Bruno Racine always rises to the occasion.
Whether it’s running three successful hair salons, being creative director of Ottawa Fashion Week (OFW) or responding appropriately when Richard Simmons leaps into his arms, Racine’s a model of grace under pressure.
Some people might lose their composure when the world’s most famous aerobics instructor, decked out in his signature tiny shorts and sparkly top, decides to straddle them onstage, as Simmons did at last year’s Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation’s Bust a Move for Breast Health. Racine, who participates in multiple cancer fundraisers, didn’t mind Simmons’s trademark enthusiasm taking an unexpected turn. Ever the gentleman, Racine held tight so Simmons wouldn’t fall and gave the aerobics master some friendly grinding.
As Racine and his partner, Paul Valletta, prepare for OFW’s 10th season, showcasing the spring and summer collections of 2014 at Casino du Lac-Leamy from Sept 13 to 15, they take a cappuccino break in their office at The Loft on Elgin Street to discuss how they came to be at the pinnacle of Ottawa’s fashion scene.
Growing up in a French-Canadian family in Hawkesbury, a small town on the Ottawa River near the Quebec-Ontario border, Racine had no thoughts of pursuing a career in fashion.
“In high school I was always a science guy and good at math, so I thought that was the thing for me,” he says. “I went into engineering, but because my family didn’t have any money to support me I went through the military.”
After boot camp in Chilliwack, BC, Racine attended the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston. He lasted one year. Not responding well to the culture shock of military school, he failed physics and was given the option of switching to military history studies or leaving RMC.
He left, settling in Ottawa, where he switched to business, finished a degree in accounting and got a job as a junior auditor. The work was dry, there was minimal social interaction, and the money wasn’t great. To make extra cash, Racine did taxes for his friends, most of whom were hairdressers. They seemed to be having much more fun than him and were also raking it in.
“They had been doing hairstyling for 10, 15 years, and I realized they were making double, if not triple or quadruple, what I was making at Deloitte as a junior,” Racine says.
Just as he’d lasted one year in the military, Racine lasted one year in accounting. He quit, and at about age 27 trained to become a hairstylist.
The Hair Loft — now simply called The Loft — opened in 1998 with Racine as the sole owner. In 2001, he and Valletta became business partners, opening their second salon, Le Spa, on MacLaren Street in 2002. Earlier this year, they opened The Loft-Toronto on Queen Street West. In addition to three salons and OFW, they also run the Loft Academy — the only hair school in Ottawa that’s integrated with a salon — and Exclusive Beauty Boutique, an online distributor that delivers hair and beauty products to your door in two days.
Looking at this gay power couple — Valletta with his Italian good looks, Racine tall and fair, both fashionably dressed and immaculately groomed — you can’t help wonder what it’s like to balance your work partnership with your personal lives.
“Personal life?” Valletta laughs. “Right now we don't have a personal life. It’s all work-related. It’s hard because our personal life is at the lower level right now, but maybe with time it should balance out — hopefully soon.”
Racine admits they’re both type A personalities, and with OFW coming up soon, long hours are non-negotiable. Founded by Hussein Rashid, OFW was originally called Fashion in the Capital. Having worked backstage at Toronto Fashion Week as a hair stylist, Racine wanted Ottawa to have a comparable event. In 2008, Rashid, Valletta and Racine incorporated OFW, aiming to attract top designers and put Ottawa on the map.
Despite the seeming chaos backstage, everything runs smoothly and on time, Racine says. From stylists, to makeup artists, to an invaluable stock of 75 volunteers, people do excellent work while keeping calm.
“We don’t tolerate divas,” Racine says. “I can be a diva, but in a good way, I think. There’s nothing wrong with being dramatic as long as it doesn’t stop you from functioning.”
For this season, Racine says to look forward to a mix of haute couture, commercial lines and more men’s fashions with collections from Jana & Emilia Fashion Design, Joseph Ribkoff and Helmer Joseph.
With OFW steadily gaining momentum and their other businesses going great guns, Valletta and Racine might just manage to have a night at home one of these days with their dogs Boo Boo and Pepper. Until then, the show must go on.