An interview with model Paul Mason, the most stylish Kris Kringle around.
Santa Claus has never let anything—not snow, not fog, not sleet, not gloom of night—prevent the swift completion of his appointed round. Paul Mason, the artist unofficially known as Fashion Santa, has taken this philosophy to heart. On a freezing December afternoon, several weeks into a legal battle over the “Fashion Santa” name, I find Toronto’s most famous mall Santa at Nathan Phillips Square’s Holiday Fair, posing for pictures in support of Epilepsy Toronto.
“Look, it’s Fashion Santa!” says one onlooker to her children. “Can we take a photo?”
“Yes! You know who I am?” asks Mason, age 52, shivering in a red corduroy suit. The family poses for a picture with the snappily dressed, extravagantly bearded model. A downside to being a fashionable Santa is that Mason is stuck wearing a suit without a coat in subzero temperatures.
“Are you done with the whole mall thing?” asks the mom.
“Yorkdale? I probably won’t.”
“You’re more of a Saks guy, maybe,” the mom replies. “Maybe next year. Gotta kick it up a notch. Screw Yorkdale. It’s too far to go anyway.”
I ask Anjalie Baboota, Mason’s public relations and social media manager, whether he’s allowed to use the name “Fashion Santa.”
“Basically, he’s known as Fashion Santa. People see him, they know he’s Fashion Santa. People call him ‘Fashion Santa,’ all his handles are @PaulMasonModel, so while all that other stuff gets sorted… it’s what people say.”
I’m surprised to learn that Fashion Santa has a PR and social media manager, but then again, he is a bona fide celebrity.
“He was overwhelmed,” says Baboota. “He was getting media requests, and he was like, ‘I’m getting emails from Twitter!’ I’m like, ‘It’s because you have a Twitter account.’ It was very overwhelming at the time. I do social media, media inquiries, attend events with him, whatever he needs.”
How would Mason describe Fashion Santa?
“He’s this elegant guy that looks like Santa Claus, who through all the history of my business—working in France and Italy, and living in London and New York for so long—he’s an international jet-set kind of Santa. The modern Santa, maybe.”
“Maybe he flies business class instead of having reindeer?” I ask.
“Oh yes. He has his own jet.”
Mason has just returned from a fundraiser for the Humane and Rescue Alliance at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C. He has more dates in the U.S. this month, and may have a booking in Russia for Orthodox Christmas. “As Santa does, I want to do a global thing,” says Mason.
Still, at Yorkdale Mall, where Mason launched the character he created in 2014, Fashion Santa is currently being played by another model. The mall claims that Mason didn’t respond to calls to reprise the role, while Mason says he refused to relinquish ownership of the character. Both Yorkdale and Mason have applied for trademarks, and in the meantime, Yorkdale is continuing with its promotion.
“Someone just sent me old footage of when I was younger,” says Mason. “I did a video in the Petit Palais in Paris, which is a historical building. I was running down the stairs in this Christian Dior outfit, and I thought: all these years of working here and in Europe and the States has brought me to this character, who’s a fashionable, elegant Santa.”
Whatever the courts decide, I’m inclined to side with the creator over the big company that hired him. In 1982, the artist Michael Snow famously won a lawsuit against the Toronto Eaton Centre when the mall defaced the geese in his Flightstop installation with Christmas ribbons. It was a precedent-setting victory of the artist’s moral rights over those of the patron. Whether Mason is comparable to Michael Snow is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder, but it’s clear that Fashion Santa is a very personal creation: Mason stopped shaving after his mother’s death in 2013, and the character draws from his 30-year modelling career.
“This Fashion Santa guy—there’s a lot behind him, and a lot of history there,” says Mason. “That’s the mistake I think they made.
“What I’m really, really upset about is that the powers that be think they can just fill that role with anyone, and just put him there. You can’t do that. I’m the one who was in the trenches for 20 years, doing collections in Paris and Milan and London and New York. I’m the one that worked with all the best photographers in the world. I built that career. It’s upsetting to think.”
Baboota doesn’t see Mason as separate from Fashion Santa.
“He is that,” she says. “Knowing where the idea came, he’s just him.”
Does Mason get recognized all year?
“Oh yeah, yeah,” he says. “They get so giddy and they get so silly, but I think that’s what’s so good about it… I like the excitement that it brings. People come out and see me, and I love how happy they are. I did 11 days last year: 11 days, eight hours a day of selfies. Eighty-eight hours of selfies. And the 10 seconds, 15 seconds, or minute of joy per selfie is amazing.”
Correction, December 13, 3:15 p.m.: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article attributed this quotation to Baboota, when in fact it was Mason who said it: “He’s this elegant guy that looks like Santa Claus, who through all the history of my business—working in France and Italy, and living in London and New York for so long—he’s an international jet-set kind of Santa. The modern Santa, maybe.” We regret the error.