After more than 30 years in the fashion industry, renowned model Paul Mason remains as down-to-earth as if his professional career has just started. In fact, behind that silver beard — his definitive signature — there is a fresh, youthful energy that’s infectious to anyone around him.
Mason’s natural elegance we so often see in front of the camera is displayed in every detail of the way he carries himself. His voice is as gentle as his attitude, and his honest tone speaks not only to a trajectory of experience but also to a genuine personality.
I had a roster of interview questions memorized in preparation for my meeting with Mason, but after about 10 minutes of talking with the fashion mogul I totally forgot them. Our interview was more of a friendly chat in which he revealed the most important things he’s learned as a model, and what he hopes for the future of the Canadian fashion industry. Once I was done with one of the most spontaneous yet enriching interviews I’ve ever done, I couldn’t help but wonder if the polished Mason and Mr. Newman share something else besides their first name…
Novella: Your career as a model started pretty much overnight. How did that happen?
Paul Mason: I was doing Social Work at Ryerson University and my Sociology class was mixed in with Fashion students. That month they had to do a presentation and someone asked me to walk in one of the presentations and a photographer who was in the audience told me that I should be a model. He gave me a number saying that I should call this lady whose name was Judy Welch and who was running probably the first modeling agency in Toronto. She was also Miss Toronto in 1956 and later became the first Canadian finalist in the Miss World competition. So, I reached out to her and within two or three months I was on the runway in Tokyo and that is how I became a model.
N: What does fashion mean to you?
P.M.: It’s an expression of how you feel. Through our clothes we tell the world, “This is who I am.” It could be subtle things, the cut of a suit or just the detail on the bottom of your pants.
N: What about style? Most people tend to associate style strictly with designer labels.
P.M.: I don’t think style has anything to do with economics. You can wear a Ferragamo jacket and pair of jeans and you’ll look amazing. On the streets I also see so many people with great style! Fashion and style shouldn’t be dictated by economics, because even in streetwear you can tell how people take care and pay attention to details, and that’s what defines their personal style. Through details, I can totally see which people are stylish.
N: Speaking of street style, do you think the street style phenomenon has affected the way we dress and how we look at clothes?
P.M: Of course! Even designers look at what people are wearing on the street. It is the trickle-up effect! One of my favourite documentaries is the one about Bill Cunningham, the renowned street style photographer at The New York Times. That is a great example of what you see on the streets, which a lot of times is much more interesting from what you see on the runway.
N: I totally agree! Actually, now most of the interest and attention during fashion week goes to people outside the tents and arriving to the shows. Everyone wants to know what the attendees are wearing, and the goal is to be captured by a street style photographer.
P.M.: Right. Sometimes I think, though, that people play up that whole street style thing because they know that if they wear the most outrageous outfit they are going to be captured. However, when I see what’s going on in the actual street that’s more what I’m interested in because is authentic. There is this brand NN07 that is shooting all the clothes on civilians around different places in the world. They have shot their designs on the streets of LA, and then the same clothes or different variations in north of China. For me this is so fascinating because they aren’t using models but regular civilians.
N: Yes, it is amazing! And I think that has more impact into their audience because people want to look at other people who feel identify with. Of course Gisele Bündchen looks stunning no matter what she is wearing, but the thing is the average woman can’t feel identify with her. These women want to look at other real women in the streets.
P.M.: Of course! One thing that I like to see is uniqueness. At the end of the day we all have to work and everybody has his or her own “working uniform,” but it’s refreshing when you see someone that kind of sticks out a little bit. Maybe just one little thing could be enough to put your personal signature on what you are wearing and separate from the crowd.
N: Do you think that style is something that you can learn? After 30 years of working as a model, has that experience helped you polish and define your personal style?
P.M.: Absolutely! I’ve learned from the best. When I was younger I didn’t really absorbed all the stuff I’m looking at now because I was so crazy to be there and so excited about working in this fascinating industry but I wasn’t really digesting everything that I was getting from that experiences. Now that I’m older I have realized and I’m defining a key sense of what I really like and what I prefer to wear.
N: What other crucial learning you’ve got from the fashion industry besides how to style yourself?
P.M.: I think keeping your mind opened about everything is very important in this industry. Once you start closing your mind you are done with it! I think this is a youth driven business but you also have to have people that have been in this business for a long time to anchor all the people that want to fly. The wisdom and your experience in the industry come with time and as long as you are flexible and keep your mind opened.
N: People from outside the fashion industry think that this is all about glamour and wearing nice clothes but they don’t see all the hard work and dark side. Of course fashion should be fun and make people dream but shouldn’t be defined by that because it’s definitely about something else, something bigger.
P.M.: I think that people working in fashion are probably the hardest-working people. From editors, to photographers, to stylists, to models, etc., it is a really tough industry to work in! There are so many pitfalls in fashion and, probably, one of the biggest ones is the fact that so many people are exploded. Sometimes people aren’t not paid what they worth and all the time they are putting in. Fashion people tent to be a little bit on the artistic side where they don’t grasp the amount of work that people are doing so they just think ‘well, we can get another one!’ I’ve seen across the board that people are putting countless hours and they are doing for free and, of course, here in Toronto. I feel like this city is already a little bit fatigued of doing work for free and it makes sense because people have to make money to live!
N: Why do you think this is considered almost normal within the fashion industry? Why is taken for granted that people working in fashion have to work for free for such a long time before getting paid properly?
P.M.: For me it’s just crazy seeing how people coming to the business and also people who have been around for a while are asked to work for free! This should be unacceptable! We all have bills to pay and need money to pay our lives.
N: It seems like fashion industry has started to be more aware of the ethical side of this business. Do you think this ‘fashion revolution’ is actually happening?
P.M.: I would like to think that. I’m not 100% certain that is changing. It might be changing a little bit but we definitely need more people to stand up and say ‘I’m not going to do this for free’. But I still think there is employers out there that are still treating people that way.
What about the people working behind the scenes? Should we be giving them more voice and visibility?
P.M.: I think that would be fantastic! Just seating here with you is a way to profile the other side of this industry and I’m thrilled about it! People need to know about the other part of the fashion industry because there is so many people working behind the scenes and it’s only because of them that we can enjoy fashion and have fashion. It would be nice to educate the public featuring these people and highlighting how crucial is their role or the countless work hours that they are putting in.
N: So, when you started your own modeling agency, was this something that you wanted to contribute to change?
P.M.: For now, my agency it’s a very on-going process. I started this because for me it seems that the natural thing to do is to manage and mentor new talents. I’ve been doing this for a year and now I have three models that I’m mentoring and I admit that I’m a taught person to work with because my work ethic has to be the same as their work ethic or I can’t work with them. For me, that’s the only way for you to recruit people that can stay and respect what you are doing. As I said, now I have three models, two guys and a fifteen-year-old girl who is phenomenal!
N: And what other projects are you currently involved in?
P.M.: Besides my modeling agency, my professional profile has expanded and even that I though that I was retired as a model, I’m back to modeling again. Now I’m also very focused on my collaboration with Yorkdale shopping centre for Christmas and I’m pretty open to any project as long as I find it interesting. I’ve been shooting a couple of campaigns lately and, of course, I am an ambassador of TOM*, and on January I’ll go to Tokyo to work for two months on commercials, runways, editorials, etc.
N: Nowadays, another big topic that so many people and publications are talking about is ‘diversity’. Is this actually changing already? Is the fashion industry more diverse than ten years ago?
P.M.: Yes! It’s definitely changing! I mean, Canada is probably one of the best exporters of models in the world because it’s a very multicultural country and the mixes are so beautiful! Once you start mixing races you get the most beautiful people. All that it takes in modeling is a height and weight requirement so as long as you fit just those two standards, your race it doesn’t matter at all! If you are a girl and you are between 5’8 and 5’11, or a boy between 5’11 and 6’2, you can do anything you want.
I think this is obviously changing and I find it so funny when I hear this question because in my mind has completely changed already. There was a day in the seventies and eighties when fashion industry wasn’t as much diverse because it was more about the blond Caucasian girl with blue eyes.
N: What do you hope for the Canadian fashion industry?
P.M.: My biggest hope for the Canadian fashion industry is to keep it at home. I don’t think that we are used to taking care of ourselves, I feel we don’t know how to do it!
N: Do you mean that there is a lack of local support?
P.M.: Oh, for sure! First of all, we should start buying more clothes by Canadian brands and supporting each other. Maybe the fact that we are geographically speaking right next to such a super powerful country as the States, is making us forget who we are but this is really a unique place! This is a place that’s unique on the planet.
I am also a bit advocate, especially, for the models in Canada. With all the US bigger department stores that are coming in, it’s either all the advertising that is being sourced out of Canada where no one makes any money here because it’s being taken care from the States; or they are importing models that come in and the locals don’t get any of the work.
N: So, why don’t we take advantage of that? Why don’t we take their example in order to benefit our own fashion industry? Last year Michelle Obama hosted at the White House an educational fashion event with fashion designer Zac Posen among others. That not only gives a lot of exposure to designers but is also a way to tell people that fashion is something real and a serious business.
P.M.: I think now through TOM* we have kind of set a standard even that there is a lot of controversy surround. I believe that through more initiatives like that, the cultural institutions and the government in power really can’t turn their backs on what is going on. We have to support this industry from the ground level but once we get the government involved, everything will be easier, definitely!