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The drag queens’ designer

Benoit L Richard dies at 64

"He lived life to its fullest," says Benoit L Richard's (above) friend André Tardif. Credit: Courtesy of Marlies Davis

Benoit L Richard, a French-Canadian fashion designer adored by Vancouver’s drag queens for his originality and generosity, died Sept 19 at St Paul’s Hospital after battling liver cancer. He was 64.

For decades, drag queens turned to Richard to design elaborate costumes at rock-bottom prices, friends say.

“He would do it for dirt cheap,” says André Tardif, known as Wilma Cockswell. Drag queens “were the outlet for his talent.”

Richard, who lived in the West End, designed many costumes for emperors and empresses as part of the Imperial Court System, which raises money for charities through elaborate costume balls, says André Poitras, also known as Madame André.

“He was a very, very good designer,” Poitras says. “And he was very generous with people. He would make a beautiful gown for them [drag queens] but not charge them the whole price.

Friend Alain Simard says, “Any drag queen would love to wear Benoit’s costumes because they were so elaborate.”

Drag queen Joan-E says Vancouver has lost a big talent.

Richard was “a HUGE supporter of the drag community in Vancouver… his support of Don ‘Myria Le Noir’ Crowe, Drew ‘Dede Drew’ Dickinson, Carl ‘Carlotta Gurl’ Mcdonald, Sandy St Peters, and of course André Tardif and André Poitras and so many of us can never be forgotten,” she posted on her Facebook page.

Richard and a group of French-Canadian friends were known as The French Connection.

Tardif, who became part of that group, met Richard in 1983 at a Halloween party at the gay nightclub Gandydancer. Tardif was dressed as Carmen Miranda and spotted a lookalike — Richard.

“He looked very much the part of Carmen Miranda, except his headpiece was like a turban with Christmas balls in it,” Tardif says.

Richard held a variety of jobs with a common theme — creativity. He designed women’s clothes, wedding gowns, store window displays and costumes for theatre productions, including La Cage Aux Folles for Theatre Under the Stars. He choreographed drag queens for a fundraiser for Tardif’s company at Graceland.

Occasionally, he received a big contract and hired girls to help with the sewing.

He was a workaholic and a perfectionist, and he insisted on promptness. “With drag queens, of course, that drove him crazy because drag queens are always on drag time,” Tardif says.

He also knew how to enjoy himself. “He could be a good party boy, and the day after he had no voice,” Tardif says.

Friend Marlies Davis says Richard also was caring and giving. One time he heard she was depressed and called her to another apartment in her building.

“The door opened up and they all started singing ‘Hello Dolly,’ and it was so funny. And he was the instigator, of course.”

Davis still has one of Richard’s headpieces from the Halloween he dressed up as Queen of the Amazon, with several guys in loincloths and spears carrying him on a fur-covered board. Another year he dressed up as Marie Antoinette. Dressed in the elaborate costumes, Richard would make the rounds to the gay clubs with her and other friends, she says.

In 2003, when Richard’s brother was dying of colon cancer, Richard moved to Quebec to spend time with him. “Benoit was there when his brother had his last breath,” Tardif says. His brother died at 64.

Richard, who lived with HIV for 30 years, never expected to live to 60 himself.

“And then he made it to 60, 61, 62,” Simard says.

Two years ago, Richard was diagnosed with cancer. Earlier this year, he made his last visit to his family in Quebec — his farewell — but he didn’t tell his family he had cancer.

“He didn’t want them to be worried because he’s always been very independent,” Simard says.

Richard maintained his composure through the last months of his life, telling Simard a few months ago, “I have a good life and I have good friends; I’m ready to go.”

“He lived 64 years, but they were rich years,” Tardif says. “He lived life to its fullest.”