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In late 2008, when the financial crisis was reaching full swing, the New York media buzzed with rumours that Anna Wintour was retiring from Vogue, to be replaced by then-Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld. Ad pages were down, subscriptions were dwindling and critics said Wintour had lost her touch.

Christopher Lee Sauvé, a Canadian expat who had recently left a graphic-design job at Diane von Furstenberg, decided to do something about it, whipping up a black-and-white image of Wintour’s face, covered by her trademark sunglasses, with “Save Anna” written underneath. He e-mailed the picture to members of fashion’s inner circle with the message:

“TOGETHER WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Take this graphic and make a T-shirt, bumper sticker, Facebook profile photo, blog it or create a poster.

We saved Britney. We can save Anna.”

Photo by Dove Shore

It was Sauvé’s first guerrilla art-fashion experiment, and it was a huge success. Soon, Save Anna T-shirts wound up on the shelves of Seven and Patricia Field, some of New York’s coolest boutiques, alongside pieces by Rick Owens and another, more famous provocateur, Jeremy Scott. Bill Cunningham photographed the top for his column in The New York Times.

“People started saying that I was the new Jeremy Scott,” Sauvé, a 35-year-old Vancouver native, said in a recent phone interview from his studio in New York’s South Williamsburg neighbourhood. “But I was like, ‘I’m not the new Jeremy Scott, I’m the new Christopher Lee Sauvé.’ ”

In one fell swoop, Sauvé had created a bratty image that he’s cultivated ever since with a succession of bold, sometimes-shocking clothes that skewer both fashion’s elite and the masters of pop culture. Straddling the line between critic and fan, insider and interloper, he has created designs featuring slogans such as “In times of need I pray to Saint Laurent,” “Punk’s not dead” (that one with a photo of Britney Spears shaving her head) and “I was touched by Terry” (as in Terry Richardson, the notorious fashion photographer).

His shirts “have commentary and some kind of statement along with an image that’s very easy to comprehend,” he says. “I think that comes from loving Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and punk culture. It’s immediate, it’s in-your-face and it has something to say.”

The formula seems to be working. Over the past few years, he has won the approval of both influential editors (at Vogue, Elle, WWD, The New York Times and New York magazine) and fashion-industry veterans. He has also shown during New York Fashion Week. Famous fans include Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, who posted photos of herself in Sauvé’s Richardson and Spears tees on Instagram last month. “[Sauvé’s] shit is dope, and punk’s not dead,” Cyrus says via her assistant. The pop star and Sauvé have a lot in common. Both are fascinated by their respective industries and get their kicks poking fun at them, producing rebellious (if somewhat juvenile) work and mouthing off.

“Christopher comes from his own unique point of view,” says Patricia Field, the store owner and costume designer best known for her work on Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada. “[He’s] part Disney, part pop – and definitely politically controversial. He is happy, inventive and intelligent and [that] attracts me to him and his work.”

Sauvé, who graduated from Emily Carr University, spends much of his time working on his label, but it’s not his full-time gig: He is also the associate creative director of the agency AR New York, where he works on projects with brands such as Sephora and Michael Kors. Previously, he has worked at Ralph Lauren and Alexander Wang.

This past summer, Sauvé’s provocative tendencies generated his most controversial press to date when a T-shirt he emblazoned with an old Kate Moss quote – “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” – was removed from Hudson’s Bay stores after the retailer received customer complaints that it promoted eating disorders and unhealthy body standards.

Sauvé, who developed his muckraking style as a senior designer at Adbusters magazine before moving to New York, apologized at the time for giving offence, but defended his design ethos. He says now that the shirt wasn’t meant to be hurtful, that none of his designs are mean-spirited. “At the end of the day, I personally agree: Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” he says. “I’ve been overweight and, when I work out and I’m healthy, I feel better. Some people said that the shirt should say, ‘Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels,’ but it doesn’t sound the same.” He pauses, then sighs and says, “It’s a fashion quote.”

Despite Sauvé’s bravura, the criticism, he says, came as a shock. “At the time, I was frustrated that I wasn’t getting support from the Hudson’s Bay Company,” he recalls. “I thought that I would have gotten more. Instead, they pulled it down and didn’t contact me while I was being attacked left, right and centre.”

In a statement provided last week, the company said that it “believes Christopher Lee Sauvé is a truly talented designer with a bright future ahead of him,” but “made the decision to promptly remove the T-shirts from our stores and from thebay.com” based on “the overwhelming response and the sensitivity of the matter.”

“I learned my lesson,” Sauvé says now. “If you want to be a designer who sells in department stores, you better print roses on T-shirts and make khakis.”

Photo by Dove Shore

If his show during September’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York is any indication, that isn’t likely to happen soon. Titled the Pop Cult Club, the collection was staged like a red-carpet event, with models in queenly-Paris-Hilton tees and shirts that read, “Be quiet or I’ll call Naomi” (that would be supermodel Naomi Campbell, who has been repeatedly accused of assault). Celebrity gossip-monger Perez Hilton played host and Sauvé wore an image of Joan Rivers on his chest, her middle finger held high. While some may mistake Sauvé’s parody as disdain for celebrity and fashion, he says the opposite is true and describes the Pop Cult Club as “celebratory.” Whatever its intent, Nylon magazine has snapped up exclusive rights to sell it on its website come November.

With Sauvé’s label picking up steam, he recently hired the New York-based PR firm, People’s Revolution, headed by powerhouse Kelly Cutrone. “I really respect his artistry,” Cutrone, who also represents Jeremy Scott, says. “He has an amazing sense of satire as well as an ability to communicate [through art]. He’s refreshing – and that’s relevant in a time when you walk into department stores and everything is the same.

“He’s also kind and he works hard,” she says. “He deserves to have the support of people in the industry – and he has it. This is the beginning.”

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