When I meet Paul Mason—better known by his alias Fashion Santa—he’s hauled up in the corner bar at Downtown Toronto’s Ritz Carlton hotel, sipping champagne from a long-stemmed glass. Mason smiles through a perfectly coiffed beard and greets me with a warm handshake. Dressed in a red velvet suit and oxblood leather boots, the 55-year-old model has a commanding presence. Settling in for our interview, I catch people from across the bar sneaking photos like paparazzi. A handler from the hotel checks if we need anything: sparkling water, coffee, more alcohol. It’s the type of treatment usually reserved for A-list celebrities, but for the month of December there is no bigger star than Santa.
Over the past week Mason has been on a five-city tour hosting holiday cocktail hours for the luxury hotel chain. During the event patrons vying for a selfie with Fashion Santa are encouraged to donate to a local charity before snapping a picture. The collaboration with the Ritz Carlton is one of dozens of high-end selfie events Mason has hosted this season. Online he’s the subject of countless memes including New Sleigh, who dis? and Keto Santa. Since starting the character in 2014, he says his image has more than 2 billion impressions. Fashion Santa has undeniably taken Mason’s life in incredible directions, but the soaring Santa highs have also been marked by personal loss, grief, and lawsuits.
Mason began modelling in his early 20s. He was scouted while studying social work at Toronto’s Ryerson University, and within weeks was strutting the catwalks of Tokyo. After a brief stint modelling in Paris, Mason relocated to New York to pursue career opportunities. Over the next two decades he landed coveted campaigns with DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana, and Macy’s. He even appeared on the cover of Australian Vogue.
But in 2008 his life took a turn. After Mason’s mother fell ill with cancer he returned home to Canada to look after her. Over the next five years Mason contemplated retirement as providing care became the central focus of his life. When his mother died in 2013, he hardly left his bed for half a year.
“In my grief I stopped shaving for six months and ended up growing this giant Grizzly Adams beard,” said Mason. “Coming out on the other side I decided I liked the look. After everything I needed a gig… and who wouldn’t want to see an elegant Santa alternative? I put together a pitch: selfies with Santa in this kind of red-carpet moment. Based on that idea everything began rolling forward.”
According to Mason he shopped the Fashion Santa persona to several different retail outlets before settling on a deal with Yorkdale Mall in Toronto. In 2015 Yorkdale’s Fashion Santa ad campaign went viral. After seeing the ads online thousands of people—including celebrities like Justin Bieber—flocked to the mall hoping to get a selfie with Mason. That year Mason estimates he spent 88 hours taking selfies over eight days, with the mall donating money to charity for each picture taken.
The campaign was a runaway success for both Mason and Yorkdale, but the relationship soured shortly thereafter when both parties applied for the trademark to the Fashion Santa character.
Over the next two years Mason and the mall battled it out for ownership over Fashion Santa. Mason appeared on talk shows stating his case for the character, while simultaneously trying not to say anything that would land him in legal trouble. By the fifth or sixth interview he was worn out by the whole situation. His feelings on the matter were compounded by his belief the Fashion Santa character was birthed from grief and great personal loss. For its part Yorkdale attempted to replace Mason with multiple scab Santas riffing on his dapper holiday imagery.
The battle for the brand continued behind closed doors, until an agreement between both parties was met giving Mason the exclusive rights to the Fashion Santa name. While the model was hesitant to tell me many details about the legal battle, he expects Yorkdale didn’t want to deal with the PR of taking Santa to court. Though the situation was painful for Mason, he also sees potential to turn the trying times into something positive.
“I think anyone aware of the controversy and storyline surrounding Fashion Santa can see that there is a holiday movie there,” said Mason. “You could definitely get a Christmas movie out of that.”
2019 has been the most successful year for Fashion Santa to date. Wrapping our interview Mason shows me clips of a recent shoot on our phone—asking if I can use any connections I’ve got to get the pictures in GQ—and explains how the success he’s encountered over the holidays has led to an upcoming runway gig with French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. When I ask if he has any future goals for the character, he said that he’d like a private jet with his face on the side, a sort of sleigh for Fashion Santa. But when I ask what his mother would think of all the success he’s had, Mason’s cocky and jolly demeanour grows more sombre. He takes a long pull at his drink.
“The funny thing about my mother—while maybe it’s not funny—but at the end of her life she was afflicted with cancer, heart disease, and lung disease. It’s one of the reasons partnering with different charities is so important to me,” he said. “That’s a chance to give back. I think mom would have been through the moon about that. Never in her life would she have expected me to become Santa Claus. I bet she’s laughing about that now. I still like to think that’s she’s helping me, sending me little signals during the season.”
Paul Mason is on Instagram.
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