THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

On the prowl for bargains, off the rack

By Patricia Harris
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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MONTREAL — It’s about the bragging rights.

My husband, David Lyon, and I have been visiting Montreal for almost 30 years and have just finished our second guidebook to the city. I know which boulangerie makes the best almond croissant, the best viewing spot for the fireworks from La Ronde amusement park, and even where and when to find free on-street parking.

But I never really felt like an insider until I bagged a bargain on rue Chabanel.

Located on the north side of the city, far from any tourist attractions, rue Chabanel is the Main Street of the Montreal garment industry, the largest and most influential in Canada. Its nondescript, mid-century, medium-rise buildings used to be filled with manufacturers — even with garment stitch rooms. These days the street is dominated by importers and fashion distributors. The showrooms and remaining workrooms open to the public on what sometimes seems a random schedule, but Saturdays are usually best. I hit rue Chabanel on a Saturday in October and have not had so much fun shopping since the original Filene’s Basement closed in 2007.

Mind you, it’s a bit more work. The merchandise is spread throughout eight blocks of showrooms and takes some searching out. The lowest-priced goods are sometimes displayed on the sidewalk and it’s not uncommon to see husbands sitting in parked cars, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee while the wife and kids peruse the racks. There are some bargains in menswear — especially in leather coats — but most of the merchandise is for women and virtually all the active shoppers are female.

As a general rule, the better stuff is in the showrooms, and the quality improves as you proceed west on the street and the building numbers rise. But don’t expect retail bells and whistles. The fluorescent lights are hardly flattering and even the best showrooms may have just one free-for-all changing room, if any. Women begin arriving in small groups around 9 a.m., pick a building, and march into the foyer where fliers taped on the walls indicate which showrooms are open and what they are offering.

Fashion Center Casa Italy, for example, announced clothes for the whole family, new styles at old prices, and other such enticements, often in a jumble of French and English. Sanway was offering culottes and cotton bikinis, assuring that all garments were made in Canada. Sometimes distributors set up glass showcases to display some of the goods.

Shopping rue Chabanel has its up and downs, mainly in a lot of elevators, of which only one in a bank of four is likely to be running. I thought I might get leads from some of the veteran shoppers as we rode together, but if there is an effective strategy for shopping rue Chabanel, no one is telling. Or perhaps the strategy is not to reveal your best sources.

I started at 125 rue Chabanel and soon encountered George Argyriou of Olympic Leather, who has been in business since 1983. He pointed to rack upon rack of leather coats for men and women. “I make them all here,’’ he said with some pride. “They’re not imported from China.’’

At 225 rue Chabanel, Morty always sells everything for $10. (Like many merchants, he prefers not to give his last name, which just adds to the fun and air of secrecy.) “Last week,’’ he said, “we sold 50 or 60 good-name synthetic leather jackets in an hour.’’ There was no such feeding frenzy going on, as browsers casually scanned the racks — no grabbing, no bickering. “How can Filene’s Basement compare to this?’’ he said when I told him I’m from Boston.

Also at number 225, Myrna was even more secretive, even barring photos of her showroom for fear that the European and American designers that she distributes throughout Canada will not appreciate their merchandise appearing on discount racks mixed with clothes from their competitors. She looked around the bare-bones space crowded with garment racks. “You have to have patience,’’ she advised. “You have to go through a lot of stuff.’’

Honestly, a lot of low-quality merchandise is part of the rue Chabanel mix. I did find some designer names — Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, London Fog, Geox — at significant discounts. There were also many labels I didn’t recognize, but the merchandise spoke to Montreal style: lots of leather, short skirts, bulky sweaters, evening apparel, intricate decorative detail on coats and jackets, and lots and lots of ruffles. Many of the sample pieces were in small sizes, but there were plenty of options for women who are not runway models.

The Montreal International Fashion Center at 555 rue Chabanel has the best overall merchandise. Showroom 1522, which is open year-round, resembles an upscale boutique with a hushed air and several lines of excellent Italian imports. A solicitor from Toronto was waiting patiently in a lounge chair with coffee and a newspaper as a solicitous saleswoman brought garment after garment to his wife in a private dressing room. They visit at least once a year and pack an empty duffel bag for toting their purchases home on the train.

Another saleswoman, Samira Murad, zeroed in on me. “This street is like a little city,’’ she said. “There are so many stores, but you can’t see them from the street.’’ She pulled blouses and jackets from a rack and held them up for my approval. “These are classic, but with a touch of style,’’ she told me. “Not for young girls, but for women like us.’’

But I was not quite ready for “classic.’’ In the end, I made my one purchase of the day at Dalia, a place with a bit more funky style on the third floor of 225 rue Chabanel. It was a felted wool coat by a local designer that had an interesting button closure and stylish lapel.

Back on the retail streets of the city, I began to pay more attention and found that felted wool seemed to be a hot fashion item. A few days later I spotted a similar coat in one of the most gorgeous and expensive stores along the fashionista strip of rue St-Denis. Was it better than mine? Honestly, yes. Was it 12 times better? Not by a long shot.

Plus, now I can say, “Oh, this? I picked it up on rue Chabanel.’’

Patricia Harris, co-author of the forthcoming “Food Lovers’ Guide to Montreal,’’ can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

The garment district on rue Chabanel is located west of boulevard St-Laurent and east of rue Meilleur. The easiest route is to take the Metro’s orange line to the Sauvé stop, then walk one block west and one block south to rue Chabanel.
There are buying opportunities all year on rue Chabanel, though many outlets close in January and July. Some showrooms are open on weekdays, but Saturdays (from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.) are the best. Montreal fashionistas often wait for the twice-yearly sample sales (usually mid-April to mid-May and mid-October to mid-November) for the greatest variety and best quality merchandise.
Many showrooms accept only cash and all sales are usually final. Merchants tend to take a dim view of bargaining, but ask politely if you are interested in several of the higher-priced garments.