WINNIPEG — Models walked the runway as some of Manitoba’s most influential people sat alongside and clapped in celebration of self-declared fashion king Peter Nygard.
It was 2018 and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and deputy premier Heather Stefanson were at a gala for the 50th anniversary of Nygard International. Former Winnipeg Jets hockey favourite Teemu Selanne sent a video greeting.
Nygard had spent decades ensuring that everyone in his home province knew his name and his face.
Manitoba is now grappling with what to do about the fashion billionaire’s legacy as he faces a lawsuit with allegations of sexual assault against 10 women.
Greg Gutzler, one of the lawyers representing the women, says as of Wednesday about 50 others had come forward with allegations. The majority are from Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.
“We have over 50 women spanning four decades now in seven countries talking about violent rape and assault,” Gutzler said from New York.
The lawsuit filed two weeks ago accuses Nygard of enticing young and impoverished women to his estate in the Bahamas. Several allege they were 14 or 15 years old when Nygard raped them.
Nygard, who does not face charges, has denied the allegations through a spokesman, who has blamed it all on a “conspiracy” caused by a feud with Nygard’s billionaire neighbour in the West Indies.
Nygard stores throughout Winnipeg are draped in photos of the mogul. The company’s giant head office and distribution building includes a “Nygard museum” with a wall collage of pictures showing Nygard with politicians, actors, musicians and models.
Nygard received a key to Winnipeg from former mayor Sam Katz in 2008.
In an emailed statement Wednesday, Bowman’s spokesperson said the mayor finds the current allegations against Nygard “grotesque.” And, if they’re proven in court, then Bowman would want the key back.
In Deloraine-Winchester, a rural municipality southwest of the city, a park was dedicated to Nygard’s family in 2002. Nygard held a parade there to mark the event — he was parade marshal — and flew in supermodel Beverly Johnson for a fashion show.
The community was to hold a meeting Wednesday night to discuss changing the park’s name.
Nygard came to Canada as a child from Finland with his parents in 1942. The family first lived in the town of Deloraine in a converted coal shed without running water.
The next year, they moved to Winnipeg, where his parents ran a bakery. Nygard later went to the University of North Dakota, then returned to Winnipeg and worked at Jacob’s Fashions, a women’s clothing company.
By 1967, he had gathered his life’s savings, borrowed $8,000 and invested in the company. In a few years, he owned the entire thing and created the current Tan Jay brand, his website said. More fashion lines followed, including Alia, Alia Sport, Nygard Collection and Bianca Nygard.
The Nygard brand became popular in department stores across North America. Nygard made several lists as one of the richest Canadians.
He enjoyed the attention that came with his wealth. A piece written for the company’s website in 2000 said everyone in Winnipeg had a story about the man often spotted driving his white Rolls convertible with a “Nygard” plate.
“Whether it’s the fitness club manager joking about the different blonds on his arm each time he visits, the friends of women who have dated him or even the business editor who raves about the state-of-the art IT at his company, everyone has some gossip about Peter Nygard … this multi-millionaire clothing designer cum glamorous playboy,” the story said.
As Nygard basked in his success and stories of hedonism, another story of him emerged. His businesses practices were criticized after a former Winnipeg manager brought the company to court over unpaid overtime and unpredictable hours.
Three sexual harassment complaints by former employees went to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission in the 1990s, but they were not adjudicated.
Some Winnipeg ties with Nygard have vanished in recent years.
A poster with Nygard — dressed in a black T-shirt with a deep V neck, his dark-tanned arms crossed and his long grey hair slicked back — used to welcome travellers to Winnipeg’s airport. The poster and all Nygard advertising were removed last summer.
Nygard also donated money to breast cancer charities and sponsored a mammogram van with a picture of his face. CancerCare Manitoba says the vehicle is no longer in use and the foundation has no ongoing funding relationship with Nygard.
Nygard used to boast about donations that paid for members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra to play to women getting breast cancer treatment. The orchestra says there is presently no partnership with Nygard or his company.
Earlier this week, Nygard stepped down as chairman of his company following an FBI raid on his New York headquarters and a search of offices in California. He is also to divest his ownership interest in the business.
Winnipeg police couldn’t say whether Nygard is under investigation, but said he is not facing any charges in the city. RCMP said they only give information once a person is charged.