By Rose de Paulsen,
Vivienne Poy (photo from Covenant House)
Canada is known for diverse and empowered women. Vivienne May Poy (née Lee) made waves when she was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1998 by Jean Chretien. This is where she did her most notable, influential and groundbreaking work. Her motion for May to be declared Asian Heritage month in 2001 forever changed the landscape for Asian-Canadians. We often wonder how these influential women get their start. Did Dr. Poy always want to have a Doctorate in Law? Did her parents influence her decisions to dream big, to break ground? What choices led her down this path? You might already know if you are reading this as part of the Seneca Canadian Fashion Diversity Project. Dr. Poy’s first love was Art.
The Hon. Dr. Vivienne Poy had married Dr. Neville Poy in 1962 and had three children. In an interview with the Famous Five Foundation Poy states she had always wanted a family, to be a mother, but that was not quite enough for her. She wanted to “do (her) own thing and make (her) own name”. She enrolled in the three-year Fashion Arts program at Seneca in 1978. This, she states, changed her life forever.
Poy had always loved to paint and felt that if she could succeed in Fashion she could succeed anywhere. She would stay after class in patternmaking to make sure her work was completed. She balanced the difficult task of being a full-time mother and full-time student. And yet, she was top of the class. Her love of painting meant that designing garments came naturally to her. Her designs were bright and intricate, and she designed mostly knits. She wasn’t much of a knitter herself, but she had a great team of knitters working with her that brought her designs from paper to real life.
She created Vivienne Poy Mode in 1981 after completing a Fashion Arts diploma at Seneca. Her business was soon met with success. For fourteen years, Vivienne Poy Mode was sold at Yorkville and wholesale across Canada, the U.S. and Japan. Her high-end knitwear featured the silhouette of the 80’s, large and in charge shoulders and as Dale Peers (a former Fashion Arts professor) puts it: “the affluent ’80s, the shoulder pads and power dressing for women who were breaking the corporate glass ceiling.” Her collections featured bright and colourful knits, fluffy or embellished trims, and lots of pearls and beading. A large portion of Vivienne Poy Mode is housed in the Seneca Fashion Resource Centre. Seeing the garments in person is fascinating, but feeling the garments is otherworldly. Poy had her knitters come up with new techniques for embellishing knits, creating unique and beautifully dense sweaters.
This image is most likely an advertisement for the Vivienne Poy store in Yorkville. It demonstrates Poy’s signature details, from the oversized shoulders and bright/powerful fuchsia down to the tiniest details of the beaded section and braided fringe. You can see the inspiration behind most of her designs is floral in characteristics; bright, bold, layered and feminine in nature. The setting looks to be an office, dull and contrasted by the saturated woman sitting front and center. The 80’s was another turning point for women in the work force. Women were (and still are in some cases) breaking the glass-ceiling. This image looks like a flower flourishing in adversity. Poy clearly focused on empowering women early in her career and currently is very passionate about women’s rights, previously sponsoring the Famous Five Foundation. Poy focuses on women and the beauty and strength that can be found within womanhood.
These photos above show the range of high-end designs Poy made throughout her 14-year fashion career. The first pictures shows a muted blue, strapped, knitted top. The golden tanned model contrasts the grey and white of the background and gives off a sense of cool and fresh fashion for spring/summer. The second picture shows a model in a thick oversized knit. Trims and contrasting colourblocking are a staple of Vivienne Poy Mode. In this case the turquoise trim matches the turquoise pants. The model is situated in front of gothic Toronto architecture, possibly U of T or a cathedral. This contrast of older, traditional backdrop with avantgarde in the forefront is indicative of Poy, always striving to bolder, to move forward yet remembering the past.
The Hon. Dr.Vivienne Poy smiling in front of her designs Toronto Public Library 1994)
Poy is very involved with her family. In many of her interviews she cites her biggest supporter for her art was her father. Having later been involved with the creation of Asian Heritage month, Poy clearly loves her heritage and culture and is unafraid to celebrate it. Her official website has an image of her in a bright coloured cheongsam (qipao). At of the time Vivienne Poy Mode, her sister-in-law, Adrienne Clarkson, was working for CBC as a host/interviewer (and would go on to be appointed Governor General in 1999). Clarkson in the photo above is supporting her sister-in-law and wearing a Vivienne Poy Mode sweater. Clarkson also has an affinity towards fashion.
From the beginning of her Fashion career, Vivienne Poy had love and support from her family and community. Being such a successful businesswoman, she was able to socialize and reach out and build up her brand. She stated in a speech when receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from ACCE that “It doesn’t matter if the owner makes a lot of money…the employees and the rest of society has to also benefit.” Poy’s most notable trait is her compassion.
In 1995, everything changed for the fashion designer. She was busy with her fashion and cosmetics business when a retirement home based in Chinatown asked her to help them reach out for sponsorship and donations. When she obliged, she found herself more in public life, in outreach, and giving back to the community that helped support her. Soon after, her charity work helped appoint her to Senate. The rest is Fashion History.
Vivienne Poy Mode. Images from: Seneca Fashion facebook
Recently, the Hon. Dr. Vivienne Poy and her husband Dr. Neville Poy has released a coffee table book full of images of flowers and nature titled Precious Moments. http://www.preciousmomentsbook.com/
Detail images Rose de Paulsen 2021
Biography: The HONOURABLE: Dr. VIVIENNE POY: 尊貴的. Biography | THE HONOURABLE | Dr. Vivienne Poy | 尊貴的. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://viviennepoy.ca/biography.html.
famou5. (2021, August 14). F5F VPTC aug.13.21, Hon. Dr. Vivienne POY & SARAH HUSSAINI. YouTube. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzEopNqTDJ4&t=1206s.
The “rainbow effect” of Vivienne Poy (2018). Seneca. (2018.). Retrieved from https://www.senecacollege.ca/news-2018/vivienne_poy.html.
Vivienne POY. The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2021) . Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/vivienne-poy.
YouTube. (2014). Lifetime Achievement Award 2014. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLlhJ7TN3rc&t=218s.
To learn more about the Honourable Dr. Vivienne Poy, please read:
Vivid and Vivacious
By, Dale Peers