PARACHUTE – “We simply followed the music” - McCord Museum
Jean-Claude Lussier, Fashion show at Montreal’s Limelight nightclub (detail), March 5, 1979. Lent by Nicola Pelly © Jean-Claude Lussier

PARACHUTE – “We simply followed the music”

Cult brand Parachute and an influential musical genre of the late 1970s.

Alexis Walker, Curatorial Assistant, Dress, Fashion and Textiles, McCord Museum

May 13, 2021

In the 1980s, fashion brand Parachute stood at the forefront of cutting-edge design. Founded by American architect and urban planner Harry Parnass and British clothing designer Nicola Pelly, the Montreal-based company achieved extraordinary international success with their architectural, androgynous fashions. By the middle of the decade, Parachute had a cult-like following in the United States, Europe and Japan with annual sales of approximately US$27 million.

The duo saw Parachute’s fashion as conceptual art, a way to defy convention and conformity, and preferred to push boundaries with their design practice instead of pandering to the mass market.

Jean-Claude Lussier, Fashion show at Montreal’s Limelight nightclub, March 5, 1979. Lent by Nicola Pelly © Jean-Claude Lussier

Parachute’s resistance to mainstream acceptance was rooted in its youthful subcultural beginnings in Montreal’s eccentric New Wave music scene and thriving nightclub culture of the late 1970s. The forward-looking sensibility of New Wave was inspirational to the designers, who were taken by the flamboyant and expressive scene.

As Parnass later explained, “We simply followed the music.”

Notable bands that emerged from Montreal’s New Wave subculture included Rational Youth, the American Devices, and Men Without Hats, who achieved success on the international stage.

Music had a lasting influence on the designers, and the relationship between Parachute and high-profile musicians of the 1980s was mutually beneficial. In the MTV era, when an avant-garde sartorial image became essential for performers in music videos, pop and rock stars flocked to Parachute for unique and experimental fashions.

Jean-Claude Lussier, Fashion show at Montreal’s Limelight nightclub, March 5, 1979. Lent by Nicola Pelly © Jean-Claude Lussier

The non-conformist lifestyles of musicians made them ideal brand ambassadors, bringing Parachute mass exposure and further boosting its subcultural capital.

Jean-Claude Lussier, Fashion show at Montreal’s Limelight nightclub, March 5, 1979. Lent by Nicola Pelly © Jean-Claude Lussier

Parnass and Pelly played a role in fashioning the looks of some of the most iconic musicians of the era, including Madonna, Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Grace Jones.

About the author

Alexis Walker, Curatorial Assistant, Dress, Fashion and Textiles, McCord Museum

Alexis Walker, Curatorial Assistant, Dress, Fashion and Textiles, McCord Museum

Alexis works to research and disseminate the history of Montreal’s clothing industry and tell stories related to its diverse fashion community. She is particularly interested in the intersections of contemporary fashion with art, music, film and pop culture. She is also an embroiderer and textile artist.
Alexis works to research and disseminate the history of Montreal’s clothing industry and tell stories related to its diverse fashion community. She is particularly interested in the intersections of contemporary fashion with art, music, film and pop culture. She is also an embroiderer and textile artist.