In broad terms, Canadian fashion is defined by a certain laidback, contemporary, ready-to-wear aesthetic. Mention ball gowns, and the Great White North likely won’t even register on the scale. But Mikael Derderian is out to change that. Under his eponymous label Mikael D, the French-Canadian designer produces dresses that are equal parts opulent, extravagant, and luxurious—items more typically in tune with Paris or Milan than Montreal. Dorothy’s not in Kansas anymore.
“I don’t want people’s minds to focus on a general idea of what Canadian fashion is,” Derderian says, perched on a chair in his room at the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel, his dark hair expertly spiked. “I think everyone should have an open mind about it, and we should stop thinking that the boundaries of where you’re actually doing the collection imply that your aesthetic is a particular way.” Derderian’s dresses are a modern take on Old Hollywood glamour, with lots of sparkle, shine, and sex appeal. It’s certainly un-Canadian in the traditional sense, but what does it mean to be Canadian today, anyway? “The world is smaller than we used to have it before,” he says. “So whether you’re based in Canada, or Paris, or New York, it really doesn’t matter where your offices are, per se: it’s your presence.”
In town for a private fashion show, Derderian is honest and matter-of-fact about the state of homegrown talent. “As Canadians, it’s very weird, but we embrace the outside better than we embrace our own,” he says. “For some reason, we embrace the American culture, and we embrace the American music, and we embrace the American TV and the film, and, and, and. And we simply just deny any talent that is up-and-coming. The talent literally has to leave and make it elsewhere for us to start recognizing it. And it’s a shame.” But if “making it” elsewhere is the key to Canada’s heart, Derderian is well on his way. He regularly shows his designs in Paris and New York, and has dressed an array of celebrities, including Halle Berry, Alessandra Ambrosio, and Mariah Carey. “There’s a lot of competition on the red carpet,” says Derderian. “So to also be given that privilege to dress these people, and be in demand for these people, is a really big deal. We’re basically up there fighting with the big names, and it’s a tough fight.” But he’s got the chops, and he’s not about to apologize for it. That would be too Canadian.
Born in Beirut to a Lebanese mother and Canadian-Armenian father, Derderian grew up surrounded by clothing and fabric at his parents’ workshop, where they manufactured children’s clothing. The family moved to Montreal when he was young, constructing a varied and cultured upbringing for Derderian, who is now fluent in five languages. He earned a business and marketing degree before enrolling at LaSalle College in Montreal. In 2012 Derderian launched Pavoni with then-business partner Gianni Falcone, but rebranded as Mikael D in 2013 after the duo parted ways. Mikael D is now carried all over the world, from Asia, to Europe, to the United States, to the Middle East. Bringing things full circle, Derderian employs a workshop in Beirut—he says his birthplace gives him the same level of handcraftsmanship as Paris, but for less.
Intricacy is key, and Mikael D gowns do not shy away from commitment. Some designs require literally thousands of hours of work, and the results are not unlike a painting: from far away they are striking, but it’s equally stirring to get up close and see the individual strokes. Though Mikael D dresses come in a vast array of designs, textures, and techniques, they do have a common thread: silhouette. “I think even before we go into fabrics and finishings and embroideries, which are very important, silhouette is very important,” Derderian explains, adding that the dress should carry the wearer, not the other way around. “It’s very important that it doesn’t overpower, but rather empowers.” The gown doesn’t make the woman, but it sure helps some.
Looking forward, Derderian is focused on development, expansion, and, perhaps above all, awareness. So what does it mean to be a Canadian label? Maybe a better question is: what doesn’t it mean? “It’s breaking that element of almost a predetermined way of thinking of brands and fashion,” Derderian says of his work. “Eventually maybe we’ll have an atelier in Paris, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still Canadian.”
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