The first time I ever shook the hand of Denis Gagnon was at a cocktail with Vancouver shoe designer John Fluevog in the presidential suite of Montreal’s Opus Hotel.
I had just told Opus owner John deC. Evans – who was jetting off to Morocco afterwards – about my good friend Roger Steffens, chair of the Grammys reggae committee and nicknamed Ras Rojah by his old friend Bob Marley, who met the French count Jean De Breteuil in Morocco with his then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull the day after De Breteuil sold Jim Morrison his fatal dose of heroin on July 3, 1971.
When De Breteuil told Steffens about Morrison’s overdose, Steffens explained to me: "I thought he was full of shit because there was nothing in the international press yet."
When I finished the story, I turned to greet Denis Gagnon and introduced him to my mom Liliane, who used to model in the 1960s. Mom told Denis, "I admire your work."
Whereupon Gagnon looked at her and said, "Which of my pieces do you love the most?"
This is the Denis Gagnon I remembered when I blabbed with him on the phone recently. Except this time I came away liking him. He’s older than me, hugely talented, one of the best fashion designers on the planet, internationally acclaimed – and yet, like me, hardly has a penny to his name.
"I also look forward to the day when I am as rich and famous [as Karl Lagerfeld]!" Gagnon laughs. "It’s true I would like more money. But money is something to better my life, and also to make better collections."
Gagnon has a new autumn shoe collection for Aldo and his 30-piece cheap-chic all-black collection for Bedo was launched this past August, with prices ranging from $29 to $299 (the $299 leather jackets are a bargain compared to the signature leather jackets from his own label available at Holt Renfrew which can go upwards of $2,500).
Now, sandwiched between the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ hugely successful 2008 Yves Saint Laurent exhibition (Saint Laurent would die just two days after it opened) and next year’s much-anticipated MMFA-curated Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition, the MMFA is launching its Denis Gagnon exhibition (featuring 15 haute-couture garments) on Oct. 19 to celebrate the designer’s 10th anniversary in the fashion biz.
"Denis Gagnon is a designer of rare integrity," says MMFA museum director Nathalie
Bondil. "His unfettered talent makes him an icon of Canada’s fashion world."
"It’s not a retrospective, it’s a new collection," Gagnon explains. "I think it’s extraordinary to be [so honoured] between Saint Laurent and Gaultier. A fashion designer is a sculptor, a painter, an artist. Such [fashion] exhibitions help democratize fashion and show people that fashion is indeed art."
Like Gaultier and Saint Laurent, Gagnon is gay. In fact, most men in the fashion world are gay males – a point plus-size rock singer Beth Ditto of The Gossip once notoriously complained about, telling NME magazine, "If there’s anyone to blame for size zero, it’s not women. Blame gay men who work in the fashion industry and want these women as dolls. Men don’t know what it feels like to be a woman and be expected to look a particular way."
"She’s right," Gagnon answers point blank.
In fact, Gagnon and I also had another thing in common (besides being gay) when we were kids – we both liked to play with our sisters’ Barbie dolls.
"My mom even changed [my Barbie] for a G.I. Joe!" Gagnon, now 48, sighs. "She knew I had homosexual tendencies but didn’t understand this phenomenon. I used to adore dressing up Barbie! Now I dress up human Barbies."
Gagnon continues, "You don’t have to be gay to be a designer, of course, but the gay sensibility is evident. Men designing for women are really designing for themselves."
It turns out that Gagnon – despite our first meeting – is indeed quite shy and hides behind his huge signature Lanvin glasses ("I wear them with pride"). He keeps plugging away, hoping to land his dream gig in NYC one season soon, and hopes his MMFA exhibition will add fuel to the fire. "I would like to design purses and perfumes, like Chanel. That’s really how they make all their money, on all the accessories. That is my dream."
Denis Gagnon, a Couturier at the Museum: Ten Years of Fashion Design in the Contemporary Art Square at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Oct. 19 to Feb. 13, 2011. Free admission.
Gay Lit Dept: Dressed in black rubber and with the unmistakeable voice of the undertaker in The Flintstones, Montreal writer – and onetime Hour book critic – Peter Dubé is both a feast for the eyes and ears. Following the publication of his acclaimed books Hovering World and At the Bottom of the Sky, and the anthology Madder Love: Queer Men and the Precincts of Surrealism, Dubé launches his new novella Subtle Bodies (Lethe Press) – a fictional biography about the last days of famed surrealist René Crevel, who committed suicide in 1935 – next week in Montreal.
"I discovered the surrealist movement at a time – I had just turned 15 – when its revolutionary fervour has a powerful impact on young men," Dube says. "[In the 1980s] I was also exposed to the radical gay movement [of] that time and they [both] hit me at the same time. I discovered Crevel was the only openly gay man in the surrealist movement and I’ve been fascinated with him ever since."
Subtle Bodies is a terrific read by a generous writer who still wholeheartedly believes in gay literature. "There is still a vital place for gay stories," Dube says. "Nobody grows up in the gay world anymore and the best place you can learn about it is still in gay stories."
Peter Dubé launches Subtle Bodies at Casa del Popolo (4872 St-Laurent) on Oct. 18 at 7 p.m.