I was born in 1963 in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, a small town in the South of France, the last child following five boys. Profoundly feminine, with a strong character and lots of determination, I learned from a young age to defend myself like a boy, assert my rights as a girl and stand my ground. I loved to draw little dresses. My eccentric and open-minded father would encourage me to draw and surprise me with the most gorgeous printed pieces from Cacharel or Laura Ashley. He was a respected doctor, and it was in the waiting room of his medical office that I discovered fashion while flipping through copies of Vogue and Elle.
When I became a designer working in New York, the bravery and sense of fantasy I developed as a child shaped my approach to an industry that can, at times, be frustrating for not looking outside of itself. The type of fashion that I believe in needs to say something and reflect our time. So I wasn’t prepared when, following the United States election in 2016, I wrote an open letter to express how my personal values were at odds with the new administration and experienced a backlash. I was singled out for taking a personal position using the limited voice I had.
My understanding of the power of fashion began at 16 when my mother sent me to London to perfect my English. I discovered the punk movement and became fascinated with the work of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. The fashion, the music and a rebelliousness were all interconnected. When I returned home, I pleaded with my mother to attend fashion school and, at 18, I passed the entrance exam to the Studio Berçot in Paris.
Upon graduation, I was hired by Jean-Paul Gaultier. At the time, he was breaking all the rules of the old establishment, mixing cultures and street ideas. But my formative years were spent as the right-hand woman to Azzedine Alaia. He was fiercely independent and could not fit in a mould – or in a calendar. When buyers would ask when the next collection would be presented, he would respond with his typically sharp humour, “when the fruits are ripe, the fruits will be ready.”
I moved to New York to be with my boyfriend – now husband – freelancing and living the bohemian life at the Chelsea Hotel. After the birth of our son, we started the Sophie Theallet brand from our living room in Brooklyn. At the time, the runway shows in New York were unquestionably lacking diversity, with maybe one woman of colour mixed in among 30 Caucasian models on a catwalk. Following in the footsteps of Alaia and Gaultier, I made it my mission to show the vast range of women. Some people disagreed with my approach. In the showroom, I was appalled to hear buyers from some stores point out that it would be difficult for their clients to envision themselves in the clothes, and that my choice of models made my brand look too “ethnic.”
After winning the Council of Fashion Designers of America Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2009, and with first lady Michelle Obama and many celebrities now wearing my clothes, I felt empowered to push further, casting curvy girls and older women in our shows and advertising campaigns long before it was trendy. But it was during the aftermath of the 2016 election that I learned what can happen when a designer steps out of fashion and into politics.
I had been reading in the news about the racially motivated attacks happening around the country and was alarmed by how little the fashion industry was speaking out. My boiling point was when one of my closest employees shared, in tears, how a long-time client humiliated her skin colour in front of his children.
I carefully penned an open letter explaining why, after years of dressing Michelle Obama, I could not work with a new administration whose words and actions contradicted what I believed. After posting it to Twitter, it was shared by The Los Angeles Times and went viral. I was to learn first-hand what it means to be swarmed by a mob of hate. Via phone calls, e-mails and social media posts, it was a never-ending stream of darkness. One image is still particularly vivid in my mind: a shirtless, tattooed, bearded man holding a semi-automatic weapon with the message, “We are watching you Sophie Theallet.”
The ordeal changed me, to say the least. I received so many insults about my physique and criticism about my collections that I actually stopped caring about what strangers might think of me or my work. When the frenzy finally died down, I realized I was ready for something new.
In Montreal to visit a Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition, I remember a sunny afternoon having a glass of wine on a terrace with my husband and son. I felt connected to the city. In fact, I chose Canada a long time ago when I married Steve, a Canadian. At that moment, everything was clear. Canada was our future – the future of our family and the base for our new project, Born in Canada, an ethical luxury brand that places women at the centre of the fashion conversation.
Working from here has altered my approach to fashion. Montreal has a unique energy and a beautiful mix of cultures. Canada stands for values that are dear to my heart: progress, openness, peace and diversity. I am teaching a class at L’Université du Québec à Montréal and encouraging my students, the next generation of designers, to dig deep and find the essence of what it means to be a Canadian designer in 2019. New ideas are not limited to New York, Paris or Milan, and fashion can always benefit more from Canada’s spirit of inclusion.
On May 29 in Toronto, the third annual CAFA Fashion & Retail Forum, in partnership with The Globe and Mail Style Advisor, will explore the business behind the industry’s era of activism. Learn how social responsibility is influencing designers, retailers and executives, explore the media’s role in style advocacy and hear from creative voices building their brands by taking a stand. For more information, visit cafawards.ca.