The Express Coverage – Designing Woman

The Express, October 31 2001

Designing Woman
Marie Routhier is answering her calling in St. John’s

BY CRAIG WELSH, The Express

Marie Routhier’s future was set when she was 11 years old, after her mother came home with an unsightly skating dress.

“My mom bought me a $90 skating dress and it was ugly,” she recalls. “I didn’t like it at all. I told her that, but she said we couldn’t afford anything else. So I learned how to sew and started to make my own dresses.

“People would ask where I got them, I told them I made them myself and they would ask me to make them something as well.”

Routhier knew she was onto a good thing when they were paying her $30 for something she made in half an hour.

As she got older, so did her clients and the kind of dresses they wanted. She graduated from skating dresses to prom dresses and then wedding dresses.

It was a good business and, at 18, she was getting recognition for her designs and finished product.

However, Routhier, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, was unhappy in the city and was looking for a change.

“Winnipeg is very anti-youth. You don’t get any respect if you’re young — it doesn’t matter how talented you are. It’s not a very happy environment if you’re 18 years old and trying to start a business,” she said.

However, Winnipeg is a long way from Newfoundland. The city also has a thriving fashion industry. A designer, with proper training and a willingness to pay dues, could eventually make it.

Routhier didn’t want to wait. Following what she calls an ‘If you build it, they will come’ dream, she packed her belongings into her car and headed off to Newfoundland.

Her family thought she was nuts, but she hasn’t regretted it for a second.

“I was born a Manitoban, but I’m actually a Newfoundlander,” she said.

***

Routhier, now 22, has enjoyed success since her move to St. John’s.

It might seem surprising, given the instability in Newfoundland’s economy at times, that a designer would prosper in the province. However, Routhier says is doing quite well.

“Business has been really good. I find people here are a lot more open-minded. They would prefer having a custom dress done instead of getting a knock-off.”

Instead of following the latest fashion trends, Routhier says she works with customers to find out what style looks best on them.

In fact, despite working in fashion, Routhier actually doesn’t like the industry all that much.

“I find there’s way too much emphasis on trends. The way I do things is based on a person’s personality. I meet with the person, I interview them, find out their favourite pastime and then I design around that. It’s not big in the fashion industry.”

It seems to be working for her. She used to have her own store, but closed it after a car accident knocked her out of action for a year.

When she started to work again, Routhier discovered that she liked working without a storefront.

And it hasn’t slowed down business. In fact, she’s preparing to go on the road in November.

“What I found is that a lot of customers were coming to me from far away. They were coming from Corner Brook, St. Anthony and other places. That’s a long way to come for a dress.”

So between Nov. 15 and Nov. 26, she’ll be traveling to Carbonear, Corner Brook, Fogo Island, Placentia and other communities to meet with people and help design their dresses.

It’s also a chance to see more of her adopted home. So far, she hasn’t had a chance to see the province outside of St. John’s.

***

Despite getting her start in figure skating dresses, its grad and wedding dresses that are big business these days.

Routhier says she’s competitive when it comes to wedding dresses with other stores, estimating the average one costs about $1,000.

However, she was surprised by the demand for grad dresses.

“Grads are a much bigger deal here than they are in Winnipeg. There you go to a ready-made store and spend $80 on a gown. Around here, people come in and say ‘I don’t care about the budget, just make me the best looking one at the grad.’ ”

Between her dress business, and a series of manuals she’s self-printed on how to make skating dresses, Routhier is doing well.

Even her mom, who thought she was crazy to come to Newfoundland, changed her mind after a visit.

“She didn’t understand why I came here, but after visiting and seeing the place and how well I’m doing, she’s ok with it now.”

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