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Proudly Albertan fashion star marks a career milestone

Last month, Alberta-based fashion designer Paul Hardy, 39, celebrated his 10th anniversary in business with a day-long bash in Calgary, flying in far-flung clients and media reps with the help of local tourism authorities to both show off his long-time hometown and unveil his spring collection. That line, called Breaking Amish, is a sartorial ode to humble beginnings and striking it rich, turning on the metaphor of a young girl who leaves her sheltered community for the big city, only to return with more confidence than before. It's a story and a trajectory that mirrors Hardy's own.

"I had never envisioned starting my company here," the designer says of Cowtown. Originally from Winnipeg, Hardy had studied fashion design at Toronto's Ryerson University, then briefly moved to New York to find work after graduation. On a trip to Calgary to visit friends in 1998, he took a job as a personal shopper at the new Holt Renfrew store, where, during the course of his work, he detected an appetite among his well-heeled female customers for edgier luxury products that weren't available in the city then. Hardy's solution: design such wares himself. In 2002, he launched his own eponymous label, acquiring many of his former customers as loyal clients and then showing his collections in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles and Paris, where they were always well-received but generated relatively few sales. It was only after Hardy decided to refocus his attention on the Calgary market, opening an atelier and a free-standing store in the city's up-and-coming Kensington area, ceasing the distribution of his work through other retailers and dealing directly with consumers in person and through trunk shows, that his business and reputation really took off, making him one of Alberta's best-known style-makers. "It just evolved that way," he says, "based on the premise that, if you build it, they will come."

In retrospect, Hardy was ahead of the curve, anticipating a sophisticated style market in Calgary well before Alberta's energy boom cemented it. "The biggest and the best retailers are now going to Calgary," says John Torrella, senior partner at J.C. Williams Group, a retail consultancy based in Toronto. "Brooks Brothers is there, [as is] J.Crew; Harry Rosen has a new store. [Their presence] reflects the economic growth of Alberta and in particular Calgary."

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The fact that Hardy was such an early and eager believer, however, has given him a special status in the city. "Paul has invested in Calgary and it has invested in him," says Caroline Gault, FASHION magazine's Alberta editor. "When you think of fashion in Alberta, you automatically think of Paul Hardy. His is a luxe label and voice that Albertans are really proud of. And because he has such a big reputation in Canada, he is paving the way for younger designers."

"There really are mavericks in this city," Hardy says, seeming to embrace his role as boyish eminence grise. "A lot of what we desired here didn't exist, so we had to create it. We had to shape the landscape for the people who live here."

At the same time, he agrees with Gault's assessment of the city's shopping culture. "Calgarians are very loyal to their own," Hardy says. "They're incredibly supportive of local talents and emerging designers. [And even though] there's a lot of money here, they need to feel like they're investing it wisely, even if it's in a product."

Conversely and somewhat ironically, Hardy's decision to root his fashion empire in Calgary has, in addition to making him a hometown favourite, generated far more sales farther afield than any of those slickly produced fashion shows of his early years did: He currently boasts clients in Nashville, Seattle, New York, L.A. and London, among other markets. "We have established a working relationship with people over time," he says of his "word-of-mouth" following. "We know what their sizes and preferences are. I think people like that level of service."

Albertans certainly do: About 40 per cent of Hardy's customer base remains in Calgary, where his line is also produced. "I can't believe that I have managed to survive 10 years solely by selling clothes," he says, noting that most luxury brands rely on bread-and-butter products, such as accessories, for the bulk of their revenues.

That doesn't mean, though, that Hardy isn't keen to broaden his horizons. Next year, a line of lower-priced knitwear will be introduced through an online boutique. And he may be moving some of his production to Asia and Europe as his business expands.

But the designer who has become so synonymous with his adopted hometown has no intention of relocating his atelier any time soon. Calgary keeps him "grounded," he says.

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