Vv Magazine’s Fashion Editor Philip Mak sits down with top Toronto-based male model Paul Mason, aka Fashion Santa, to find out how he became the city’s most sought-after model and what he believes needs to change if the Canadian fashion scene is ever going to be taken seriously internationally.
Anybody who follows Canadian fashion knows Paul Mason – if not by name, then most certainly for his trademark white beard. Colloquially referred to as “Fashion Santa” (a title he is in the process of trademarking), Mason has become a staple of the Toronto style scene, strutting the catwalks of World MasterCard Fashion Week, Toronto Men’s Fashion Week (TOM*), and appearing on Toronto Life’s Toronto’s Best Dressed of 2014. While many may think that the 50-year-old came on the scene as an older model, in actuality he had an extensive international career long before Fashion Santa was even a hashtag.
In a city with a relatively nascent fashion scene like Toronto, it’s not often that one gets to speak with somebody who has such extensive international experience. With a near-30-year career that has spanned the catwalks of London, Barcelona, Paris, Tokyo, Milan, Toronto, and New York, Mason speaks with the kind of confidence that only comes with experience. We meet in a busy cafe in downtown Toronto, and Mason speaks with a casual cantor that shows a man at ease. Unlike many an inflated ego in fashion, he prefers to strike up a two-way conversation. He is compelling; he is humble; and he is incredibly candid. Oh yes, and he is very, very handsome.
Paul Mason grew up in Toronto’s west end and attended Ryerson University for social work. Sharing a sociology class with students from the fashion program, he was asked to walk in an end-of-year runway show. It was here that he was scouted and, within two weeks, was modelling on catwalks in Tokyo, which was soon to be followed by a stint in Paris. “In 1993, I packed my bags up and went to New York. I thought, ‘If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it right.’ All the agencies wanted me, but I went with a small agency. Within a week and a half, I was booked three days in a row and making way more money than I ever could have with the [European] collections. I called my agencies in Europe and told them I wasn’t going; I could make way more in a day of catalogue. I did Macy’s and in a month or two, I was looking for an apartment in New York. It was ridiculous for me to go back and forth.”
He stayed in New York until 2007 and it was there that Mason learned some essential lessons about modelling: what kind of rates to expect and how to value yourself as a model. The idea that a young model could ask for payment seems almost foreign in Toronto, where models, stylists, photographers, and fashion writers often must work pro bono at the beginning of their careers — all in the name of building a portfolio and gaining experience. “When I started, there was a fashion economy. Money was being exchanged. There were people who just modelled in this city. That doesn’t exist anymore.” He notes how Toronto models all seem to be working secondary jobs, a symptom of inadequate (or non-existent) wages and the practice of importing bigger name models from America and Europe. “They bring in big talent, big people, big money… and local people are starving – people who are just as good. My question is, ‘Does it really resonate that you’re bringing in Coco at $10,000 a day? Does it resonate with shoppers or are you doing it for your fashion audience only?’”
One has to wonder if it boils down to an issue of culture. Could it be that Canadians don’t take fashion as seriously as Europeans? Do we view it more as a vanity hobby than as a legitimate business? “It could be,” says Mason. “I find with the economy not being generated, everyone here is jaded in a sense. Oftentimes the stylist is not getting paid, the photographer is not getting a rate, the model is not getting that great of payment. Everyone is spinning, spinning, spinning for free. People just want to make something.”
“I love the fact that [Toronto Men’s Fashion Week/ TOM*] is taking place, and that there’s World MasterCard Fashion Week –though I think they’re holding on for dear life– because let’s face it: until now, or five years ago, people weren’t pushing for fashion. Canadians are a practical race of people; we’re a Tim Hortons kind of crowd. I think that’s why Canadians are such shrewd businesspeople — we’re very practical with our money. I’d like to see more magic happen.”
Could it be that the Toronto fashion scene is too competitive for its own good? “How do you think TOM debuted? That could be your answer right there. You have the establishment saying, ‘No way!’ Then you have this guy [TOM founder, Jeff Rustia] who wants to change something. I love Jeff, and I support him 100 per cent, but there are some things I just don’t understand. But I’m still there supporting him because there’s just this energy.”
When asked to elaborate, Mason says, “None of the modelling agencies are supporting [TOM*]. They might have changed this year, but they worked so hard to get rates for their models.” Understandably, local agencies were not thrilled that their talent would have to walk for free. Having secured a minimum rate during World MasterCard Fashion Week, it would seem counter-intuitive to waive their fees. But TOM isn’t the only fashion institution not paying talent – Mason notes how photographers regularly have to set up and pay for their own shoots, only to sell them for relative pennies to magazines who did not of the work. Dwindling ad dollars and over-saturation on social media have led to an era of freebies, it seems. “This sets a formula. Is this going to be the new norm? When I started, it wasn’t like that.” With that said, Mason notes that Jeff Rustia and TOM would pay the models if they could – the budget just won’t allow for it this year. Seems to be a familiar story in this town.
When asked to speak of his life before returning to Toronto, Mason’s icy blue eyes twinkle with energy as he discusses some of the highlights including campaigns for DKNY, the GAP, and an Australian Vogue cover. His crowning achievement, however, has to be his campaign for Dolce & Gabbana, shot by famed fashion photographer Steven Meisel. “There was five of us; they always had a token grey-haired guy. Five young boys, and then me. It was a benchmark for my career. And then the boys from Dolce & Gabbana flew me out to be part of the show and put me up in a nice hotel. But that’s not always how it works out [for male models]. At 40-years-old, being shot by Steven Meisel, I thought, ‘I’m happy now.’”
With potential for an upcoming series of drawn Fashion Santa books and possible film appearances on the horizon, what exactly is it that keeps Paul Mason moving at such breakneck speeds? “The excitement of it. It’s very exciting. I love beauty. I love when a whole crew comes together –from the stylist to the makeup artist to the photographer to the models— and creates something. When it’s good, it’s really good. It’s something I know. I know it’s not age-friendly but I really determine what I want to do. Until people stop talking to me, that’s how long I’ll stay around.”
See Paul Mason aka Fashion Santa walking in the Christopher Bates show at Toronto Men’s Fashion Week.
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