Friday, March 11, 2016

A Man About Gown: How Christopher Paunil is changing the face of Toronto Fashion

Calm, cool, and collected. Hardly the first words that come to mind when asked to describe the expected atmosphere at a designer’s studio the week before his very first Toronto Fashion Week runway show. Yet, as I enter Christopher Paunil’s bright, serene, open concept studio in the Artscape-Regent Park neighbourhood of Toronto, this is exactly what comes to mind. The studio is spacious and sunny, with a table of plants and succulents surrounded by comfy chairs, a large drafting table, a lone intern at a sewing machine and several racks of the very gowns that have earned their place in the prestigious Kleinfeld’s Bridal Boutique.
With a philosophy as clean and simple as his work space, “meticulous design and production for the contemporary woman”, Christopher Paunil, established in 2010, was “created to make women feel their most beautiful and powerful, from their big day to any day of the week.” Paunil achieves this feat by putting himself in his customer’s shoes, asking himself what he would want to wear, what features he would want to accentuate and others he may want to conceal. He finds inspiration in designers like Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Monique Lhuillier, and Victoria Beckham’s early designs that helped define her brand. From his bridal collection and ready-to-wear line to the custom gowns and evening wear he specializes in, Paunil’s designs are classic, the silhouettes flawless, and the details as meticulous as promised. Using laser-cutting and figure-flattering shapes with movement, Paunil’s designs are fashion-forward, while remaining elegant, classy and undeniably “Christopher Paunil”.
Paunil achieves this high level of quality by doing all of the pattern-making himself, remaining extremely hands-on throughout the entire production process, though not without the help of a small, but mighty, team surrounding him. Paunil has two interns and a business partner, Chalo Barruta, who is with him every step of the way. Paunil is quick to praise Barruta as a true partner, without whom, he would not be where he is. Barruta is very hands on with the financial and business side of things which is, admittedly, Paunil’s least favourite part of the job. His most favourite? Viewing the finished product, and seeing a satisfied customer looking and feeling great in one of his designs, which is particularly special when that piece happens to be a wedding gown.
Growing up, Paunil watched his Grandmother sew, until his mother eventually taught him how to use a sewing machine. Though he was a natural, sewing remained a hobby until the end of high school when he was still unsure of what to do next. Always interested in fashion, he decided to apply to school for design, the only problem being his lack of portfolio. In a move that can be described as somewhere between MacGyver and Lagerfeld, he began to deconstruct and take apart pieces of clothing from his own closet, using them as pattern pieces to make his own clothes, which he showcased and used during the application process. A graduate of the George Brown Fashion Design Program, I ask him what the most important thing was that he learned at school. “Pattern-making would be the most important technical skill I learned, but I also learned the importance of sticking to deadlines. Deadlines are really important in the real world. If you have an order worth $10,000 and you don’t have it ready in time, you’re out $10,000, they will cancel the order and you have now ruined a business relationship because, chances are, they will not be placing another order with you again.” After his first semester, Paunil’s GPA was not where he felt it should be, which he saw as a wake-up call to pull up his socks and start taking school more seriously. He stopped missing classes, worked hard and made sure he met deadlines, ultimately graduating with an impressive GPA, and ready to take on the world. Deadlines are equally important day to day, as there is always a team waiting for you. If Paunil does not produce the designs and patterns on time, the team cannot grade, cut, and sew, which throws off the entire production schedule and can affect the buying season and trade shows.
Even in the face of deadlines, stress, and adversity Paunil is measured, unruffled, and relaxed, the kind of person you would want in charge and running the show. He does not demand respect, but rather commands it, with his logical and rational outlook. “Getting stressed and freaking out is not going to fix anything or make the situation any better” he says reasonably.
So if the last minute preparation for his inaugural runway show at World Mastercard Fashion Week is not enough to get a rise out Paunil, what does? Interestingly enough, the topic comes up at the very end of our interview. I ask Paunil what else he wants the public to know about him or his line. He thinks for a moment and responds, “I don’t want to get too political, but the lack of diversity in the fashion world makes me angry. We had a model casting with about 150-200 girls and there were barely any ethnically diverse women. Bring me women of different backgrounds and I am more than happy to cast them, and do!” He adds that this is simply his own personal experience of flipping through magazines and being disappointed by the inherent lack of diversity, “I flipped through a 400 page bridal magazine counted exactly two black models, and one was from my campaign.” From lookbooks to runway, it is important to Paunil to show a diverse group of models, at his debut show in fashion week more than half of his models are ethnically diverse, and he is committed to doing whatever he can to ensure we see a range of more relatable faces in fashion.

I, for one, will be sitting in the front row, watching this game-changer change the face of fashion in Toronto, and eventually the world, one…well…face at a time.

No comments: