In fashion's ever-changing landscape, designers must be prepared to think outside the box. Twelve years after his first foray onto the runway at Toronto Fashion Week, Paul Hardy has managed to navigate the industry by staying true to his inner artist, despite an onslaught of professional challenges over the years. Catering to a mix of local devotees and a burgeoning international clientele, the Winnipeg-born designer sells primarily from his studio showroom in a converted foundry in Calgary's East Village. Last year, Hardy was named artist-in-residence at Calgary's Glenbow Museum and conceived an exhibit entitled Kaleidoscopic Animalia – the show is about man's relationship with animals, and is rife with exotic artifacts and avant-garde fashion.
I spoke with Paul Hardy at his studio to learn more about his work with the Glenbow, his creative drive and what keeps him in Calgary.
Do you agree that being a fashion designer today is about more that just being involved in the sartorial end of things?
I think so. Fashion's a bit like music or film. It's a governing arena in our social culture, and everybody gets up in the morning and gets dressed. Whether or not they're good at it is a different story. But it does have an impact regardless of where you live in the world. So I've always viewed fashion as a significant platform to generate awareness about other things – causes, different arts, etc.
You've proven yourself to be a survivor in the fashion industry; would you describe yourself first and foremost as an artist?
I like creative challenges and being able to diversify my creative interests. That keeps things fresh and inspired, and it inspires my primary business of fashion. But designing all the costumes for Sarah McLachlan's ballet and working with the museum was a real joy. I also curated the merchandise of the Calgary Stampede, and we rebranded their image to be more of a hip, urban western mercantile. When I got into doing interiors around the stock market crash of 2008, I thought it would be important to diversify my interests, so this is where I started developing different opportunities with interiors and consulting creatively on different projects. It helps underwrite my operational expenses.
You travel the globe extensively but you always come back home to Calgary. Why is that?
I have this motto of not existing at the mercy of your circumstances and so I never wanted my career to determine the existence of my personal life. I've always valued being in Calgary. The people are really lovely, the quality of life is really great. It almost acts as a bit of a refuge in a way, because when you're in these more cosmopolitan places like Paris or New York or Toronto or Los Angeles, it's a bit of a rat race. I feel like I get the best of both worlds because I'm able to have this very grounded existence here but then I get to travel five months out of the year and be a part of things. And I realize that may have inhibited the growth of my company, but to me life is really about relationships. I thought I could go to New York or Paris and try to build up this big fashion house, but there's a lot of ego in that and eventually it all burns away. I thought it was profound what [Canadian designer] Jeremy Laing did [when he shut down his business]. I could totally empathize with what he was feeling. This really is a very strange business, isn't it?
How do you keep going back to that creative well and drawing from it so successfully? There must have been some days over the past decade when you just wanted out.
There are periods where I feel frustrated but I think that's common with anybody who's an artist. They often feel like they're underrated and wonder what are they doing it for. But ultimately you have to do it for the love of the craft because if it's for anything other than that, it starts to affect your state of mind. I speak with a lot of fashion students and many of them are jaded because they have a glamorized impression of the business. But it's hard work, and it's not glamorous for the most part. A lot of it is very much smoke and mirrors. Perhaps being based in Calgary has allowed me to remove myself from it. I'm able to see the landscape from a much different perspective, which I hope gives me a healthier attitude towards it all.
Well, you've always had a unique point of view. Your brand is not only about a lifestyle, but about a raising of consciousness.
It's funny because Women's Wear Daily wrote me up one time saying that I was a fashion nomad because I would fly in, show a collection in New York and then disappear for five months and nobody would know where I was. I guess in some regard, I do march to my own drum. I've taken very unconventional approaches on how I retail. But I realize no one else is responsible for paying my bills except for me and press certainly doesn't pay the bills.
I'll never forget the picture you painted in the early days of your career, of working away at your kitchen table all night, finishing collections at the 11th hour. You were operating as a true artist. So how fitting that you would be the artist-in-residence of the Glenbow.I was very flattered and a bit humbled that they had even asked me because there seems to be this continuous debate of whether or not fashion designers are actually artists or not. But I think that they were aware that fashion does have a significant role in society and I think the people at the Glenbow would even say that the public perception of the museum in
Alberta was antiquated. They've really been trying to change the public's perspective with new, compelling collections. So they started this residency program a few years ago. Essentially, you get to research whatever you want, and they give you a team of people to help, so you really feel like you're working in a collaborative way. I have always been very fascinated by taxidermy and man's relationship with animals. So I proposed that we examine man's relationship with animals and design, and how that relationship has influenced fashion, art, pop culture, interiors and lifestyle. I used to do window displays in university, so I curated the exhibition to look like store windows at Bergdorf Goodman. I felt like that would have a commercial appeal. When you walk through the gallery, you feel like you're window shopping but it's all original artifacts.
The subject matter you're focusing on is universal.Man's relationship with animals is a common thread through every culture and it transcends every social hierarchy, whether you're in a tribe wearing skins, or fur on royal robes. It also is something that has permeated our culture on a daily basis and in a way we don't even recognize. In primitive times, tribes would kill an animal and eat the heart of the animal thinking they were taking on the attributes of that animal. I think in a contemporary way, it's like a woman buying a pair of leopard-print shoes and the psychology that's connected to that, or how she feels when she's wearing a leopard-print bra. It's a similar state of mind. So there's an aesthetic component to the whole thing but there's also a kind of psychological and spiritual thing.
Kaleidoscopic Animalia runs at the Glenbow Museum until Sept. 5, 2016. For more information, visit www.glenbow.org.
This interview has been condensed and edited.