look back at it

Parachute Celebrates 40 Years of Dressing Mick Jagger and Madonna

Jean-Claude Lussier, Photograph from a fashion at Montreal’s Limelight nightclub, March 5, 1979. Lent by Dick Walsh.

Since its inception in 1977, Parachute established itself at the heart of New York City’s counterculture almost overnight. From the moment that the Canadian-based label opened the doors of its converted SoHo warehouse in 1980, celebrity fans like Madonna, Mick Jagger, and our very own Andy Warhol made the label synonymous with cutting edge avant-garde and androgynous street style.

Now, more than 40 years after it opened its SoHo doors, the brand is honoring its early years with a long-awaited retrospective, Parachute: Subversive Fashion of the ‘80s, hosted by The McCord Museum in Montreal. The exhibit, accompanied by a collectible book titled Parachute: Subversive Design and Street Fashion, memorializes the subculture incubated by the brand, and unearths an array of ephemera—like Peter Gabriel’s Parachute-designed costume collection, and advertisements from the pages of Interview—from the personal archives of Nicola Pelly, one of the label’s two founders. In celebration of the retrospective, Interview sat down with Pelly to discuss her early days with Warhol, MTV, and dressing rock icons. —JULIANA UKIOMOGBE


INTERVIEW: Tell us about Parachute’s origins.

NICOLA PELLY: We started small in Montreal, but Harry [Parnass, Pelly’s co-founder] is American, so he was familiar with the New York scene. He felt that, in order for us to grow quickly, we needed to make a statement. We wanted to focus on quite advanced fashion, and it’s difficult to find the right market here in Canada. So, we found a big industrial space in SoHo—which in those days was mostly warehouses—and we introduced fashion to that area. In those early days, Andy Warhol started coming in, and we started to work together on some early stories and ads for Interview. Andy would give us discounts. We’re even showing a couple of Interview magazines in the exhibition. Interview’s readers were our target market in New York, so it was quite a close relationship.

INTERVIEW: Was there a moment when you started to feel like the label had become part of the fabric of that area?

PELLY: Absolutely. We were still based in Montreal, but it was really through the SoHo store that we started to build an international following. Our partner Morgan, who was based in New York, would call us and say, “Mick Jagger and Madonna were just in!” We got close to Peter Gabriel as well. He used to buy a lot of our clothing, and then he’d come back after his tours and buy more, because it all fell apart when he crowd surfed. It was the beginning of MTV—the early ’80s—so we opened at a perfect time, because everybody was in search of interesting clothing for their videos.

INTERVIEW: In shaping the retrospective, were there particular moments or aspects of Parachute’s evolution that you really wanted to highlight?

PELLY: We wanted this to be a story—not about fashion—but about design. We wanted it to reflect what was going on with our customers outside of the store as much as possible. I had a very big archive, something like 800 garments left over. We’d find interesting-looking garments in our travels, and we’d combine various aspects of them. We were very keen on military clothing because it’s so strong and functional—the zippers, the pockets, everything. You felt empowered when you wore it, so we integrated that into our style. We also had a lot of press and publicity materials. I wanted to make sure that the culture of the brand was as central as the actual clothing.

Rodolf Noël, Promotional photograph for Parachute’s 1981 Resort collection, 1981. Lent by Nicola Pelly. © Rodolf Noël.

INTERVIEW: How would you describe the culture in Montreal at that time in contrast to New York?

PELLY: It was sort of a mini New York. We had the same bar scene, street life, music, and architecture, but the clothing was a bit more conservative. It’s also just a smaller population and a smaller market.

INTERVIEW: Are there ways that your design and architecture feel distinctly Canadian?

PELLY: I don’t think so. For one thing, Harry’s American, and I’m British. Also, Canadian cities are all very different. Montreal is very much a European city. The further west you go, the more conservative. I don’t see Parachute as a Canadian brand. It’s an international brand.

INTERVIEW: Where did the idea for this retrospective first spring from?

PELLY: We started planning this eight years ago. It was quite a process. It took a few years to end up with this particular museum, and I got started on unpacking the clothing that I had in storage. With a bit of detective work, we were able to track people down who worked at Parachute in the ’80s and ’90s, and they were all so enthused to be part of the retrospective and the book. I hadn’t realized how we had contributed to a lot of these kids in those days who were just starting out. We showed them that you need to be bold and you need to take risks, and they all went on to have very successful careers. It was wonderfully nostalgic to unpack it all, because it was a very exciting time in my life.

Andrée Gagné, Models in early designs. Lent by Nicola Pelly. © Andrée Gagné.

INTERVIEW: It was a personal retrospective, I’m sure. What do you feel the book accomplishes for you, in comparison to the exhibition?

PELLY: Well, it’s much more in-depth. Pulling the exhibition together was a huge job. The museum’s curator immersed herself in Parachute—she knows more about the brand than I do by now. At some point, we realized we had enough material to do something more. We managed to get the best people onboard, so the quality and the design is absolutely fantastic. There are more in-depth articles in there, and it follows similar themes as the retrospective. And we’ve also been able to use a lot of images, too, which brings it all to life.

INTERVIEW: How would you describe the design of the actual book?

PELLY: It’s very minimalist and industrial. It mirrors the design of the stores. Inside, we have transcripts of old interviews, and several articles about the store and about SoHo. It has everything in it. I think it has 300 pages.

INTERVIEW: What would you sum up the ethos of the brand?

PELLY: My main goal was to empower our customers to express themselves, whether it was combining our looks with other designers’, or by creating their own. We didn’t want people walking down the street in head-to-toe Parachute. We want them to be creative. We wanted it to be just challenging enough, and also exciting and audacious. Looking back, I think we did that.

Bobby Sheehan, Promotional photograph of Amanda Coulson, John Agusto and models in Queens, New York, 1983. Lent by Nicola Pelly. © Bobby Sheehan.