I first became aware of Denis Gagnon at his Spring/Summer 2016 installation during Fashion Preview at Ogilvy last Fall. The models walked by very slowly wearing stunning flowing dresses, silk shorts, and ruffles. They were dressed fully in black or white, and some in stripes. Most had ribbons in their Bardot-esque hair. It felt like a day in court at Chateau Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors. It was a gorgeous modern mix of milkmaid femininity, androgynous edgy details, and court attire.
It was all was so beautiful that I had a lump in my throat. Time stood still. I was transfixed.
Who is this artist? I had to know more.
Cut to meeting him at the Les Grands Ballet Canada de Montréal gala. Not only did he say yes to an interview, but our meeting was quickly set. I would visit his boutique. When he first proposed a phone call, he sensed my disappointment and graciously asked if I would rather meet in person. Yes, please. I was dying to speak to him face to face, touch the clothes, and see his atelier. Here was my experience…
I arrive a few minutes early and enter his bright zen-like boutique encased by walls of glass. There is a black & white psychedelic print on the floor and jungle patterned wallpaper on the back wall. There are two slowly revolving mannequins, one male and one female; both showcase pieces from his current collection. I take a few minutes to breath in the scent of the relaxed perfection, and stare at the master stitching. There is a white dress I am obsessed with.
Psychedelic print and summer dress I am obsessed with on the far right.
Denis is known for his attention to detail.
Up the stairs he enters from the lower level of his boutique and I present him with flowers. “O, and for me who loves flowers! You didn’t have to do that!” I am thrilled that he is so excited. He puts it on his lucite display case and I jump up and down in my mind.
My mug on display in Denis Gagnon’s boutique. (!!!)
He gets himself comfortable on a stool in front of his assistant’s desk and cash. He looks at me through the infamous Lanvin glasses, ready. He is dressed in black shorts and a black linen t-shirt. His hair is tied in a loose bun. He wears black Adidas superstars.
I have decided that I will “wing” the interview. I decide to experiment so I can be fully present with him and let the conversation flow spontaneously. I have five questions prepared but I don’t bring any notes. It starts off well but at one point I become too distracted by him. I feel that time changing feeling I felt during his show. I am so transfixed my brain doesn’t work as fast as I am used to. Translating my questions becomes difficult and thankfully he courteously switches to English. When I look at him, I feel what I would describe as a dragonfly skimming water as it lands. That moment you have in the summer when you stare out a garden of waterlilies and feel all the peace and the beauty of life. He seems so relaxed and in the moment. And yet I can tell there is a lot going on in his head. I think about how he loves Asia, his fish, nature, and the big cities. I think about how the boutique feels like a fish bowl, how he has created this other world. How all of his clothes are black and white…yin and yang.
At one point he wants to show me one of his installations on video and he gets distracted finding it. He struggles with wanting to show me the video and be available. Between this and my brain slowing down, I sometimes can’t remember what I want to ask. “Take your time”, he says. All patience.
I ask him to share the moment he knew he had to be a designer. “The moment I decided to save my own life. I was working for other people. I had a vision and I knew I had to bring it to life myself. I was very unhappy and I knew I had to take matters into my own hands.” He designed costumes for theater and worked in fashion, and at 38 he went out alone. He is now one of the most respected and anticipated designers in Canada. He has collaborated with Lancôme, BEDO, and many others.
NYC jewelry designer Marie-Lise Lachapelle describes him as “a creative genius”. Globe and Mail stated that “his show will pierce your soul”. He has been labelled “Quebec’s L’Enfant Terrible.” So many people are in awe of his work that the Montreal Fine Art Museum held a retrospective of his career in 2010 and Urbania magazine dedicated an entire issue to him. There is also the documentary “Mon nom est Denis Gagnon”.
Mitsou Gélinas told me “His clothes are the epitome of rock chic. You wear his clothes when you don’t want to look like anyone else. When you have a definite style. I still have the t-shirt he made with his face on it. It is almost dead I wore it so much! I sold the blue dress (pictured above) at an auction and it made a lot of money for charity.”
He does not draw or use a computer program, he drapes. During his education at Lasalle College his teachers thought he had designed before because he was such a natural. They asked him to teach pattern-making in Casablanca. He is very well traveled but now works 70 hours a week, so it’s been a while. His favorite trips were those in Japan, and the major metropolitan cities. He loves the energy. “So many beautiful things to see.”
When approaching a collection, he has a feeling in mind. It might be a color, a form, or shape that inspires him. He says he is aware of what others are designing and sees trends as a recipe that he tweaks. Denis designs for all body types. “You have to sell.” In fact he currently has 2 muses, one is his 67 year-old friend, and the other is a 16 year-old model. In his atelier one of his mannequins is covered in bubble wrap to recreate a more realistic female form.
His advice for young designers is “You have to know that you are the best. You have to be prepared to work very hard. You have to export because Quebec is such a small and specific market.”
I ask him to define happiness. “Doing what you love. Anything else is a form of slavery.”
He doesn’t have a favorite designer. He has favorite collections. “It could be Céline one season, it could be Dries van Noten. There is a new designer for Yves Saint Laurent I like”.
He answers this last question as he sweeps the floor. This virtuoso, this master of making material move in a new way, of creating art out of zippers, “Canada’s Genius”, sweeps his floor and has kept his gold fish alive for 6 years. My fish have only ever lasted a few months. That care and attention is what has created a career that many people only dream of, and that passion will keep us spellbound. I can’t wait to see his next collection and maybe go back for that white dress…for those days when I want time to stand still, when I want to float like a dragonfly skimming the water over the lily-pads, on a hot summer day…in my imaginary Versailles garden.
Thank you Denis for your inspiration and kindness. A dragonfly is a symbol of courage, strength, and happiness in Japan. How fitting. xx
DENIS GAGNON ATELIER BOUTIQUE
-All clothes are Made in Canada-
170B, rue Saint-Paul O.
Huffington Post article showing all the looks from his Spring / Summer 2016 presentation:
Video of the installation at Ogilvy’s Spring / Summer 2016:
High praise from The Globe & Mail:
Flare magazine – Spring / Summer 2011 collection and interview:
Fashion Magazine – Backstage beauty details:
Elle Canada – BEDO details:
All photos of Denis in his boutique, and of his boutique, are by me. Photo of Mitsou Gélinas provided with permission from the artist. All links and videos of Denis Gagnon’s work provided with permission from the artist.