration of the complex nature of French-Canadian identity. Her upbringing and familial heritage become fodder for a quest to define social identity. The fashion design student plunges into familial archives, analyzing photographs and developing a kind of portrait of the social dynamics that surround them. The motivation for her work stems from a preoccupation with the way prior generations lived and how that may relate to the development of an identity. In Les fleurs du tapis, she focuses this anthropological quest on the baby boomer generation, also dubbed as the “lyrical generation”. She recognizes the generation’s impact as instigators of a variety of political and artistic movements. “It feels as though I have analyzed it so much that there is a certain sense of detachment that came from it, but it remains a sort of fascination with the subject. Especially regarding things like the Quiet Revolution and the referendum, which both happened relatively recently.” Ouellet-Bernier denotes the parallels and differences between generations, comparing rituals performed by her ancestors and how they have evolved. “I think there’s a real duality between culture and how we disseminate it. There’s a large part of it that is based on tradition and wanting to preserve things the way they were – while on the other hand, we want French-Canadian culture to shine so there is a certain bitterness there.”
When discussing the importance of addressing personal topics in her practice, Ouellet-Bernier says, “I think it is really important to find your own identity as a designer, and it is really what defines whether you are genuine or not. I believe it is something that a lot of people can relate to. There have been revolutions and cultural movements everywhere and we all have a local culture we want to protect. It allows you to differentiate yourself from others, and it’s the best way to do it because it is specific to your own experience.” Moreover, this imperative to discuss matters of identity is a crucial differentiating factor of her work. Her ability to make these personal interests relevant to a broader audience allows her to navigate the line between the garment as a product and as an art object. Working with the notions of culture allows her to tap into a more personal segment of the economically driven fashion industry. “I think it can be an advantage, especially right now when there is a strong tendency towards localism. There is truly a sensibility toward that. Even when you look at projects from students in Europe, oftentimes there are international students, and there is that sensibility as to where they are from and their cultural baggage.”
Ouellet-Bernier’s practice is characterized by a strong sense of aesthetic and formal play. Materiality plays a complex role in her work. The combination of garments and fabrics denoting seventies interiors offers a symbolic language to engage with social context and histories. Pieces in her collection appear as time capsules, which could have been taken straight out of the family photographs she references. She crafts pieces with ornate floral prints and lace, which play on the verge between masculine and feminine. Her intent is not necessarily to disrupt ideas of gender or menswear specifically, but, in her own words, more so to “make garments that happen to be worn by men”, setting aside established perceptions of the dress. Her astute visual sensibility shines in the way she integrates patterns and textures as symbolic collages. This approach emphasizes the history built into each material, where the mundane becomes of interest as an agent for meaning and emotion. This dignification of the ordinary illustrates the importance the designer places on history in her work.
Craft being an important component of her fashion work and visual aesthetic, I was intrigued to know whether she felt like fashion has become detached from tradition. “From a commercial standpoint, definitely,” she says. “With technology and all, [fashion] has become centred around that. But also, especially in recent years, there has been a renewal in the interest for ‘tradition’, although I don’t feel like that is necessarily the right word for it. There is more interest in preserving certain aspects of the past and techniques. For example, with the pandemic, a lot of people started knitting. I don’t know how much that is going to translate itself in the general market, but there is interest and potential there.”
Her ability to bind storytelling to the creation of clothing also highlights how fashion can often act as a document of time and space. Ouellet-Bernier sets a very specific scene in her collection to transport her audience to another period. The clothes she creates open the door to alternate realities of a future past. The discourse of French-Canadian identity is invigorated by the stories she associates with it, relating to notions of performativity in how the culture is communicated. Most notably, her fluent use of props in her collections entertains the theatricality of the affair. Tablecloths and replicas of food mesh themselves seamlessly with the clothing – turning a replica of the very Quebecois ‘pain sandwich’ into a perfectly acceptable way to accessorize an ensemble.
In retrospect, the young fashion design student feels like she has accomplished what she set out to do with this collection and says herself to be happy with the finished product. Regarding elaborating such a project in an academic environment, she says, “It’s really easy to look back on a project and say how there is tons of stuff you would change: I’d choose a different fabric, I would look more for this or that, etcetera, but at the same time I don’t think I was restricted too much by the fact that it was created in an academic context. Although there are critiques and juries in the process, we’re mostly free to make conceptual decisions for our projects. I think it could be beneficial if maybe there was more emphasis on the artistic process and experimentation, but overall, I think I am fairly satisfied with it.”
Roxanne Ouellet-Bernier and her collection Les fleurs du tapis set the bar for a new generation of designers, concerned with garments as art in their respect rather than mere commodities. Her meticulous creative process alludes to slower, more conscientious ways of making, which we can only hope to see more of in the future of fashion. She operates at the intersection of social science, craft, and art, where each of them is equally crucial to the finished product. Her collection arouses new meanings and narratives surrounding French-Canadian identity. She proposes her fashion projects as a comparative examination of generations, all the while developing a unique aesthetic dialect to communicate it. Her enduring fascination with Quebec’s own cultural identity will remain essential to her artistic practice as moves forward in her career. She represents a force of the local fashion scene, utilizing her heritage as her reason to create.