Ex-oilsands CEO unleashes artistic passion by designing women’s line of clothing
Written by: Dan Healing · CBC News
58-year-old mining engineer says he simply needed to be free to pursue his true calling.
An oilsands executive known for employing the art of the deal is putting his passion for the art of photography into a new line of silk scarves, spandex leggings and other women’s clothing.
Jean-Michel Gires set French energy giant Total S.A. on course for a massive buildup of oilsands production while heading the company’s Canadian branch in Calgary from 2009 to 2013.
At one point, he vowed the company would spend $20 billion to achieve 200,000 barrels per day of oilsands production by 2020 (a timeline Total has since backed away from, in part because of low oil prices).
He returned to head office in Paris when his Calgary gig was up but says that, after 25 years, he was no longer interested in life as a travelling executive. He resigned and moved back to Calgary, first as a partner in a clean-tech venture capital firm and now as the founder and chief designer for a clothing startup that bears his name, By Jean Michel.
In a recent interview, the 58-year-old mining engineer said he simply needed to be free to pursue his true calling. He spoke at a Calgary photo studio where a fashion photographer, model and stylists were shooting catalogue shots for his 2017 line of scarves, leggings, decorative hand fans and, for the first time, kimonos.
“When I decided to leave Total and decide what I wanted to do with my interest in innovation, all of my passion for photography came back and I said, ‘You’ve had this idea in the back of your mind for so long, now you have the opportunity to test it and do something out of that,”‘ he said in heavily French-flavoured English.
“For quite some time, I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to go beyond photography.”
Gires was an early fan of digital photography, buying his first camera 20 years ago so he could share with family and friends sights from his many foreign Total assignments.
His focus changed, though, after he photographed light reflecting and creating patterns as it danced over moving water in a river near Paris. The images reminded him of paintings by French impressionist painter Claude Monet and he decided to make reflecting patterns his “niche” as a photographer.
“I was completely fascinated,” he said.
“You zoom in on a beautiful tree reflecting on water and the water is moving a little bit … out of that you can produce something very much like what Monet was producing.”
He finds the patterns everywhere now, on the sides of glass and metal buildings or on mountain lakeshores. When the pattern is turned into a mosaic and printed on high-quality fabric, it also produces a “story” that can be printed on a card for the purchaser to share with those who admire her new garment.
Gires says his photos also provide co-branding opportunities. For example, when Calgary’s National Music Centre was about to open earlier this year, he produced a picture of light rippling on its curving tiled walls and won a contract to provide silk scarves based on the photo to sell in the building’s gift shop.
The silk scarves are made in Indonesia — homeland of partner Agung Nugrahaeni — because it was the only place he could find to produce the high quality he demands, Gires said. Leggings are being made in Montreal.
Gires is also experimenting with cashmere, cotton and satin.
He said he wants to ensure quality before quantity — he admires products made by French clothier Hermes — and he is willing to let the clothing line grow slowly with online sales, “pop-up shops” in malls, small stores such as the Glenbow Museum gift shop and at invitation-only exhibitions.
Kara Chomistek, president of Calgary event planning group PARK (Promoting Artists, Redesigning Kulture), said Calgary’s fashion industry operates under the radar but startups like By Jean Michel show how healthy it is.
“Even though oil and gas is down right now, there is still a lot of disposable income in this province and people are willing to spend that where it matters,” she said.
“People want to know who is making their clothing, where it’s being manufactured.”
Gires’ products can be purchased at byjeanmichel.com. Leggings sell for $75 and scarves for $150 (Update March 2019: Leggings sell for $100 and scarves for $150-200).