Helmer Joseph is a haute couture designer in Montréal whose creations blend the boundaries between art and fashion, and have been featured in various exhibitions and museums around the world, including the McCord Museum in Montréal and Musée de la civilisation in Québec City.
He was born in Haiti, where he trained as a tailor at JB Damien vocational arts school, and moved to Jamaica for one year to study machine embroidery. At the age of 20, he came to Montréal with his family, and studied fashion design at College Lasalle. He launched his very first collection in Montréal in 1982. In 1983, at the age of 27, he moved to Paris, where he studied fashion and textile design, specializing in a variety of fields with an emphasis on haute couture at Esmod, Francoise Conte, Lesage, and l’école de la chambre syndicale de la couture parisienne. During his twenty years in Paris he took on contract positions at all the major couture and fashion houses, including Dior, Chloe, Thierry Mugler, Louis Vuitton, and many more.
“When I first moved to Paris,” he remarked, “there were 27 couture houses presenting over 152 pieces per season. Now there are only 5 left.”
When he returned to Montréal in 2004, he continued to produce a collection twice a year and to work with his clients from all over the world, including Paris, Boston, Washington, Ottawa, Toronto, Haiti, Senegal, Benin, Martinique, and Ivory Coast. He opened his gallery-boutique on Boulevard St. Laurent in 2009.
In 2010, Helmer presented his patchwork collection, with labour-intensive and hand-stitched patterns, organized as a fundraiser for Haiti relief efforts, after the earthquake of January 2010.
He has worked with Québec musicians and performers like Joe Bocan, Marie-Ève Janvier, the opera singer Marie-Josée Lord, writer Kim Thúy, and actress Anne Dorval.
His artistic collaboration with glass artist Jean-Marie Giguère for the Verre Couture fashion show at Espace Verre in the Old Port in 2010, where local glass artists were matched up with local designers to create glass garments, inspired many of Helmer’s collections and accessories. Helmer’s glass dress was then featured in the “50 Years of Glass Art” exhibition in Toledo, before it became part of the collection at the Musée de la civilisation in Québec City. The hand-made glass embroidery took 260 hours to make and features bristle, metal, beads, crystals and 8000 glass tubes.
His other artistic projects include three white gowns carved entirely out of toilet paper (2007-2014), dresses made out of fresh flowers (in collaboration with Westmount Florist), a chocolate dress, and several other designs he presented at the Festival du Mode et Design.
When asked who he would like to collaborate with in the future, Helmer replied, “I would like to collaborate with Robert Lepage. It would be my dream to work with him. And my dreams come true.”
In 2011, Helmer collaborated with Musée McCord for their “90 Treasures, 90 Stories, 90 Years” exhibition, and then again for the 2014-2015 “Love in Fine Fashion” exhibition of wedding dresses, where he contributed his 2008 strapless gown with an embroidered bodice.
“I see the Montréal fashion scene as a kind of medical clinic – every designer has a specialization, and everyone respects each other’s work and specialty in the community. But the press does not understand that because most of them are not trained in fashion, or fashion journalism. They lack the words, the vocabulary to distinguish between the different types of work. They find it all equally impressive, but they lack the expertise of analysis.”
Helmer presents his collections around the world, and is regularly invited to Fashion Weeks in Toronto Ottawa, Haiti, as well as Black Fashion Week in Montréal and abroad. The discontinuation of Montréal Fashion Week has not affected his work or productivity – he continues to produce two collections per year.
Helmer believes that “Montréal is lacking fashion experts who really understand the fashion business and culture. Most people only focus on the commerce of fashion and have no long-term vision. We don’t have someone like the president of the Parisian Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture who comes from a generation of fashion experts. That is why Paris is a laboratory of fashion research and innovation. Montréal has the talent to be the fashion centre of North America, but it lacks organization and orchestration.”
Currently, Helmer is collaborating with the UNESCO on an initiative for Caribbean artists to provide haute couture training and education in order to train local specialists, as part of Michaëlle Jean’s and UNESCO’s Special Envoy to contribute to Haiti’s development. Helmer’s role is organizational in setting up networks and collaborations, and building the curriculum of a three-year training program starting September 2015.
“The one constant element in my life has been a lack of stability. But fashion is my family – I dedicate my life to it. And I like the freedom in my work.”
When asked whether it is hard to balance creative freedom with commercial aspects of the fashion business, he replied, “At the beginning of my career yes, I spend all the time working for others. Now I have the freedom of working for myself, and I like this freedom. My work is my passion.”