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Lingerie designer Christine Morton celebrates 50 years in fine fashion

The West Vancouver designer’s silk pieces have adorned some of the world’s most famous women, including Elizabeth Taylor, Chrissy Teigen, Cher and Oprah

“Here, you have the big slice,” Christine Morton insists, reaching over a queenly collection of teacups and saucers to cut into some sort of decadent apricot pastry.

The backyard of Morton’s wisteria-drenched West Vancouver home is a scene that wouldn’t look out of place on the front of a luxury spa pamphlet: flowers in varying states of bloom and colour erupting from seemingly everywhere, a white-clothed table topped with golden baked goods, and Morton herself, gracious as ever, pouring tea and slicing treats with the warmth and precision of a seasoned host.

To be at Morton’s home, to be in Morton’s vicinity at all, is comforting. To put it simply, the woman knows how to make someone feel good.

Not that it should come as much of a surprise, as Morton has been making the fairer sex feel like goddesses for years. Decades, even. Five decades, to be precise.

Changing perceptions

We’ve come together to discuss a milestone: for 50 years Morton’s silk lingerie and loungewear pieces have been sought after by women across North America and beyond, and some of the planet’s most well-known women at that. Oprah has worn her garments. So has Lauren Bacall, Chrissy Teigen, Gwyneth Paltrow and Elizabeth Taylor.

In that time her eponymous label has grown from a basement business in West Vancouver to being stocked in more than 100 high-end boutiques in Canada, the United States, Australia, and the U.K. Timeless pieces that ooze luxury have become her trademark, silk and lace have become synonymous with her name.

The brand had been borne from a love of fine materials — a devotion sparked as a child when the designer stumbled across a treasure trove of lace doilies in her grandmother’s dresser — and a simple idea that making garments would be “something fun to do.” Such success was never anticipated, not least in a city where functionality and down-pared style dominate.

“The fashion industry was only just beginning in Vancouver at that time,” she says.

“I started making teddies, and nobody had ever heard of teddies before. At that time, 50 years ago, a camisole wasn’t even a name. You never saw any advertisements in the magazines for anything other than a bra and panty, and even then they were…” the Scottish-born, Vancouver-raised designer trails off, evidently struggling to find a polite term for the drab and function-forward underwear of the 70s.

Shifting the public’s perception of lingerie from function to fashion was a bold undertaking, but audacity would go on to be the reason behind much of her brand’s success. It was certainly the reason behind her Stateside triumph.

“The first sales trip I made to New York I had been by myself. I phoned up the stores when I got there, I made the appointments on the spot, and I managed to get them. It was amazing.”

Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdales, Saks and Henri Bendel “went crazy” for her collection, comprising just five or so little camisoles with Morton’s trademark rosebuds, detailing she had learned to make in her very first job as a gift wrapper. Several placed orders immediately.

Soon the windows were stocked and the magazines came calling, Women’s Wear Daily first, Glamour, Town & Country, Marie Claire, Elle, GQ and InStyle later. Hollywood’s elite, feverish as ever to snatch up the latest trends touted by the glossies, were hot on her heels. The likes of Cher, Linda Evans, and Joan Collins joined Bacall and Taylor in becoming high-profile, long-time fans.

“Walking down Fifth Avenue and seeing a whole window of all your whimsical wraps, and all your pieces, that’s just a treat,” the designer says. 

“There have been moments like that where you go, ‘Oh, I’m doing something right here.”

High calibre clientele

She credits her high-calibre celebrity clientele as being further confirmation of knowing she’s “doing something right,” and some of her most defining career milestones have been dressing A-Listers.

“I received a call from an unknown buyer who just said ‘I hope you’ve got some lavender in stock.’ I asked why, and she replied, ‘Well, Oprah’s wearing your pyjamas on the front cover of her magazine.'" Morton's face widens in surprise, even now, as she retells the story. 

There was one gown so beloved by Elizabeth Taylor that she would ask for it to be shipped to her apartment in New York in every colour. (“She’s just very little, so we had to cut it about five inches off the bottom.”) It’s now dubbed the "Liz gown," naturally. 

Acquiring such a steadfast fandom in the fashion world often means creating something so entirely unique and utterly timeless that the wearer will keep returning again and again no matter the season or in-vogue style. Following trends, says Morton, has never been a matter of great importance.

Instead, the designer says she would rather create something that can be worn endlessly by women, before being passed down to their children, as time-honoured heirlooms.

“She has a really strong, beautiful esthetic, and that has never shifted far away from where it started,” explains Morton’s assistant designer Evan Clayton, when asked about the reason behind Christine’s unremitting success.

“That is part of the core of designing for Christine, the person that is wearing the clothes isn’t this nebulous concept. It’s an actual person."

Clayton, who has been working under Morton’s guidance for five years, says there is a “real, interpersonal connection” between the designer and her clients, women have grown up in tandem with the brand.

Dedicated to the brand

Perhaps the biggest indication of the timelessness and quality of the designs is that Morton is most often found donning them herself. At home in her garden she sits draped in a vibrant silk kimono. A few weeks later when we meet for a tour of her store and studio, located on Powell Street in Vancouver, she floats from room to room in a similar silk creation, this time in a vivid green hue. 

Even at her wedding in 1983, to the now late David Farris, she walked down the aisle in one of her own pieces. Her first foray into bridal wear, Morton had designed her own gown and the Edwardian-inspired dresses for her flower girl and three bridesmaids.

It is also an example of the many ways in which Morton’s personal and professional lives overlapped. When you are a brand’s own producer, designer, marketing manager and events planner for so many years –  “when you have your own business, and you’re an entrepreneur, you have to wear all the hats” –  it is easy for lines to become blurred, she says.

Those blurred lines are evident further still in Morton’s studio, where the ever-loyal staff have become very much like a family of her own. In 1983 Morton sponsored several seamstresses from Laos enabling them to live and work in Vancouver, many of whom brought their growing families with them.

“As I’ve progressed through the years it has really become about this cottage industry for me,” she explains.

“That was really key, and really important, because it meant the girls were able to work from home and have their babies and have a family, but also have a job,” she says, describing how the privilege of running her own business meant she had been able to do the same –  not sacrificing a career for a family or vice-versa –  and that, above all the glamorous magazine nods and celebrity adoration, had been the most momentous of career highlights.

The future of Christine

Morton, a grandmother herself now, said her small-scale team is intrinsic to the design process, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready to pass on the baton just yet.

“There are so many things happening right now, I’d like to see us grow myself,” she says, touching on how the brand recently made its first foray into menswear, and, just this year, it released its Black Label Collection – a limited quantity of up-and-coming designs that would be released just once, each month.

Celebration-wise, a 50th birthday bash is due to be held at West Vancouver lingerie store Romantique on the afternoon of Sept. 16 (“We are hoping people might wear their favourite Christine pieces,” says Morton with a smile), while a Limited Edition 50th Anniversary Collection draws inspiration from the label’s most iconic pieces from the past five decades.

Long-time lovers of Christine can expect glistening pink peignoir sets and a voluminous nightshirt that has been a firm favourite since it was originally introduced in the 1980s.

‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ is the brand’s guiding philosophy after all, why change now?

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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