Update: On May 7, Jane Doe 16 (as she’s known in a U.S. civil class action lawsuit) became the first Canadian to talk publicly about what she alleges was her experience with Nygård, in a joint interview with CBC and CTV News. Jane Doe 16 told the news outlets that she first met Nygård when she was 19-years-old, through her tennis instructor in the Bahamas. The woman says that she visited the founder’s home on the island three times, to play tennis and use the grounds; one of these times, she alleges Nygård drugged and raped her. “I had never felt that kind of pain before, and I was scared, but I was alone. And I couldn’t stop it,” she told the outlets. Her lawsuit alleges that after the rapes, the designer “threw money at her.”
For decades, Nygård has been known as a moderately-priced women’s wear label. Lately, it’s been making headlines for other reasons. In mid-February, a class action lawsuit full of disturbing allegations was filed against the company’s eponymous founder, 78-year-old Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygård. In the civil suit, which was filed in New York, 10 women allege that Nygård “recruited, lured, and enticed young, impressionable, and often impoverished children and women, with cash payments and false promises of lucrative modelling opportunities” when his real intent was rape and sexual assault. In late February, Nygård stepped down as company chairman after the FBI and NYPD raided his New York City headquarters.
The allegations in this civil suit have not been proven in court and Ken Frydman, a spokesperson for Nygård International, says they are “completely false, without foundation and are vigorously denied.”
The story behind the allegations has many twists and turns: here’s everything you need to know about Peter Nygård, the allegations against him and what has happened since the lawsuit was filed.
Who is Peter Nygård?
In short, the founder of the fashion brand Nygård International. He immigrated to Winnipeg from Helsinki at age 10, and describes his life as a “rags to riches” story: in 1967, he purchased a small women’s clothier for a few thousand dollars and relaunched it as the Nygård fashion brand. Today, it’s an international fashion company headquartered in Winnipeg, with global headquarters in New York City, overseeing the brands Slims, Peter Nygård, Bianca Nygård, Tan Jay, Alia, Allison Daley and multiple private labels, sold in standalone and department stores. At the height of its success, Nygård International was the largest producer of women’s apparel in Canada. In 2015, Canadian Business estimated the brand’s founder to have a net worth of $777 million.
In his personal life, Nygård has been described as “Canada’s Hugh Hefner,” often traveling with multiple young models who were reportedly his “paid girlfriends.” He dated Anna Nicole Smith and, according to the New York Times, has fathered 10 children with eight different women. Crucial to that playboy reputation is Nygård Cay, a five-acre private “luxury resort” in the Bahamas that the mogul built in 1987. It has over 20 themed cabanas, a helipad, replicas of Mayan temples that spew volcanic smoke, and, according to The Times, a human aquarium featuring topless women dressed as mermaids. The expansive resort was featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and past guests include Michael Jackson, Prince Andrew, former U.S. president George H.W. Bush, Jessica Alba and Oprah Winfrey.
According to The Times, in the past 40 years, nine women from the U.S. and Canada have either sued or reported Nygård to authorities for sexual misconduct. He has never been convicted. In addition to the current class action suit, Nygård is facing two additional civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault, which were filed in Los Angeles in January. According to CBC, authorities in the Bahamas have said they are investigating allegations against Nygård first reported to them in July 2019.
What are the allegations against him?
Ten women, all identified as Jane Does, are accusing Nygård and his company of operating a “sex trafficking ring” that resulted in the rapes and sexual assaults of young women and girls. According to the complaint, Nygård would regularly host “pamper parties” in the Bahamas and at his property in California, designed to “both promote the Nygard Companies’ brand and facilitate commercial sex acts.” The complainants describe being promised manicures, pedicures and massages, as well as the potential of landing modelling gigs with the fashion brand.
Most of the alleged assaults listed occurred between 2008 and 2015 in the Bahamas. Multiple Jane Does say they were under the age of 16, the country’s age of consent, when they were invited to attend one of Nygård’s pamper parties and allegedly sexually assaulted or raped by him, in some cases, the women say, after being given alcohol or illicit drugs. Multiple Jane Does also say they were virgins at the time, and their allegations are graphic and disturbing. The complaint also alleges that the Nygård company kept a database of more than 7,500 underage women and girls.
Following the alleged assaults, multiple Jane Does say they were given cash, in some cases more than US$5,000, by Nygård employees (for context, the Times noted that minimum wage in the Bahamas is $210 per week). All but one of the complainants are citizens of the Bahamas.
The complaint claims that Nygård’s “sex trafficking scheme” has been ongoing for decades. It also alleges that company employees helped to suppress the women and girls assaulted, including participation in “tactics of violence, intimidation, bribery, and payoffs.”
Under the U.S. Trafficking Victim Protection Act, the statute of limitations expires 10 years after the incident occurred, or—in the case of minors–10 years after the victim reaches the age of 18. The lawsuit argues the statute of limitations in this case should be extended because, though the 10 Jane Does “pursued their rights diligently,” they “were impeded because of a combination of force, threats of force, shame, embarrassment, fear, political and law enforcement corruption.”
Who is Louis Bacon and what does he have to do with all this?
Louis Bacon is a U.S. hedge fund billionaire. He also lives next door to Nygård in the Bahamas—though as the Times explained, these neighbours “had little in common except for extreme wealth and a driveway.” Nygård and Bacon have been embroiled in a decade-long battle which began with a land dispute and has escalated to include Nygård accusing Bacon of insider trading and being a member of the Klu Klux Klan, and Bacon accusing Nygård of plotting to kill him. As the Times reports, Nygård and Bacon have filed at least 25 lawsuits against each other in five jurisdictions. The most recent was a suit filed by Nygård in November 2019 alleging that Bacon hired lawyers and investigators to bribe and influence women to file false reports.
According to Frydman, Nygård’s lawyer, the class action lawsuit was something Nygård expected and predicted. “This is just the latest in a 10+ year string of attempts to try to destroy the reputation of a man through false statements,” Frydman told Chatelaine in an email. It’s definitely a complicated situation: In October, Times reporters spoke with two women at the centre of a previous sexual assault lawsuit against Nygård that was financially linked to Bacon. The women said that despite their previous claims, they had actually never met Nygård and they had been paid to fabricate their story (a statement that is contested by other parties involved).
What happens next?
Lisa Haba, one of the class action lawyers, says this suit is different from those in the past. “We’re in the heart of the #MeToo movement and as such, women and children have a different voice than before,” she says. “Where before they were silenced, now people are listening when they step forward.” She adds that a class action suit provides “strength in numbers.”
Since filing the lawsuit in February, Haba says her team has heard from approximately 50 new individuals who have shared their experiences involving Nygård. Haba is currently corroborating the accounts, and says that multiple individuals who have come forward have divulged details—such as information about a particular room, a bed or the way a door locked—that were not made public. According to co-counsel Greg Gutzler, “the allegations span four decades and three continents, dating to 1977….We’ve had women from five countries contact us with stories of abuse, including the Bahamas, United States, Canada, the U.K. and China. More than 20 are Canadians, from Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg.”
As noted by the Globe and Mail, previous allegations didn’t hinder the fashion company’s success. This time, however, multiple retailers—including Canadian retailer TSC (Today’s Shopping Choice), as well as Dillard’s in the U.S.—have pulled Nygård clothing from shelves and cancelled remaining orders.
Nygård’s lawyers have requested a conference with New York judge Edgardo Ramos, and have stated that they plan to file a motion to dismiss the complaint.
According to a statement by Nygård spokesperson Frydman, following the lawsuit and Times investigation “a significant Nygård customer ceased doing business with the company” and one of Nygård’s financial lenders demanded immediate payment of its outstanding credit. On March 10, Nygård announced that it would be restructuring, seeking financial support and protection by filing a notice of intention (NOI) to file a proposal under the Canadian Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act. “In response to these pressures, the Company has determined that the NOI is the best option to provide the protection needed while all alternatives are assessed,” Frydman said in the statement.