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Maggy Reeves: the first lady of Canadian haute couture

Published on
Nov 23, 2021
Written by
Shira Alter
Published by
Edited by

When you think of 1970s fashion, I'm sure that bell bottom pants, frayed jeans, midi skirts, maxi dresses, tie dye, and ponchos come to mind. I mean, those were considered to be the quintessential looks of the 70’s. But as Vogue once stated “there are no rules in the fashion game now”. In fact, 1970’s fashion was all about promoting individuality, and with the rise of women’s rights and youth counterculture, couture designers adapted their design aesthetics to accommodate the changes that the market desired.

In contrast, it seems to me that fashion these days is reminiscent of the same thing; a reproduction and mass production of society's biggest trends from years past. Rarely can you access new innovative works of Toronto fashion designers on the streets of Bloor or Queen West. Shopping for unique pieces has become an enervating experience that ends up in concern and a despair about the future of fashion innovation in Toronto. Instead, I often find myself succumbing to scavenging through my mother and grandmother's closet for an efficient and accessible at-home retail therapy session. My admiration for the uniqueness of historical fashion pieces have sparked my curiosity for that time when Toronto was the catalyst for novel fashion design. After pulling pieces from my grandmother's closet last week, I noticed one thing in common. ‘Maggy Reeves Couture’ printed on every label. I was immediately reminded of the glory days of 1970’s fashion, and thought to myself “now this is innovative design”.  

“Who is Maggy Reeves? '' I asked my grandmother while I admired this beautiful black lace dress with built-in shoulder padding and intricate handcrafted floral detail. She smiled, and explained that Maggy Reeves was an old friend, an eccentric Toronto fashion couturier, and somebody who could craft elegant yet fabulously diverse design. To preface, my grandmother is an artist who views fashion as an artifact. Maggy and my grandmother shared this philosophy so naturally they would collaborate on designs together after becoming a loyal client, and companion. Known for her meticulous draping and beading techniques; other designers could not duplicate her works. Maggy was indeed an icon in every sense of the word, as her works of beautifully crafted, hand-stitched haute couture made her a hidden gem in Toronto and around the world.

 (Photos taken by Shira Alter)

Margrethe Katharina Weisz was born in Vienna, Austria on October 11th 1924. After WW2, she reunited with her father whom escaped Nazi occupied Austria in the Dominican Republic, and enrolled in an art college for her eduacation. Later, she moved to New York City to begin her career in fashion, working as an apprentice pattern maker. In 1953, she moved to Philadelphia and then to Montreal to further her career as a junior designer. Her road to triumphant success began when she resettled in Toronto in 1955 where herself along with 3 seamstresses created custom clothing, earning her a loyal customer base. In 1957, Maggy was approached by client Reva Joseph, who requested to fund Margrethe’s venture and expand her business. Accepting this gracious offer, she opened her couturier shop on 108 Cumberland St in 1964, changing her business name, as well as her professional name to Maggy Reeves after a combination of their first names – Maggy and Reva.

(CANADA - MARCH 12: Maggy Reeves. It's too much Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

To celebrate the grand opening of Maggy Reeves Couture, she displayed her bespoke originals at the Park Plaza Hotel, showcasing suits, ball gowns, and coats. To her everyone's astonishment, every single item at the showcase was sold, and Maggy Reeve’s Couture quickly became the rage among Toronto's fashion scene of social elite. Celebrities including Karen Kain, Marilyn Lastman, Eva Gabor, the late Vivien Leigh and Margaret Trudeau were seen sporting Reeve’s designs for upscale events. My mother once told me Maggy would say to her that nobody could pay for the craftsmanship that each garment required or demanded. Reeves and her team would go the extra mile, as twice a year she would import the highest quality materials from France, Italy and Austria. She would work day and night with her team of 11 European-trained seamstresses to produce novel and artistic design. It’s even rumored that each gown would take up to 300 hours of labour, and at the height of her career she produced 200 gowns a year.

(CANADA - APRIL 30: Basket pattern: Above; hand-woven basket-patterned silk gown; $1;425. Maggy Reeves' collection available at Ira Berg; Skirt and Sweater Shop; The Bay; Lourden Taylor; Majorie Watts; Lipton's; Eaton's and Holt Renfrew. (Photo by Erin Combs/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Reeves passed away on April 9th, 2008 at 85 years old, yet her legacy still lives on. Maggy Reeves was before her time. She changed the way that both consumers and designers alike looked at fashion. She was innovative, novel, never been done before, and has ultimately carved the path for future designers and fashion innovators to follow. Ryerson (X University) School of Fashion has fostered her ongoing legacy by creating the Maggy Reeves Fashion Design Award. This award is an opportunity for aspiring designers who can produce a garment that “most closely resembles Maggy Reeves original or Maggy Reeves’ design philosophy”. The award operates to provide financial assistance, talent recognition, and academic achievement to a deserving student in the School of Fashion program. More information on the Maggy Reeves Fashion Design Award can be found here. Maggy was an “anachronism in a ready-to-wear world”, and truly is the first lady of haute couture in Canada. I hope for our own sake, that our generation is inspired by Maggy Reeves, and that someone in the near future (maybe me for all I know)  might follow in her fashionable footsteps. The city of Toronto needs a resurgence of her fashion philosophy; innovation and novelty.

(CANADA - NOVEMBER 21: Couturier Maggy Reeves stands in her Cumberland St. salon with her flamenco-inspired cocktail creation and an Erte painting on silk from her collection. (Photo by Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images)