Sew and Behold
Fashion designer Paul Hardy desperately needed to land a spot at L.A.’s Fashion Week. So he asked his fellow church members to pray for him.
Miraculously, he got in
by Dina O’Meara
The whirling sound of a motor drowns out Paul Hardy’s voice as he gives directions to his studio. Hardy confesses to the voice on the other end that he’s the one operating the industrial sewing machine because fame and fortune don’t go hand in hand. “I wish people would get that. If I’m so successful, why am I still doing my own sewing in my basement?”
Although, the 31-year-old Calgarian travels regularly on business to New York, Los Angeles and London, life at home is hardly glamorous. The tall, slightly disheveled clothing designer lives and works in an unassuming, rented bungalow in an older, trendy neighborhood in northwest Calgary. The 1,800-square-foot suite is decorated with Ikea furnishings, 18th century Chinese antiques and several large abstract oil paintings. Oversized coffee table books and tomes of fashion history are stacked in neat columns.
His daily routine is as simple as his home décor. Each morning he rolls out of bed at 6:30 a.m., goes for a one-hour prayer walk, eats a bowl of cereal and then begins the solitary task of running the Paul Hardy fashion design business.
Two well-read books rest on the arm of a black leather sofa. One is the Bible, requisite reading for a spiritual man who credits the success of his self-named company to his faith in God, prayer and close ties to the MorningStar International church, an evangelical ministry. Divine guidance helps him balance the stresses of a demanding career and keeps Hardy on an even keel.
A growing network of well-connected church members in Canada and across the border support Hardy through prayer circles. The group showed its support in April 2003 when, after failing to win a spot at Los Angeles Fashion Week, Hardy asked for their prayers. The network responded. Hardy landed a spot miraculously and was the sole Canadian designer at the L.A. show. In September 2003, Hardy was the only Canadian representative at New York Fashion Week. According to Hardy, the power of prayer was again responsible for his good fortune.
The other book sitting on Hardy’s leather sofa is Why Smart Executives Fail, written by Sydney Finkelstein. The bestseller is evening reading for Hardy, who’s no slouch when it comes to managing a business in what is often a finicky industry. Today’s hot clothing designers are tomorrow’s forgotten labels.
If designers are made and broken by the fashion industry’s fickle follies, Hardy has yet to fade. In 2003, sales of the Paul Hardy line were $120,000, a 500% increase from the previous year’s $20,000. Last year, the company ended the year strong, selling more for the fall season than the entire year. Moreover, Hardy picked up two new retail accounts in Toronto, appeared in Flare magazine four months running and became a favoured designer of singer/actress Bette Midler.
Many entrepreneurs rely on the support of loyal clients, friends and family to prop up their startups. In Hardy’s case, he can also count on the assistance of the members of Morningstar’s worldwide ministry. The followers assist with show preparation, find cheap places for him to stay when he’s travelling to any of the fashion capitals and seek out modeling agencies willing to reduce their fees. In February 2003 when Hardy was showing his collection at New York’s Fashion Week, the designer booked a $89 a night Super 8 Motel room to manage expenses.
In New York, where the cost to rent a venue for a fashion show averages about $25,000 US, Hardy’s church network secured The Lambs Theatre off Broadway for less than the going rate — $2,500 US for three days. The show’s final price tag came to around $25,000 US, but it easily could have spiked higher if Hardy’s network hadn’t pitched in with their support.
The expense was worth the publicity that followed. The only Canadian designer to present his collection at the New York fashion spectacular, the Canadian embassy feted Hardy at an exclusive Park Avenue party, attended by influential media mavens and moneyed New York socialites. And Hollywood’s Phillip Bloch, fashion stylist to the stars, later gushed that Hardy’s evening gown, a red duchess-silk creation folded like Japanese paper art, was the only “Oscar-worthy” gown of the entire fashion week.
Hardy’s ready-to-wear clothes match edgy lines with textured fabrics like rustic hand knits and light chiffon, draping the wearer with panache. “I want to make clothes that woman actually want to wear and can wear,” he says. “My philosophy is to celebrate women, rather than objectify them.”
The attention Hardy has attracted is no flash in the fashion pan, say buyers. His bold mix of textures and exact craftsmanship have staying power. “I really think Paul is what I call a true designer,” Barbara Atkin, fashion director for Holt Renfrew says from her Toronto office. “He doesn’t copy others, he doesn’t look just at trends, he creates true creative, collectable pieces.”
Atkin buys the Paul Hardy line for Holt Renfrew, but also for herself. She predicts continued success for the Calgary-based designer. One Hardy creation she bought and cherishes is a pink organza coat that combines classic cut, workmanship and style. “It’s got longevity,” she says. “Paul Hardy pieces aren’t going to date themselves.”
She also praises the fit of the Paul Hardy line. “No matter how beautiful a product is, if it doesn’t fit, the customer will walk away. Paul’s clothes have real integrity and workmanship.”
uch of Hardy’s business sense comes from hands-on experience working as a personal shopper at Holt Renfrew in Calgary three years ago. A native Winnipeger, Hardy landed in Calgary after a brief working stint in New York. At Holt’s, Hardy gained valuable experience about retail purchasing, building relationships with buyers and understanding what drives customers. Picking through the racks and racks of designer clothes at Holt’s, the impressionable Hardy also sharpened his eye for clothing construction.
Holt Renfrew bought a small portion of Hardy’s first collection in 2002 and continues to showcase the line. One of the keys to his success is that he still goes out on the floor and meets with customers and listens to what they want, adds Atkin. He markets to an upscale clientele that desires stylish casual wear.
To reach the level of success that other Canadian fashion icons like Lida Baday have attained, Hardy needs to make his brand affordable to a larger audience, say industry critics. While good designers like Hardy have their loyal followers, they “need to be able to manufacture in large quantities to be able to lower the price,” says Marek Wlazlo of Minimidimaxi Magazine, an online display of the Canadian fashion stage.
Although Baday’s offices are still based in Toronto, she no longer participates in Canadian fashion shows anymore, focusing instead on the U.S. and Europe, where her line is carried in high-end shops like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.
Fashionista, television host and managing editor of Canadian fashion publication FQ Jeannie Becker agrees that cracking the U.S. market is instrumental to any Canadian designer’s real success. “There’s an adventurous feel to Hardy’s designs, a unique, hand-crafted sometimes almost raw quality to many of his pieces that jives well with the new Canadian spirit,” she comments.
“It’s very hard and not really financially rewarding to only have a loyal following here at home,” adds Becker. “It took a lot of chutzpah for Paul to show first in L.A., then New York. He knew he had to do something dramatic to get the attention he felt he deserved, both in the States and right here at home.”
Most small business owners like Hardy testify that their earlier days in business are about learning how to squeeze a dollar out of a dime. At the 2002 Ready-To-Wear Fashion Week in Toronto, Hardy chose a stark black and white colour palette for his collection because it was the least expensive to outfit. “It also made more sense, from a business point of view,” Hardy recalls. He also draped black handkerchiefs over the heads of his models and painted their faces in simple makeup tones. The models strutted barefoot down the catwalk in raw-cut leather separates and silk and satin dresses.
No one in the audience was aware that the models were shoeless because Hardy didn’t know how to find a shoe sponsor. And not one newspaper review mentioned that there was no music because Harvey didn’t have a DJ.
“I was basically flying by the seat of my pants figuring out to put a show together. It was a bit of a crap shoot. I didn’t choose any music because I didn’t know what the protocol was.” The collection, appropriately dubbed Silence, was wildly successful, taking on perhaps a tad more metaphysical significance than it merited.
The Toronto show garnered Hardy fame, but money didn’t immediately follow the success. Retail orders trickled in slowly and Hardy had to dig deep to pay his suppliers on time. During those skint times, he often survived on nothing but cereal for weeks.
“Carrying costs before stores pay you out drains cash flow and has been the hardest thing to keep a handle on,” Hardy admits.
The biggest change in his finances happened late 2004 when his father helped him secure a small line of credit for his business, no small feat considering Hardy’s lack of liquid assets. When Hardy incorporated his company in 2000, he used $15,000 in startup funds from his former clients at Holts who wanted to see the young designer succeed. Many expenses were also financed using credit cards. “Now I have the working capital to defer to when finances start bottlenecking,” Hardy says.
Even with this injection of operation funds, in between shows Hardy still takes custom orders for evening gowns and separates, and sells season-end samples to help cover the costs of putting together his next collection – never forgetting that it’s his loyal followers who pay the bills. “Basically,” he says, “I did this on the good faith of clients.”