Manufacturer and retailer Original Au Coton was founded in Montreal by Pierre Lefebvre with investment partner Brian Gray. Au Coton evolved from Impression, Lefebvre’s chain of shopping mall kiosks that sold brightly coloured, oversized T-shirts, sweatshirts and sweatpants that clients could customize with decals and lettering. Lefebvre was inspired by California’s surf scene and the growing fitness culture of the 1980s with both Impression and Au Coton.
From Impression’s early days, Lefebvre worked very closely with two young women then in their early 20s: Marie-Josée Bastien and Chantal Blanchet. Both began as managers, but worked their way up to influential executive positions within the company. Bastien was responsible for opening stores, troubleshooting, and hiring and supervising sales staff, while Blanchet was head buyer and designer, responsible for the company’s overall image.
Both were integral to the success of the brand, working very closely with each other and overseeing a vast workforce composed mostly of young women.
Au Coton’s first store opened in Montreal’s Les Terrasses shopping mall (later the Eaton Centre) and others quickly followed in Place Versailles and Carrefour Laval. With the explosion of new shopping malls during the 1980s, Au Coton was able to open approximately 220 stores in Canada and the United States by the end of the decade along with six additional boutiques in France. According to Marie-Josée Bastien, the boutiques repeatedly won awards for the highest sales per square foot from shopping malls across North America.
Cotton fleece, jersey fabrics and a colourful pastel palette characterized the brand’s casual yet trendy separates.
Au Coton’s emphasis on comfort and penchant for oversized fits and layering rendered the brand very adaptable and inclusive as the garments looked good on a diverse range of bodies and sizes. With a very affordable price point (the average garment cost only $20), the core clientele was young women. However, the brand’s logo T-shirts and sweatshirts were also popular with young men and Au Coton was a popular destination for vacation and beachwear ensembles.
All garments were designed in Montreal at the company’s head offices on Parc Avenue. According to Chantal Blanchet, she looked for inspiration everywhere, but would always translate and adapt trends to suit the iconic Au Coton casual style and signature knit and jersey fabrics. All fabric dyeing and manufacture was also done locally. By controlling its own production and retailing, Au Coton was able to turn around very quickly and, with a direct line to clients, rely heavily on customer feedback.
As with most youth-driven fashion, Au Coton was heavily influenced by pop music and culture. When the film Flashdance was released in 1983, star Jennifer Beals’ Lycra dancewear wardrobe was a boon for the brand, with flocks of teenagers descending on Au Coton for leggings, oversized sweatshirts and bodysuits. The stores always played hip music and television screens would show music videos on MTV, MuchMusic and MusiquePlus.
In the early years, the brand relied primarily on word of mouth promotion, but by later in the decade, Au Coton advertised mainly in youthful American publications. A circa 1987 ad campaign used a selection of the brand’s young sales staff as models, including Marie-Josée Bastien, who was then regional director. In 1989, with marketing agency Ernst & Young, the brand ran an iconic ad campaign touting Au Coton’s focus on comfort with the slogan “You don’t have to suffer to be beautiful” in Seventeen, Teen, and Cosmopolitan.
In the early 1990s, changes in fashion and increased competition from companies like Cotton Ginny and Le Cotonnier cut into Au Coton’s business. The company’s American subsidiary filed for bankruptcy in 1993, and the Canadian firm followed suit in 2002. In 2014, Cherif Atallah, a Montreal-based businessperson, bought the Au Coton company. He relaunched the brand with an e-commerce site in 2018, offering collections inspired by classic Au Coton garments from the 1980s. A store was opened in Montreal in around 2019 on Atateken Street (formerly Amherst Street).
https://www.aucoton.com/ Internal link
Interviews with Marie-Josée Bastien (former Vice President of Canadian Operations, Au Coton) and Chantal Blanchet (former Head Buyer, Designer and Vice President, Au Coton), Montreal, Quebec, January 28, 2022.
https://www.lapresse.ca/societe/mode-et-beaute/2019-06-20/au-coton-renait Internal link
Strauss, Marina. “Au Coton chain insolvent,” The Globe and Mail, April 9, 2002, B16.
McKenna, Barrie. “Au Coton to close US outlets,” The Globe and Mail, February 23, 1993, B3.
Alexis Walker, McCord Stewart Museum