British Columbia

'He created so much magic for people': Celebrated B.C. costumer dies of COVID-19

Ray Buchanan worked at Watts Costumes in Vancouver for more than three decades. He was something of a legend for the meticulous care he took with every piece.

Ray Buchanan had just returned from London when he was hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms

Ray Buchanan with one of his creations. (Watts Costume Rentals)

As Gillian Campbell pulls out another sparkling costume from her closet — one from her days spent performing as Klondike Kate — she marvels at the intricate beadwork.

"He did this all by hand," she says. "Everything was sewn on by hand."

Ray Buchanan was, after all, a master at his craft. 

A costume maker who, despite being almost 90 years old, still had the agile sewing fingers of a much younger man.

Gillian Campbell holds a gown and headdress made by her friend and costume designer, the late Ray Buchanan. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

At Watts Costumes in Vancouver, where he worked for more than three decades, Buchanan was something of a legend for the meticulous care he took with every piece.

"One of his expressions was, 'It's perfect but it will have to do.' And he did everything perfectly," said owner Josh Wilson. 

Ray Buchanan, on the right, dressed up for Canada Day with his friend Edward Campbell, who is Gillian Campbell's husband. (Watts Costume Rentals)

A member of B.C.'s Entertainment Hall of Fame, Buchanan worked over the years for the Arts Club Theatre and the historic town of Barkerville. He designed costumes for movie stars and cruise ship performers. Some of his work ended up in the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse. He was even known to make a Santa suit or two.

"He created so much magic for people in their lives," said Wilson.

Campbell agrees, "We'd all be naked without him. Not a pretty sight." 

But the laughter quickly turns to tears as those who loved him remember he is gone. 

Buchanan died from COVID-19 at the end of March.

The perfectionism that made him so good at what he did also made him stubborn.

He had planned a quick jaunt to London to catch some shows and told friends and family he wasn't going to let the coronavirus stop him.

He left Vancouver on March 15.

Gillian Campbell poses with one of Ray Buchanan's many creations for her that ended up in the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse. (Gillian Campbell family photo)

When he returned a few days later he wasn't feeling well. 

A friend took him straight from the airport to St. Paul's Hospital where Buchanan died on March 25.

For more than half a century Buchanan designed outfits for Campbell. They were also best friends.

"I keep thinking he's going to ring up and say, 'I'm coming over, are you receiving?'"

Ray Buchanan loved to travel. He was in London to see the shows just before he died. (Gillian Campbell )

Like everyone who has died from this virus, he loved and was loved — a man whose curiosity and independence led to a life lived on his own terms. 

Passion to create

His passion was to create and to see others' creations.

He loved Broadway shows and Bette Midler, as well as grapes and cats and all things sparkly, as long as the colours matched.

Creativity, friendship and beauty were important to Ray Buchanan.

One of the last photos taken by his friend Gillian Campbell, who says Ray Buchanan loved to dress up and look like 'a million bucks.' (Gillian Campbell)

But there is an ugliness to this disease. As he lay dying in the hospital he was allowed no visitors.

In the last hours of his life a kind nurse called friends and family, and put each one on speaker phone to let them say goodbye.

Gillian Campbell doesn't know if he heard her, but she told him she loved him.

"I didn't want to say goodbye, I didn't want to say goodbye. I said you've got four Santa suits to make. Don't leave, come back. It was hard, it really was."

Ray Buchanan died one day after his ninetieth birthday.

With files from Manjula Dufresne


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