Lore Maria Wiener – Fabulous

Candid image by Wayne May Photography
Behind the Scenes repost #3 - This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Fame'd Magazine.  The former designer was 92 at the time and a ray of sunshine.  Her life is a part of not only the history of the Vancouver fashion scene, but a historical peek back at the world in a time of transition.  Enjoy!

The sun streamed through the glass sun room and reflected off white walls, but nothing could upstage the positive energy exuded by 90-year-old retired fashion designer Lore Maria Wiener. The story she told was intriguing and listening to her talk about the influences designers worked under many years ago shed light on changes that have occurred in the fashion industry. In a lesson for those who focus on the negatives, she firmly looked at the good that came with each new challenge and I loved her closing words, “How can I be so lucky?” Lock stock and barrel – husband, children, life, work, customers – they all are awarded the label, “FABULOUS!”

Vienna City Centre - early 1930's
Wiener was born in northern Germany. Her father was an avid sailor and on Sundays the family would walk through town to the boat creating quite a stir. Why? Her mother and she were wearing pants - unheard of at that time! Growing up, her mother sewed most of her clothes until age 13 when she decided she could do a better job. She sat down and made herself a suit. Adorned in this new creation, she walked into a small dressmaker's shop, asked for an apprenticeship and was hired on the spot. For 2-1/2 years Wiener honed her skills until one day the owner said, “It's against my pocket, but I think you have to stop. You can't learn anything more.” After training a new apprentice, it was off to Vienna to study fashion design.

The year was 1939 and Wiener's father was Jewish. Although protected by his boss, he decided it was time to move to Shanghai and she left school to join him. Shanghai was an exciting place for a 19-year old. One day she was encouraged to take some fashion photography she had shot into a local newspaper. There she met the editor who she married only nine months later. It was her husband who suggested she open a dressmaking shop. “We rented a little store and my clientèle was mainly from the French Embassy. They were happy to have a European [dressmaker] and I never had trouble getting clients.” But political events again interfered. Wiener's husband had written some anti-communism articles in the local paper and when Mao Tse-Tung came, they had to leave quickly. “My mother wrote to me and said don't come back to Europe, go the United States. We thought it was a good idea, but as Austrians our quota was so small it would have taken too long, so we came to Canada on a visitor's visa.”

Shanghai 1940's
The young couple had planned to move to Montreal originally, but once in Vancouver the money ran out. Her husband's English was too European for the local newspaper trade and he struggled to find work. Fate led him to tell their story to the head of the Vancouver Stock Exchange. The man not only encouraged them to start a dressmaking shop, but loaned them the start-up capital. Wiener remembers, “At that time on the Boulevard there was a music studio we could rent. ArthurErickson designed the shop – he was just starting out then and needed the work. We lived behind the store and made one room into a sleeping room. We were willing to do anything to make it work.....When there is a strong MUST behind it people can do enormous things.” They worked as a team where she did the design work and he ran the business.

Refuges waiting for board ocean liner.
Fashion design in those days was very structured. What you produced each season was dictated by the top designers. If they said you did short skirts, you did. All work at her shop was custom designed after talking to the clients. Over her 40-year career she moved from dealing with all the clients, designing each piece and drafting the patterns, to training others to take over different aspects of the work. At the time she finally closed the shop she had a staff of 12 people working under her. When asked if the clothes she made were “classic”, she didn't like the label. “ I don't like the word classic. I wrote an article in Shanghai asking why should women be dictated what to wear...I just think I am a good listener when they told me what they would like. People tell me whatever I made never went out of style.” At the age of 70, Wiener decided is was time to stop. “There was one lady, Mrs. Thea Bentley, who was my first customer and my last customer. She said, what am I going to do now and I said we'll just go for lunch sometime.”

1950's Vancouver painting - Dine With Risty by Tom Carter

Looking at the difficulties faced by the designers today Wiener feels their job is much more difficult. “The freedom is good for women but hard for designers. Altogether to be a fashion designer is a much bigger responsibility now. What do designers do now that women are so much more wilful in what they want [to wear]?” What she found most interesting is that while most of the younger set would never want to go back to having the fashion trends dictated the way they were before, some of her previous customers disagreed. “I heard from one customer who said she wouldn't have liked it. She wanted to be told what to wear. It was simpler, you didn't have to think.”

Several of Lore Maria Wiener's garments are now a part of the Society for the Museum of Original Costume's (formerly the Original Costume Museum Society) local collection. The society is working toward a permanent location to display the garments as well as allow research by students and professionals. For more information on the SMOC please go to their website at http://smoc.ca/