While the pandemic has become a massive slow-down for some, that is not at all the case at Denis Gagnon’s workshop, a well-established atelier in Old Montreal. Orders for masks have exploded over these past weeks, and though the designer certainly did not expect this, he has consequently handled this situation with his characteristic talent and engagement. It’s in this context that he celebrates his two anniversaries that we would like to feature: 20 years in his fashion career, and 10 years as part of the Gens du Vieux movement in his St-Paul Ouest boutique, celebrating a success that has never waned. “Every morning, I get in around 6 a.m. to stoke the fire and prepare my team’s workday. It’s hard to reinvent oneself after all these years, but I’ve still got my passion, and so I continue on,” Denis Gagnon states.
“We sent Mayor Valérie Plante a mask,” Martin Blais confided to us. Martin is one of Denis’ assistants. “At the production level, we follow a very rigorous process using synthetic materials from outside, as well as implementing triacetate in certain models, all of which comes together to let us create something both beautiful and durable. These masks are adjustable, which is very important in fitting any face,” the young man insists. In the beginning, Denis Gagnon sewed his own mask, not interested in wearing one of another brand, and then made some for his employees... “Then there was a growing demand from our client base – more than 400 in 2 weeks!” Mr. Blais exclaimed. “For us, masks are a way to reinvent oneself. Denis has worked really hard on it! At almost 60 years old, he shows us it’s still possible to pass from one state to another and then continue to evolve,” states the assistant who has accompanied him on this brand’s adventure for more than two and a half years.
“We have a large international client base, and Old Montreal is the ideal place for cultivating it, as we are, of course, worried about the current situation and perspectives this year,” states Mr. Blais. But at the workshop, there is no time to worry – the machine is working overtime, run by an ardent worker. “Denis works very hard,” Mr. Blais insists. “And for 20 years, he has not stopped diversifying. He is very creative and has completed contracts for the theatre, symphonic orchestras, and artists from Montreal and beyond.” He chuckled through recounting an anecdote of Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly entering the shop to find an outfit for the Avengers red carpet event last year. “We did not recognise her right away!” he cried with laughter. “But she is a very charming and beautiful woman.”
The creator’s success is not surprising, according to Martin, and he gave us the one simple reason: “We don’t solicit anyone. We don’t approach others to do collaborations or anything, we just let people come to us.” Certainly, this kind of willing ambassadorship has brought a great visibility to his outfits.
Another factor to the longevity of this Quebecois creator is doubtless his extraordinary capacity to democratise fashion without losing touch with his nobility. Getting displayed on the runway is no small task, but Denis Gagnon has come out best in some audacious bets that have now borne fruit. For 7 years now, the Canadian retail giant, Simons, has been selling his creations and his masks will soon be joining Fabrique 1840, a section dedicated to local designers. “We are actually preparing an exclusive mask model for them,” Mr. Blais informs us.
There is also the Denise unisex collection: “I wanted to create the DENISE collection because I wanted to highlight the challenge of presenting a collection that fits the day-to-day life of all. It is a collection for everyone, women and men alike.” designer Denis Gagnon explained to us. This unisex collection has seen real success and each piece in the set, ranging in price from $55 to $235, has something to appeal to everyone. “We created them from the raw materials that the big fashion houses didn’t want anymore,” Mr. Blais explained. “The fabrics were marvelous and still new, and we gave them new life.” The challenge that the designer took on worked out, and men started booking and showing up to appointments: “This has expanded our clientele, notably in the male demographic, which now represents 28% of our shoppers.”
The designer pieces are sold in a rather large range of prices, and when we mentioned this, Martin Blais clarified that the reason was a question of transparency. “When we put a piece on sale, Denis and I sit down and calculate the real production costs. The price isn’t just a number on a label. Many factors are taken into consideration and we want to make sure the price reflects the material, the complexity of the cut, or, contrarily, its minimalism.” And that is without a doubt one of Denis Gagnon’s secrets to traversing seasons without a misstep: a defined price for the creation, and not the creator. Martin gets interrupted by the ringing phone, excuses himself, and he must leave us. Geneviève Borne, a brand devotee, is waiting on the other line.