From the uncomplicated gown in gold jersey (the first piece ever shot by a magazine) to the curvy skirt and gold bustier (the first of many outfits worn by Nelly Furtado, including the royal-blue jersey dress at this year's Grammy Awards) to the little dress in gold sequins (worn by pop star Mya at last year's Fashion Cares gala in Toronto, where she took to the stage and issued the order "Stand back and watch this chick"), Mendonça has been true to his code. He has made a motto out of "bold, polished and sexy," which is how his official bio describes his designs. Just as consistently, his default setting is an endearing air of wonder and a shy laugh.
But in Mendonça's seemingly soft nature, there is also flinty resolve. Determined to succeed internationally, he is represented by sales agents in New York who are in contact with buyers globally and has a publicist on retainer there as well. In the United States, he has 10 accounts - and wants more. Having already braved Los Angeles Fashion Week once, scoring an acclaimed "terrific" from Women's Wear Daily, the 32-year-old Mendonça was on the February calendar of fall 2008 shows in Manhattan.
Mendonça's studio is located in his native Toronto in a post-and-beam loft building in a part of town that has been branded a village and pitched to types that think themselves creative. For his own personal image-building, Mendonça doesn't go for blatant marketing.
His muscular frame speaks for itself, and you wouldn't know that the cardigan, T-shirt, jeans and boots he wears are by Dolce & Gabbana, Paul Smith, Levi's and Costume National unless you asked.
When you do ask questions, Mendonça's answers are matter-of-fact. He responds to both fleeting and deeply felt matters with a remarkable evenness of temper that reveals nothing more than what was intended. Where's that barking coming from? "Through the window, from a dog out in the laneway." Is Mendonça Catholic, as his Portuguese parents raised him? "I have a hard time with any religion that doesn't accept me and my partner."
His partner is David McCullum, and he and Mendonça have been a couple for 14 years. McCullum, who works in mutual funds, is good with money. "I tend to get carried away," admits Mendonça. "I'll need 10 fabrics and come back with 20." Does McCullum have a say in visual decisions? "He likes to think he does."
Not that McCullum himself doesn't have an eye for fashion. Several Christmases ago, he gave Mendonça a cardigan by Dolce & Gabbana that he still wears almost every day.But when it comes to opinions about putting collections together, Mendonça counts on his friend George Antonopoulos, a freelance stylist and second-in-command when it comes to merchandising. In everyday language, this means that, come time for a shoot or a show, it's Antonopoulos' job to make sure there are shoes. It's already a given that they won't be flat. "I've always liked women in heels," says Mendonça. "I just like the whole posture, the whole stance. It's instant sex."
And who's having all the sex being promised by the likes of Gianni Versace, Tom Ford and Alexander McQueen - all of whom Mendonça admires? "Hopefully, they are," he says, referring to the women who wear his sexy clothes. But the fact that he's even trying for an answer suggests a dreaminess that he is able to combine with an aptitude for the practical.
There are times, in fact, when Mendonça can sound downright hard-nosed. On the topic of red-carpet coverage, he says, "It's like free publicity: I send a dress out for someone to wear one night - they're not keeping it - and basically it costs me a courier charge." And Mendonça recognizes how resort collections - delivered in late fall to serve as a taste of spring - have become an important way for retailers to beguile customers with fresh stock. He began offering a resort collection in 2006; Holt Renfrew - his major supporter in Canada - bought the first one.
Until now, Lida Baday has been the Canadian designer who makes the most hay out of resort collections, and, as role models go, Mendonça deems her "pretty good." He adds, "She's got a huge section at Saks, so she must be doing okay." The way Mendonça says it makes him sound like a mercenary, but both designers share a commitment to quality.
As it so happens, there are samples for his 2007 resort collection still hanging on a rack in his studio. One dress, in a densely woven cotton, already has a fresh authority, even before the topstitching, fusing and boning that are part of a silent conspiracy to give the garment a lovely shape. And over there, covering a work table, are sketches for fall 2008. One is a deft white swirl that will become a gown of silk crepe in three dimensions. If this were a film, it would be the final shot - too cute and obvious, perhaps, but leaving no doubt that this is a happy tale: the story of a boy who liked to draw growing into a man who loves it.
Photography by Malina Corpadean