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“See that?” Paul Mason points at a picture of himself, pre-beard era, in his old portfolio. “That looks like a catalogue guy … With that short hair … Boring.” Mason laughs at his young self, who was sharp, full of energy and far from boring. He’s been in Vogue, Dolce & Gabbana spreads, Marlboro ad campaigns and endless editorials.
Mason lugs the massive pile of magazines and catalogues that bear his modelling endeavours out of hiding and into his neat and stylish living room. He places them down beside the editions of ELLE Décor sitting on his coffee table. His home looks like it came straight out the magazine. There’s jazz music playing in the background. The walls, like the coffee table, are quiet; they don’t bear flashy fashion photos of himself. An eight by five black and white picture of him taken from afar hangs in his living room. It was taken in Australia and looks as if it could have been a picture that came with the frame.
Now at 50, he sports a full white beard, which matches his white hair. Mason stopped shaving two years ago to pay tribute to his deceased mother. People on the streets have stopped to call his facial hair “epic” and he loves it. “They think I’m this fashion prophet who has all the answers but I don’t,” he says.
The man is legendary, partly because he’s been the same size since he first started. He is Toronto’s very own Fashion Santa, minus the belly. He’s the city’s most coveted model, DTK Men’s current cover star and one of the city’s best dressed according to Toronto Life. This week he will be walking down runways for Rudsak, Farley Chatto and Triarchy at World Mastercard Fashion Week. Previously he was the face of Toronto Men’s Fashion Week (TOM*) where he opened the show and walked the runway for Ryerson alumna Rani Kim’s collection.
Mason was enrolled in Ryerson for social work in the late 1980s when a photographer from the Judy Welch agency scouted him. “I just had the feeling something was going to happen for me in the city,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was going to be.” A professor – whose name he can’t recall – took Mason aside to warn him of the toxic, destructive fashion industry he was joining. However, the same Mason who went tanning in Florida for a shoot when his fellow classmates were doing field work, went with his gut. He signed with the agency, packed his bag and went to Tokyo for his first gig. It was his first time out of the country — one that led to many. After Tokyo it was Milan, Paris, London, Germany, Spain. Shoot after shoot. “It felt right,” he said. “I knew it was right.”
He knew it even back in high school. In 1983, 18-year-old Mason picked up a GQ and saw men just a little bit older than he was on the cover. Back then, models were models and not celebrities. “If this guy can do it, why can’t I do it?” Mason says, recalling the moment.
Ten years later he moved to New York with a portfolio in hand and $300 on his credit card. He walked in a Macy’s catalogue shoot to find he was modelling with the same guy from GQ cover. “Those full circle moments,” says Mason, shaking his head. “That moment was magic.”
The Big Apple kept Mason content for 14 years until he found himself at a standstill and moved back home. “There was no place for me (in Toronto) especially as a model,” he said. “But in New York, you’re getting your rates and they pay you accordingly. Toronto has a real problem with giving people what they’re worth. And I feel in this city, everyone’s settling on free and you can’t live on free.”
There is no fashion economy, unlike when Mason first started. Magazines and retailers are bringing in talents from abroad and going abroad to shoot. “Nothing is generated here and nothing stays,” Mason said. “I wish the people involved would take a step back and look how this could be corrected. It’s not science; there are a lot of talented people here.”
Thirty years into the business and proving his professor wrong, Mason is immune to the nature of the industry. It’s all about finding the balance and never losing his sense of humour, he says.
He also says he’s proud of his mentees under the Paul Mason Management label, including The Toronto Argonauts’ Mike Bradwell.
“I’m mentoring a lot and, for me, if you’re in a position to give, I think it’s really important,” Mason said. He says he likes to help, and that explains his first program choice at Ryerson.
“I may come back (to Ryerson) for social work or sociology,” he says, contemplating.
“Now I want to take the course at 50. Isn’t that crazy? I guess I could.”