At home with two of the co-owners of Ottawa Fashion Week
Photographs by Ashley Fraser
The couple’s 1957 Alta Vista bungalow is an open-concept space where the owners and their two pooches spend most of their time.
“Boo Boo! Pepper!” On the other side of the front door, there’s a momentary scuffle and a muttered curse. “Down!” It seems a whimsical way to greet guests, until the door opens and two big, friendly-faced pooches wiggle and tap-dance their welcome.
“I’m so sorry about … Pepper! Stop that!” Paul Valletta tries to restrain his rambunctious sheepadoodle puppy from inspecting guests head-to-toe while he grins and proffers a double-cheeked kiss. “He’ll calm down in a second.”
Sure enough, having fulfilled their duties as guest greeters, hand lickers and unabashed bum sniffers, Boo Boo and Pepper softly pad their way down the hallway to flop in a sunny patch on the great room floor.
Clearly, they know the best spots and, as it turns out, the stylish open plan kitchen/dining room/living room of the 1957 Campeau-built Alta Vista home is also the favourite space for its owners, Valletta, 42, and Bruno Racine, 43.
It’s not hard to understand why. As Racine pops open a bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon — it’s only 10:30 a.m., but “that’s the best time for mimosas,” he declares with a flourish — light floods in the bay window and through the sliding glass doors leading to the outdoor entertainment area.
Everywhere there is space and radiance, but comfort, too. In the great room, a huge sectional studded with faux fur pillows fills the space without overwhelming it. Christmas ornaments and decorations glisten everywhere. Nearby, the formal dining room has a slightly casual feel, thanks to the kitchen, which overlooks every aspect of the space.
“It wasn’t open when we bought it five years ago. My God, we had a yellow stove!” exclaims Racine, co-owner with Valletta of The Loft and Le Spa hair studios. The two are also owners of Ottawa Fashion Week, along with Hussein and Nida Rashid.
Located on a big suburban corner lot, the side-split home was renovated extensively two years ago. First, they knocked out walls separating what was a “narrow and dark” dining room from the kitchen. Reimagined by The Designer Guys, Ryan Bernacki and Gerry Beaudry, the kitchen was transformed from a cut-off space into a modern glass, granite and brushed-metal centrepiece. Designed with serious entertaining in mind, it features two full Sub-Zero-style refrigerators cleverly hidden behind custom doors, pull-out stacked freezer drawers fronted with frosted glass panels, a huge gas range and professional kitchen appliances.
“It had to be done,” observes Racine. “I love Christmas and cooking and taking good care of my guests. So if I’m in the kitchen, we’re still all together and it’s much more fun for me.”
Certainly, the two — they have been together since meeting on a beach in Fort Lauderdale
12 years ago — are known for their sense of fun, particularly when it comes to fashion. Deciding that “Ottawa was a bit quiet on that aspect,” Valletta says, they decided four years ago that what the city needed was its own fashion week.
“We’re listed as the least fashionable city in Canada and I don’t think that’s fair!” says Racine. “Ottawa is known as one of the richest demographics, but we end up shopping everywhere else but here. At the end of the day, we thought we should have a better platform to showcase designers.”
From its first show at the Arts Court, attended by just 400 people, the event now has an audience of 1,500 and attracts bright young talent from across North America and Europe. “In the beginning, some nights were successful, some were not,” recalls Racine. “Now, it’s better organized and we’ve raised the bar on everything.”
That Racine and Valletta are the creative minds behind fashion week comes as no surprise, despite their vastly different backgrounds. Born in Hawkesbury, where “I didn’t fit in at all,” Racine left home at 16 and joined the army, attending the Royal Military College to study engineering until “I royally flunked physics.” From there, he earned a degree in commerce from the University of Ottawa before working as an accountant for a year.
“Then I did taxes for a hairstylist and when I saw how much money they were making, I thought, ‘Damn! I’m in the wrong industry!’” After studying at Sutton Hairdressing School, he worked at the Hair Shop. Eight months later, Racine took over the lease and renamed the salon the Hair Loft. “The rest is history. I’ve been having fun ever since,” he laughs, sipping his champagne. “It was the best change ever.”
Such is the case for Valletta, too. Born one of 13 children in Laval, Que., he was raised poor but happy by his émigré parents, who came to Montreal from Italy in 1960. It was a tough life, but so, too, was the one they’d left behind. Orphaned at 8, his father lived at an orphanage until 18, when he got custody of his younger sister. By the time he and his wife had three children, they decided to move to Canada, where Valletta Sr. went into the cement business.
“We didn’t have much money. My parents made everything from scratch, from the tomato sauce to the pasta. They taught me a love of good food. And we’re a close family. So food and cooking have always been important to me and how we live. But then again, in this kitchen, Bruno does all the cooking,” he says, popping a strawberry into his mouth. “I just do the eating!”
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