Issue #13: I Believe In Fashion Santa
An Interview With Paul Mason, The Man Behind The Charitable Character
“Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.” - Francis B. Church, Editor of the New York Sun, 1987, as written in his editorial, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.’
My Letter To Fashion Santa
Five years ago, I saw a viral selfie of a dashing, white-bearded man posing with Justin Bieber and thought to myself, “Who is he?” He was Fashion Santa, a stunning, modern homage to the man in red, who posed with shoppers for charity at Yorkdale Mall in Toronto, Canada.
A few years later, I heard that Fashion Santa would be hosting a Slay Ride and Portrait Studio on a Queen St. West streetcar. So I grabbed my equally enthusiastic friend, Roger, and we dashed all over Queen St. W. looking for the magical streetcar. We found it just in time and jumped on board for Fashion Santa’s final ride of the season. Fashion Santa was as handsome, spirited, and generous as we had imagined, and we posed for an epic photo. What a thrill! What a delight! We hopped off the streetcar, Polaroid pic in hand, a timestamp of the height of our merriment.
I am now grateful for our innocence, for we did not know that the pandemic was lurking around the corner and that our merriment would not be matched for years to come.
The isolation brought on by the pandemic gave me, and everyone else, a lot of time to think. I began questioning myself, the world around me, and I found myself unable to do the work that I had loved for so long — I had to step away from being a full-time social worker.
I have always found solace in the world of entertainment. I love big expressions of creativity and all that goes with it. I started recording imaginary interviews on cassette tapes at a very early age. I also compiled newsletters and magazines that included my entertainment obsessions of the day. Throughout my life, I entertained my friends, family, and anyone who would listen, with my unnecessary yet vast knowledge of entertainment, celebrity, and fashion news!
Now, with more time on my hands and with a new perspective on the brevity of life, I decided to just go for it and try my hand at entertainment writing. The transition was painful. I hadn’t written for years, and the process was wildly challenging and time-consuming. I was proud of what I was writing, and I believed in my own talent, but how in the world was I going to get anyone to take me seriously at my age and without any prior experience?
I was about to give up.
In a moment of complete audacity, supported by hope, I wrote an email to Paul Mason, also known as Fashion Santa. I knew that his own story had originated out of despair, and I had a feeling that he would understand my situation. I told him that I was starting as a later-in-life entertainment writer and would like to interview him for a December issue of my weekly entertainment newsletter. To my complete surprise, he replied to my letter to Fashion Santa and agreed to a Zoom interview.
Last Friday, Paul Mason and I sat down for an interview to discuss the origin story of Fashion Santa, creativity, celebrities, fashion, and the power of fearlessness.
I am thrilled to share our interview with you here, in written form. I did not intend to use the video recording, but the conversation between myself and Mason felt special, so I decided to upload it to YouTube. The quality of the recording isn’t great but the conversation and the message at its core is magical.
My Interview with Paul Mason | Fashion Santa
The first thing I notice about Paul Mason is the twinkle in his eye. Although computer screens and the miles between New York and Toronto separate us, the glimmer still shines through. With sparkling eyes and an impossibly chiseled, white-bearded face, it’s easy to see how Mason has captivated the world with his charitable character, Fashion Santa.
Mason is radiating happiness today as he is just fresh off an appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show. He tells me that he received a request via email to appear on the wildly popular daytime talk show. “I almost fell off the chair,” he tells me. “And I was thinking, ‘Oh god, I’m going down to LA to meet Kelly Clarkson!’ I mean, it wasn’t quite that way because we did it over Zoom, but I don’t care. She was a delight and so nice, so kind. It’s a great show. It’s a really, really popular show. So I can't believe I'm actually getting to debut on the show.”
I am bursting with excitement for Mason, and I tell him so. I happen to know that things have not always been easy for him or Fashion Santa.
Fashion Santa was born out of Paul Mason’s personal despair. Mason was a New York-based model when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, prompting him to move back to Toronto to be with her during her illness.
After his mother passed away, Mason took a year off in a fog of grief. When the fog began to lift, he noticed that he had grown an impressive white beard. “I didn’t even know I could grow a beard,” he laughs. “I grew this white gigantic beard. I mean none of the males in my family have any facial hair. So I didn't have anything to go from. But, I grew this beard and I liked the way it looked.”
Mason also noticed that he was getting some renewed attention on the fashion scene. He became the face of TOM (Toronto Men’s Fashion Week), and he saw that after each show, he was taking a lot of selfies with people. So, in a moment of what now seems like divine inspiration, he came up with the concept of creating a red-carpet-ready, modern Santa. He pitched his idea to various Canadian retailers and it was picked up by Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto.
In 2014, Mason and Yorkdale collaborated for #SelfiesForSickKids with Fashion Santa. For $5, shoppers could pose for a Fashion Santa selfie with proceeds going to The Hospital For Sick Children. The campaign was quiet that first year, but in 2015 it quickly became a phenomenon. Mason recounts, “I think we got about 2 billion impressions that holiday season. We broke the internet. I remember just watching it all unfold in front of me. Country after country, and news programs, and TV shows. It was really remarkable.”
I tell Mason that I entered the Fashion Santa fandom when I saw the now infamous selfie with Justin Bieber. I’ve always wanted to know more about that encounter, and Mason happily elaborates. Bieber was doing some last-minute shopping at Yorkdale, and the mall welcomed the opportunity for some publicity. With a mischievous smile, Mason says, “I’d like to think too that maybe he wanted a selfie with the guy that just broke the internet for holidays.”
He recalls Bieber schooling him on how to take a good selfie. “He was gracious and unbelievable. He was really, really kind. I took the phone, and I thought I was a master at taking selfies at that point, but I obviously wasn’t because he grabbed my hand and said, ‘Let me do it because this is not the way to do it.’ So I surrendered to that. I mean, it’s Justin Bieber, and I’m sure he’s done enough selfies in his life.”
Unfortunately, the festivities were interrupted by a lengthy trademark battle between Yorkdale Shopping Centre and Mason over the name “Fashion Santa.” In 2018, Mason won exclusive rights and ownership to “Fashion Santa.”
Mason continued “charity with a dash of luxury” fundraising initiatives with SickKids, HopeSpring Cancer Support Centre, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Children’s Miracle Network. His most recent collaboration is with the Georgetown University Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Centre Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Unit.
Fashion Santa also has some significant advertising campaigns under his belt. The sexy, silver-haired gent was the face of the Hyundai Canada Holiday Campaign and the Walter Craft Caesar Holiday Campaign in 2019.
While Fashion Santa is newer to the advertising and fashion scenes, Paul Mason is not. Mason has walked the runway for designers like Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, and Armani for over three decades. He most recently closed the Jean Paul Gaultier Spring 2020 Couture show during Paris Fashion Week.
As someone who has recently acquired an interest in high end fashion, I am eager to ask Mason about his experiences in the fashion industry. I know that Mason initially began as a social work student at Ryerson University, but I don’t know how he found himself in the modeling world.
Mason explains that Ryerson University also houses a Fashion Design Program. He met design students through elective courses such as Sociology and Psychology, and they asked him to walk for their presentations and shows. He recalls with wonder, “I’d never walked in anything. And I think the second show that we did, I was discovered there. And a month later, I was on the runway in Tokyo. My first trip out of the country. I’d never left Canada.”
My jaw drops in awe, and I sit there kicking myself for not going to a school of social work that also housed a Fashion Design Program. Surely, I would have been discovered too!
I try to remain cool while Mason casually tells me more about his favorite designers, the ones mentioned above as well as Hugo Boss and Jil Sander. But what I really want to know is what it was like to close the Jean Paul Gaultier show. I know that models and pop culture icons like Winnie Harlow, Bella and Gigi Hadid, Paris Jackson, and Boy George walked that same show. Mason is not star-struck in any way. He quietly names his experience at the Jean Paul Gaultier show as the stand-out of his career.
“That was remarkable. I think it was right up there. Maybe the number one fashion experience I’ve ever had,” he reflects. “I was so fortunate to be able to land that. I didn’t have any clue that I’d be closing the show. I had no clue, and I didn’t really understand how big the show was going to be. It was incredible from start to finish.”
Although Mason shows no sign of being particularly taken with celebrity culture, I just have to ask him if he does have any celebrity obsessions - this is Obsessed! after all! He seems puzzled by this question, somewhat stumped.
“It’s really funny,” he muses. “So, obsessions. I guess I’m intrigued by Angelina Jolie.” He goes on to say that he has an affinity for the iconic kind of celebrities and actors of The Golden Era of Hollywood — Cary Grant and Bette Davis, James Dean and Gregory Peck.
“Obsession,” he mulls over the word. Then he looks right at me and says, “I don’t know. Why, do you have someone that you’re obsessed with?”
I laugh out loud. I confess to Mason that I have “just a few” celebrity obsessions and tell him that my family, friends, and followers will love that he asked me that question. I go on to explain to him that I admire highly creative people who are able to seize their own creativity and project it in a very big way.
“Right,” Mason nods. “I’ve been fortunate actually to be part of something like that. The artistic collaboration between makeup artists, stylists, models, and photographers - with four big artistic kinds of creative people in the room, the outcome can be fantastic. And then to translate this into Fashion Santa, I mean, the sky’s the limit. So, I’m really in heaven, actually, just being this guy and seeing the next step and what the next step after that will be. The creative process is just like one of the most important things. So, I’m just really thrilled about it.”
Inevitably, we discuss how the pandemic has halted many creative possibilities. We begin lamenting the opportunities lost over this nearly two-year period, but Mason quickly slides right back towards optimism.
“There was a good thing that came out of it,” he smiles. “I, oddly enough, was able to design four holiday cards last year. And that was all done over Instagram. Just me and the illustrator [Steeve Lapierre] direct messaging each other back and forth, back and forth, tweaking this, changing that. And so that’s a real true pandemic story, you know, that the cards kind of came to life through that.”
Of course, I know about the holiday cards. “I bought them!” I squeal.
Mason, seemingly unphased by my enthusiasm, carries on, “I wanted the character to look like a dandy, a kind of quirky, kind of uncomfortable Santa that doesn’t know how to do much, except being a really good guy. So he’s kind of awkward-looking and exaggerated. I’m really proud of that. I’m really, really proud. And I would love that to maybe translate into a book.”
The creation of the holiday cards meant that Fashion Santa could continue his charitable work while most of the world was locked down. Aside from printing costs, proceeds went to SickKids.
Given that the holiday season is upon us, I am curious to know what Fashion Santa is up to now.
“Well, because of the pandemic, I needed to change the brand a little bit or change the character,” Mason explains. “I needed something like a really powerful, strong, visual backdrop. And what is better than New York City during the holidays? I think it was a good move. I’ve featured some of the iconic monuments and buildings, you know? And I’m not done yet. There are a few other things up my sleeve. I’ve been shooting all around the city. No one does holidays like New York City; they just do it so well. It’s very dramatic. It’s over the top. And I just wanted that for myself and for my followers to have a different visual.”
I tell Mason that in all of his work, I can see him bringing a delightful spirit forward, and this, to me, is what makes him unique.
He blushes a tiny little bit and nods. “I’ve created something that has been embraced by the people, the public, they like it. And, you know, it’s thrilling to me too.”
He will be back home in Toronto for Christmas Day. He traditionally teams up with the Toronto non-profit group Heroes In Black to distribute clothing and other necessities to people experiencing homelessness on Christmas morning. Mason also hopes to catch up on some much-needed sleep after Fashion Santa’s busiest season of the year.
I realize that I am speaking with someone living a seemingly impossible life, one that merges luxury and panache with humility and generosity. One that is measured by longevity but is kept current and fresh. As someone facing a life pivot, I seize the opportunity to ask for Mason’s advice.
The response comes easily from Mason,
“Well, I think that a pivot, to me, is a positive. I don’t look at it as a negative. And I know it’s scary, and I know there’s fear. There’s a lot of fear there, but I also look at regrets too. And I think that you have a long time to think about where your life’s gone and how fast it goes. You know, time is just ticking. And I would rather take the chance than have regret. And I think that’s the beauty of what we’re doing now. You know, the world is changing so fast, and we’re all having to adapt.”
When asked how to avoid getting trapped in the opinions of others, Mason speaks with certainty,
“That's one thing that I've noticed through my whole career is that I usually have blinders on and I don't listen to the chatter. You know, I'm kind of in my own bubble. There’s no room for anyone else's voice in this noggin of mine. It's helped me a lot to be focused. And because you don't know the motivation behind people's comments and what they're about. Just keep your blinders on, keep going forward.”
As we wrap up our chat, Mason sincerely asks me how my entertainment writing is going. I tell him that I am slowly gaining traction, but this transition has not been easy.
“Well,” he says. “I think you’re a natural on camera. I think your questions were great. And, you know, you’re so likable. So I think you can continue with this. Like wherever your path takes you. Just give yourself a rest and do what your heart and soul need to do.”
At this moment, I know that I am doing what my heart and soul need to do. Yes, he is Fashion Santa, but through our conversation, Paul Mason reminds me that humans create magic when they believe in others as much as they believe in themselves.
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