Obituary: Alvin Segal, 89, was the leading man of suits in Montreal—and his infatuation with Yiddish theatre motivated him to save a local stage

Alvin Cramer Segal always enjoyed a good story, seen in his love of theatre, and the drama of his own life, he knew, could compete with any fiction.

Segal, who died on Nov. 4 at age 89, didn’t quite come from rags but his ability to turn them into riches became legendary.

Peerless Clothing Inc. under his stewardship grew into one of the largest suppliers of high-end men’s suits in North America, holding the license for such labels as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Michael Kors. 

Segal was also a leading spokesman for the Canadian apparel manufacturing industry, helping shape government policy.

His wealth allowed him to become an outstanding philanthropist. His family’s $24-million donation in 2005 to the Jewish General Hospital for the creation of the Segal Cancer Centre was one of the largest of its kind at the time. 

But he will probably be best remembered for his rescue of the Saidye Bronfman Centre—now the Segal Centre for Performing Arts—a couple of years later, motivated largely by Segal’s infatuation with Yiddish theatre.

Segal has been called a visionary entrepreneur and one of the most knowledgeable people in employing technology to produce fine apparel. Segal’s foresight served him and the struggling garment industry in Canada most spectacularly in his recognizing what a boost free trade with the United States would be, opening up a market 10 times the size of that in Canada. 

Segal was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2002 (promoted to officer in 2010) for his “pivotal role” in advising Ottawa during the negotiations that led to the 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and later the North American Free Trade Agreement.

A native of Albany, N.Y., 18-year-old Segal realized he was not university bound and came to Montreal in 1951 to work in his stepfather’s clothing factory. He started at the bottom toiling on the floor.

Even after he rose to chairman and chief executive officer of Peerless, Segal never lost his sweet, unassuming persona—at least, outside business. Within, he was known as one tough customer.

Numerous condolences speak of his kindness, constant smile and loyalty as a friend. According to his family, his motto was: “Don’t look back, you’ll only get a crick in your neck.”

In his 2017 memoir My Peerless Story: It Starts with the Collar, Segal recounts how he transformed a small family business from “the collar down and from the ground up” relying heavily on intuition. Improving fabrics and modernizing machinery to make the “engineered suit” led to Peerless becoming the main source of designer labels for major department stores.

When the FTA came into effect, Segal seized the opportunity to enter the American market, and eventually almost all of his company’s clothes were exported to the U.S. 

Segal became president of the Canadian Men’s Clothing Manufacturers Association.

Following a company tradition, Segal said he donated his first paycheck at Peerless to Combined Jewish Appeal and “I haven’t looked back since” when it came to charitable giving.

The Jewish community, Israel and Montreal in general have been beneficiaries of the Alvin Segal Family Foundation, especially in the arts, health care and education. It has made large donations to McGill University Health Centre, Concordia and McGill Universities (notably to its Jewish teacher training program), Centraide of Greater Montreal, the Jewish Public Library, and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.

He was chairman of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts board for many years, playing a hands-on role in its welfare and creating an endowment for it.

Besides the Order of Canada, Segal was inducted into the National Order of Quebec and named a Great Montrealer.

In a statement, the Segal administration said that thanks to his support the centre has “thrived and become a leading player in the development of Canadian theatre. Simply put, we would not be here without him…” 

“Nothing brought him more joy than the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre. He would show up with danish pastries and pizza in hand for our volunteers, and took pride in the personal recordings of the productions,” said Segal executive and artistic director Lisa Rubin.

Segal once said, “Art brings people together and is a positive force in society. My passion is to make this a cultural centre like you’ve never seen in Montreal.” 

Friend Arthur Roskies said, “My one outstanding memory of him was sitting beside him at a play at the Segal Centre and he was mouthing and virtually anticipating by a second what the actors were about to say on the stage. He confided to me that it was the sixth time he had seen the play and that he sees all the productions more than once. It showed me how dedicated he was to his centre—it was his baby.” 

“Together with the board of directors, we mourn the passing of a visionary who personified the importance of philanthropy for the arts, in paving the way for the timely art institution that the Segal Centre is today. We are honoured to carry on his work and legacy,” stated board president Sylvi Plante. 

Segal is survived by his wife Emmelle, his children Joel, Barbara and Renee, and their families.