About 25 years ago, when the fashion scene was first bubbling in Toronto, I attended a very hip show by a forward design label called Parachute in a church on the city's Avenue Road.
One of the more memorable models was a good-looking kid from the Maritimes by the name of John Gerhardt. All these years later, the elegant Gerhardt has become one of the Canadian fashion industry's greatest influencers, a guru of style whose work as Holt Renfrew's creative director over the past five years earned him a spot among Time magazine's Style and Design 100.
Gerhardt, who studied fashion design at Montreal's LaSalle College, honed his chops working for iconic Canuck brands like Alfred Sung and Roots before going on to become the fashion director at Flare magazine. Since joining Holts in 2004, he has applied his visual talents to creating both arresting window displays and the impressive Holts merchandise magazines, which come out twice a year. (For this fall's edition, Gerhardt recruited legendary New York backstage photographer Roxanne Lowit.)
The fashion imagery Gerhardt helps concoct each season is as good as it gets in this country. But like many true artists I've met in the business, Gerhardt is seldom fully satisfied, admitting that he's often so unnerved by his expectations that he can't look at his books until six months after they come out.
Jeanne Beker: With so much fashion imagery coming out fast and furious these days, does it make your job increasingly harder to produce images that are going to grab people, that are going to make an impression on their hearts and minds?
John Gerhardt: Yes, definitely. I mean, we're all inundated with fashion imagery and at the end of the day I've got to engage readers. And the first thing I have to do is engage them in the photograph. If I don't engage them in the photograph and through the girl, I've lost them.
JB: How much of it has to do with the product, the clothes that you're showing. And how much has to do with the intensity, the drama, the theatricality of the image?
JG: Our books are a marriage of art and commerce, so it starts with the clothes and the clothes usually give me the inspiration, but I also look at the overall mood of what's going on in culture as well. I look at the climate: Do people want fantasy this season? Do they want romance? Or do they want something more cerebral?
JB: What made you want to be a creative director in the first place?
JG: I love pictures. I've lived my life looking through pictures, looking through imagery, looking through fashion imagery. At an early age in New Brunswick, I would run to the newsstand at 12 years old to buy GQ. So it's always been a love of mine. And coupled with my love of fashion, it made sense.
JB: How sophisticated is the consumer that you're talking to today as a result of all that information we're being fed and all the imagery we're being exposed to? I would think that your work is really cut out for you.
JG: The consumer is probably more sophisticated than ever. The Internet has opened up a whole wealth of information for everybody. Fashion has been democratized in the last five years and, in some instances, [consumers]know as much as we do. So I've got to be that much farther ahead of consumers, I've got to be that much farther in terms of creating something that they can sink their teeth into. Everything is instantaneous now.
JB: Do you think that fashion imagery created for something tactile, like an actual book that you can hold in your hand, is different from the kind of fashion imagery that's only going to be viewed on the Internet?
JG: Definitely. There is an argument that print is going to die, that it's a bit of a dinosaur. But I think that print is a new luxury. I really do. You can't duplicate that tactile experience on the Internet. The other thing about something like the Holts book that we produce is its exclusivity: It's only mailed to a certain amount of people. Everybody in the world can see the Internet. It's a different experience. Magazines offer more of an intimate experience, but there's nothing intimate about the Internet. And you know, at the end of the day, I just love the smell and feel of paper. There's something beautiful about it. It doesn't feel old to me. It actually feels new to me after being on the Internet all day!
JB: We've seen a lot of photographers, probably under the direction of a creative director, really push the envelope, go out on the edge, take chances and be provocative, just to get people's attention. What's your stance on that? Are there any boundaries that you refuse to cross?
JG: I don't know if I find pushing boundaries that interesting right now. I don't know if it's about that. I think it's really about getting people to relate. I think there's something really modern about getting people to relate, where they understand, where they put themselves within that scenario. I don't think it's really all that interesting to present something that's not attainable to them. I think it's about being attainable right now. Everything's getting more real, more authentic. We segregate enough.
JB: What grabs you about a model? What makes you think that a certain girl is right for a product or a particular approach?
JG: There are a number of things I look for in a model. The first thing is, can she convey moods? Every picture should be different; it should be distinct. Can she provide range? That's really, really important to me. Does she look believable? A lot of beautiful girls can stand in front of a camera and can wear the clothes well, but do they convey a mood? No. So I want somebody who looks like they actually would wear the clothes, would actually walk down the street in those clothes. At the end of the day, I want the customer to believe that these clothes are clothes that are meant to be worn, that they're not museum pieces.
JB: You're talking to a very global woman with your work. And the brands you feature are certainly global. But is there ever a tack you take because you know that your audience is Canadian and is consuming this product in Canada?
JG: We're a proudly Canadian company, but we benchmark ourselves against international standards. Do I intrinsically put "Canadian" in? Maybe in terms of being a little friendlier, a little more approachable. Somebody asked me recently what our best export is and I said manners.
JB: Do you feel that the confidence level of Canadians as high-fashion consumers has escalated over the years?
JG: I would say so. The whole world caught up to fashion, and Canada caught up as well. I think we're seeing it within our design community, which used to be very safe or very natural in its approach. We're actually being a little more broad-ranged in our design. You can't look at something [homegrown]and say "That's Canadian!" But you can look at something and say, "That's one of the world's best!" Yeah, I think that Canada has caught up.
JB: What makes you stop in your tracks and want to pick up a magazine or stay at a certain page in a book?
JG: A moment. Definitely a moment. Something that takes me to a place of reflection, that makes me want to be there or want to be that person. But it's definitely a moment. That's what we're made of. It's all about moments, truly.
JB: And do you think there will be a great change in the way we consume fashion in the future? Things have already changed to some degree. More people are shopping online, more people are getting their information on the Internet.
JG: I think it's forced us to be more discerning. I think that, when you become over-inundated, you have to sit back and reflect.
JB: Do you find that a better sense of style develops with age?
JG: Definitely, definitely, definitely. For sure.
JB: What do you attribute that to?
JG: Experience. I think that, in your formative years, you're dabbling, you're experimenting. And then you kind of find yourself as you get older. I think I'm at that age where I'm defining my style as well as my career.