The Toronto-based, Romanian-born designer shot to fame earlier this year when Sophie Grégoire Trudeau wore not one, but two of his dresses during her official visit to Washington. Not that she was the first fashionista to take notice of Lucian Matis's considerable talent. This Saturday he is up for Womenswear Designer of the Year at the Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFA) gala in Toronto. Here, he shares some of the secrets to his success, including why Cate Blanchett makes a pretty great yardstick.
Always control who's in control
The best career advice I've received came from [the Canadian designer] Alfred Sung, who was the guest speaker at my very first class in my first year at Ryerson. He said to never sell your name, as a brand. Alfred did that and he has regretted it ever since. He got an upfront amount of money in exchange for a large percentage of his name, so basically they could do whatever they want with the name afterward – a fragrance, home decor – and he didn't have any control and he didn't profit. It's something that many designers do, and it's understandable when you are a struggling designer and you need money. I was lucky to learn that lesson from someone who had been through it. With our name, we only do licensing.
To get started, visualize the finish line
When I am designing clothing, I work backwards. The first thing I think about is, what emotion do I want the end result to provoke? Is it sexy? Is it romantic? My 2012 collection, which we created using a macramé technique, is a good example. I knew that I wanted it to have a very artsy, very high-fashion, luxe kind of feel. The benefit to being very clear on the end result and then working backwards is that it makes the decision-making process so much easier and so much more streamlined. When you work backwards, you keep your focus. Otherwise there are so many small decisions that can set you off in different directions.
Keep musing on a muse
A great way to define your style is thinking in terms of a muse. When you have a muse, you can think about what you are designing and ask yourself: would she wear this? One woman I always go back to is Cate Blanchett. I just love her style. She's fashion-forward enough to be always exciting, on trend, but she also has a very classic feel about her. She's so versatile – she's a blank canvas and yet she has such a strong, identifiable look. I think she is just the very top. I haven't dressed her, but I'm hoping to one day.
Customize the customer experience
My mother had a tailor shop [in Romania] when I was growing up. I learned so much about the fashion industry and about making clothing, but probably what I learned most was about the importance and art of customer service, and how to build relationships with clients. When a customer comes into my shop, of course the product is first and foremost, but it's also about creating an experience – the ambience of the label. We play certain music, we have the lighting set in a certain way. We want a visit to our studio to be something that a customer looks back on with a positive feeling. So much of any kind of sales is about just that.
Make the effort to be effortless
One of the words I always keep in mind when I'm designing is effortless. The moment it looks like you're trying too hard, it looks cheesy, it doesn't look natural. I want my clothing to feel and look organic. It's hard to describe. Often the students I work with will ask me to explain, and it's just a feeling, so I can't really put it into words. I know it when I see it, though. With some of the actresses today, especially the newcomers, it's just like they are trying a little too hard – maybe they're showing too much and that ends up looking cheap or they are trying to be very couture and the dress is carrying them instead of them carrying the dress.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.