Entering the artist’s studio, the first thing that catches the eye is the massive bookshelf on the left wall. An eclectic mix of design, history, culinary, pop culture books and autobiographical novels line its shelves. He doesn’t read fiction. Matlo is most interested in reading about people’s stories – their journeys.
In the hall, his black and white sketches of Hollywood stars Madonna and Barbara Streisand are framed, and museum-worthy. The striking shape of Streisand’s famous profile, and the contours of her nose, are captured perfectly.
Jason Matlo, founder and creative director of Vancouver design house, Matlo Atelier, can get lost drawing for hours.
In the workshop, Matlo’s long-time assistant and right hand, Wen-Chee Liu, has a sewing machine buzzing. Clothing in various degrees of completion adorn the mannequins, while fabrics yet to be cut are on the table.
After some wanderings and soul-searching as a youth, Matlo completed a rigorous nine-month program at Helen Lefeaux School of Fashion Design, a boutique agency, and the only one of its kind at the time in Vancouver in 1997. Lefeaux, who has since passed, taught Matlo the couture techniques he still employs today. They spent hours pouring over couture books together, and a big regret he has is not co-writing the book she was trying to incubate him into.
After graduating, Matlo was invited to compete in the Smirnoff Fashion Awards competition in New York, where he was awarded top designer of the year. He then trained in France, and went on to represent Canada at the international finals in Berlin. Matlo was the winner of the Life Network reality television show Making It Big, and his designs have been displayed at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Matlo launched his first commercially available collection in 2005. He started doing fashion shows and became renowned for his glamorous red carpet gowns, while he travelled the world and dressed celebrities.
Matlo’s designs were in demand, and wound up retailing throughout Canada and the United States. But almost a decade after launching his clothing line, Matlo hit burn-out.
“It was non-stop. All we did was work, 18 hours a day,” he remembers. “If we didn’t do a collection and a show – it was like the public thought it was something we were denying them.”
“And at the end, I just went to my bottom line and decided that there wasn’t enough money in wholesaling for the amount of hours we were putting in. “And we were getting away from what I wanted to do, which was more bespoke, made to measure,”
Before Matlo went into retail, he had built a following of West Vancouver, North Vancouver and Shaunessy-based women who looked to him for made-to-measure clothing.
He remembers clients liking the process where they could be involved in the design, and he wanted to get back to what mattered to him – a better work-life balance, and face-to-face interaction with clients.
He also wanted to get back to the educational aspect of the business. Matlo started teaching a couple of days a week at the College of Visual Art and Design and at Vancouver Community College. He still does.
After a few years on the down-low and going back to his roots, Matlo Atelier returned with a fall fashion show, titled French Kiss, a nod to his training and influence from France, showing to a packed audience at Fairmont Pacific Rim in November 2019. It was his first show since 2014.
Matlo Atelier is back, but not in the retail market. “We are bespoke. You come in, and we create for you – made to measure,” says Matlo. There’s something about clothing that is custom cut to fit your body that makes you not want to take it off.”
“The phone started to ring, and the clients were [saying] I can’t find you anymore anywhere – would you do a dress for me?” Today, the former admitted “blackaholic,” who designed mostly in black and neutrals, is embracing colour more.
“A colour can become the essence of the design,” he says. The French Kiss line is marked by colour; rich gold, deep green, and what Matlo refers to as “true red.”
His designs most remarkably reminise old Hollywood glamour. “There is this workmanship that happened that has just been lost on the younger generation,” he says. Matlo best likes to design for fashion-savvy, bold, confident, strong women.
Growing up in Calgary in the 1970s, Matlo’s original muse was his beautiful mother, Bernadette. He would watch her get dressed up to go to dinners and parties with his dad, who was in the recreational vehicle business.
“My first exposure to fashion was my mum. She was very glamorous. I’d see her in sequins and fur and sparkly jewelry, high-heeled shoes and blown out Farah Fawcett hair – they were my first images of fashion. I thought all women dressed like that.”
While she was a local fashion icon, Matlo’s mother also didn’t hesitate to pick up a tool to help her husband’s business if needed, and she eventually forged her own career in real estate, saying it was because it is the only industry that pays women the same amount as men.
“My mum was smashing through glass ceilings before she even knew the concept existed,” he says.
Matlo’s muse still calls him for fashion advice, most recently when an airline lost her luggage, and she needed to dress on the fly for a posh dinner on the road.
Sticking to the classics, Matlo told her, “black caftan, low ponytail, red lip. You’ll be great.”