While Canadian designers struggle to make their voices heard, one champion is doing her best to keep their work in the international spotlight. Ever since her husband stepped onto the world stage as our Prime Minister, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has made it her mission to expose the fashion talent we have in this country. While she has yet to earn the status of international style icon like Kate, Britain's Duchess of Cambridge has, Canada's "first lady" has raised awareness at home for a burgeoning industry that's often overshadowed by the ruckus made by foreign labels.
The subject of sartorial style isn't a new one for Grégoire Trudeau: She first started honing her fashion chops as a personal shopper at Holt Renfrew, and even helped design her own wedding gown. It's unlikely that she could have foreseen the role she'd play in the lives of Canadian designers one day: When Grégoire Trudeau wore a white alpaca coat by Toronto's Sentaler to her husband's 2015 swearing-in ceremony, the garment sold out in a few days. From Smythe and Erdem to Greta Constantine and Lucian Matis, Grégoire Trudeau is adamant about exposing the best Canada has to offer.
I spoke with Grégoire Trudeau from Ottawa recently about her passion for homegrown design, her eclectic approach to dressing, and what true Canadian style is really all about.
You've helped put Canadian fashion on the world stage in a remarkable way. When did you decide that would be one of your missions?
As a consumer and a mom, I've always been interested in local products. It wasn't just something that came to me out of the blue, like "Oh my God! I should encourage local talent!" But when my husband had his official swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa, it really came to me, "Whoa! I should be wearing Canadian!" And funny enough, a couple of months before that I had seen Jessica [Mulroney], who's been a long-time acquaintance, and she said, "If ever you need anything, just give me a call." I remember calling her up and saying, "I think I should be wearing Canadian [designs]. Do you have any contacts?" To be honest, besides the Quebec designers, I didn't have any idea who our great Canadian designers were. I knew Wayne Clark and Marie Saint Pierre and Denis Gagnon, but that was it. So the exploration and discoveries I've made in the past two years have been exponential.
When a young talent sees someone of your stature wearing their accessories or one of their garments, it's an incredible shot in the arm for everybody.
I never expected the level of reaction and interest and curiosity, which is amazing because what I get on my side is letters from designers and artists and creators who are getting more light shed on their work, and that's what we want to do.
What do you think fashion can do for someone's psyche? Because it can both empower and victimize – especially when it comes to young people.
There can be a love-hate relationship with that component that I totally understand – for example, models projecting the idea of being super thin and wanting women to disappear in their bodies instead of flourishing and blooming. That is totally linked to a dehumanizing concept of healthy self-esteem or construction of self. There are people out there promoting a bone-thin body, but I think that tendency is being more and more pushed aside and not agreed with because it can be very unhealthy. There are so many movements right now pushing forward a more balanced healthy body, celebrating women and their diversity.
The world of fashion is a very enigmatic one. It's full of contradictions.
That's exactly what I mean when I say "love/ hate." It is full of contradictions: Some of these notions are deeply unhealthy, and some of them are beautifully creative, innovative, and filled with different kinds of people and dreams. Through fashion, it's possible to express deep values of one's creative talent and also the values that are expected of society.
Fashion at its best is a strong cultural force.
From Sid Neigum to Lucian Matis to Sidney Molepo, I see faces of different colours and backgrounds, immigrants or Canadian born. This is our country, this is what we're celebrating, and this is what we see in the fashion industry. So that's really interesting.
How does it make you feel when you wear a designer that no one really knows very well, and all of a sudden – like in the case of Sentaler – the piece sells out?
When that happened, and I got the phone call from Jess, I was like "What? Are you kidding me?" She told me, "Soph, [designer Bojana Sentaler's] life has changed now." And it was the same thing for Zvelle shoes [designed by Elle Ayoubzadeh]. It can't make me any happier, but the pressure's on! Sometimes it's not that easy to find exactly the right garment, in the right season, for the right event, and stay only Canadian. But we try our best and I think we've been doing very well. Now there's even more pressure for the 150th! But not every official trip gives the same kind of exposure. You and I will agree that the state visit [to Washington, D.C.] was a huge one. Also for Ela Handbags as well and the white Ellie Mae blazer with the butterflies I was wearing. It changed part of their professional lives for sure. So now, all I want to do is give more, more, more. But not every event can give that kind of same exposure.
It would seem that there's a delicate, almost political line you tread. You're the wife of a Prime Minister, and you have to be careful not to look like you're going overboard or you're too excessive. Is there a kind of propriety when it comes to how often you might wear a certain piece? I'm sure you don't want to show an obsessiveness with fashion either.
I work with Jessica and also my sister-in-law Zoë in Quebec with Quebec designers, but I don't have a stylist per se. I worked as a personal shopper and as a stylist, so nobody is styling me. What I wear is what I feel comfortable in. Bottom line: Nobody tells me what to wear. I'm a mom. I'm the wife of a Prime Minister. I'm Sophie. So yes, I try to express with integrity who I am through what I'm wearing. Obviously politics affect these choices in a slight way. And I have to be honest: I'm a little bit more bohemian sometimes than the protocol that demands that the skirt be under the knee, and also sometimes, I have a very feminine, sexy side as well that I love to express in a well-balanced way. So I do have to make decisions. But it's just common sense for me.
What about other high-profile women and first ladies on the world stage, like the Duchess of Cambridge, or perhaps other iconic style figures in that political realm that you've looked up to in the past? Do you ever look to them for style cues?
I pick a little bit from everywhere, and everything from all eras, but if something is in fashion and I don't like it, I don't wear it. I don't really like following the trend of the moment all the time. I'm not really interested in that. What I'm interested in is falling in love with a piece that expresses something and that I feel comfortable in. And as a mom now, I don't wear anything I can't breathe in. I just can't do it anymore. I mean, I love Lady Gaga as well as Audrey Hepburn, so I don't have one "go-to" figure. And to be honest, we try to be very respectful of other political figures when we travel. This is when Jessica and Zoë are really helping me out because they're like strategists with me in figuring out how we make sure we all dress Canadian, and that we're following the dress code for different events. I wasn't veiled when I went to the Vatican, although other first ladies were. We decided to go with a more modern-valued approach to who I am. So being very respectful of who we were meeting, I wore a modern hat by Lilliput [Hats]. In politics, we get last-minute details on events and sometimes we have to turn around in one week to get all the outfits in line. But, for example, when the Royals came over, one morning I had two dresses – one as a backup, because if anything happens to one, we always have something else just in case. And I saw the colour [Kate] was wearing and I said, "Oh, [the colour of my outfit] is going to clash with what she's wearing!" So, I went according to what she decided to wear.
What do you think gives a woman great style?
Complete ease, elegance, courage. It's all very much related to a well-balanced self, I would say.
How would you describe true Canadian style, especially at this point in time?
Two words come to mind without even thinking: diversity and adaptation. Diversity in its colours, forms, values, culture and creativity. And adaptation in our crazy weather and amazing landscape, city versus nature, and mountains and ocean. What I'm discovering from creator to creator and artist to artist is that everybody's expressing a part of where they come from. I'm also very interested in local furniture and wallpaper designers. I just came back from Prince Edward County and I saw Kate Golding's wallpapers. There's always a new artist that I don't know about that's creating amazing accessories or designs and I'm just fascinated with that. Even makeup and beauty product companies, like Bite Beauty or Living Libations, which are new discoveries. I want to offer every person that we meet on a trip something from Canada so I'm always coming up with new ideas, whether it's soaps or candles or woodcarvings – I really try to promote the talent that we have here.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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