Former Nygard employees, intern say fear, intimidation, even sexual harassment commonplace at the company

Thirteen years after leaving a job at Nygard International Partnership, Brenda Bourns finally feels safe enough to share her story. Bourns worked as the special events manager at the company’s head office on Inkster Boulevard in the fall of 2007. She quit 10 months later.

“I have a lot of guilt that I never spoke up for a long time and it sits with me,” said Bourns in an interview with CBC News.

Peter Nygard, 79, was arrested in Winnipeg in December and is currently awaiting extradition to the U.S. for allegations he sexually trafficked women and girls over a 25-year period. Nygard denies all the allegations and says they are part of a conspiracy to tarnish his reputation.

Bourns said what she witnessed during a trip to Burnaby, B.C., for a Nygard store opening made her realize the job wasn’t for her.

The rumours became real … all the things that I’ve heard for decades of rumours, innuendo, allegations, hearsay, all of the things … they were real and I’m done, recalled Bourns.

Bourns said before every Nygard runway show, the models would do a walk through in front of the fashion designer so he could see how his clothes hang on them and determine who will showcase which look. Bourns said each model wore a circular button on her hip with a number on it to help in the process.

Brenda Bourns worked for Nygard International Partnership in Winnipeg as special events manager in 2007. She quit after 10 months. She says Nygard threatened to sue her a year later after she met up with a former coworker and talked about their time at the company. (Submitted by Brenda Bourns)

Bourns said after the Burnaby rehearsal, her female boss told her Nygard wanted the personal cell phone numbers of five or six of the girls, who Bourns said would have been between 18 and 22 years old.

“Every spidey sense, every gut instinct, every red flag that could go off in your head, I was like … I’m not doing it.”

She told her boss if Nygard wanted to talk to the models he should contact their agency. 

I was told directly to my face, ‘I don’t think you understand, Mr. Nygard would like the cell phone numbers of these girls’, and hands me a list,” said Bourns. 

Once again, Bourns said she refused and thought that was the end of it. 

Later that evening, Bourns and a co-worker were asked to drop something off at Nygard’s private plane before it took off for New York or Los Angeles. 

Bourns said to her shock, there were the young models at the back of the plane on what looked like a bed.

Brenda Bourns says while on a trip to B.C. for a Nygard store opening, her female boss told her Peter Nygard wanted the personal cell phone numbers of five or six models aged 18-22. She refused, then later saw the young models lying on a bed in Nygard’s private plane. Bourns was so upset she quit her job the next day. (Stephen Feralio)

“And there are these young models on this, lying on this bed, giggling and talking to each other … I was actually horrified,” said Bourns.

She said the women were talking about how excited they were to have been asked to model in Nygard’s next show.

This is their career, they’re thinking this is their big break. That’s no big break,” said Bourns.

She doesn’t know what happened to the women, but fears the worst. Bourns said she quit her job the next day when she returned to Winnipeg. She told her boss that there was an emergency with her daughter and that she couldn’t give two weeks notice, as was required.

Teen intern says she was fired for turning down Nygard advances

Justina McCaffrey says she interned for Peter Nygard for two months in late 1983, early 1984. She was 18, and going to school in school in Los Angeles for fashion manufacturing. (Submitted by Justina McCaffrey)

Ottawa’s award-winning wedding dress designer Justina McCaffrey said she was fired from an internship at Nygard’s design office in California because she wouldn’t have sex with him.

McCaffrey was born in Winnipeg but in the 1980s, had moved to Los Angeles to attend the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. She was 18 years old.

“I was required to do an internship. I was studying manufacturing, so I thought it was important to be somewhere in a, more of a, not like in a retail store, not like, you know, in a manufacturing source,” said McCaffrey. 

McCaffrey knows Nygard’s niece Angela Dyborn, who she said helped her get an interview with the fashion designer at his L.A. home. 

“He sat there in his white sweatpants, white cotton sweatpants, and fondling himself during the interview,” recalled McCaffrey.

“He had this little hole right in the crotch of his pants. And he was like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe there’s a little hole here.’ And I was like trying to ignore it, but laughing my head off because I was thinking like I kind of took it all in jest just rather than really taking it super seriously.”

McCaffrey said during her internship Nygard asked her to babysit his kids at his Marina Del Rey house and “that’s when things got a little weird.”

“He was after me and chasing me around. I mean, like, literally it was a joke. It could have come out of, you know, cartoons or something like, you know, he was chasing me around the house and I was running away from him,” said McCaffrey.

She said within two or three days she was fired from her internship. McCaffrey told Dyborn about it and was stunned at her response.

“I said, ‘Angela, what the hell? … he fired me because I wouldn’t have sex with him.’ And, you know, I’m pretty open with Angela. And she said, yeah, but ‘Justina you knew what you were getting into.’ And so that was the response, which I think is completely unacceptable,” said McCaffrey.

Dyborn and her lawyer Jay Prober did not respond to CBC News requests for comment.

Award-winning wedding dress designer Justina McCaffrey says she was fired from an internship at Nygard’s design office in California because she wouldn’t have sex with him. (Submitted by Justina McCaffrey)

McCaffrey said she brushed off the ordeal and found another internship. Two years later, she said she ran into Nygard at a fashion event where he was speaking and promoting free trade.

She was with a Finnish friend who was studying to be a doctor.

“He looks over my friend and starts saying, telling her what he wants to do to her, like in Finnish. But it’s all very graphic and very perverted,” recalled McCaffrey.

“And she was just shocked,” she said.

McCaffrey said there were 500 people at the event, including former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

“He [Nygard] just didn’t think twice about how wrong that could have been.”

Former model alleges Nygard touched her 

When Ilonka Csano was 21 she worked as a fit model for Nygard International in Montreal.

She only met the designer once in 1988. Nygard and some businessmen had come to the showroom where she worked and Csano modeled clothing from Nygard’s Bianca line for them.

“I paraded and he was saying a lot of terrible sex jokes, really not appropriate at all. It was disgusting. And everybody, they were laughing,” said Csano in an interview with CBC News from her home in Montreal. 

Csano, now 53, is still bothered by what happened next and hasn’t been able to forget it.

“Then he started touching me. He started touching me on my ass. I’m sorry, my bum. He started touching my thighs, going a bit between my legs. He didn’t go to my vagina, but kind of, you know, go slowly with his hand,” said Csano.

“Then he started touching each finger slowly up and down all of my fingers. And I remember being so frozen I just didn’t know what to do…. I couldn’t believe nobody was saying nothing. I know it’s nothing. But for me, it was a big, terrible experience,” she said.

Ilonka Csano worked as a fit model for Nygard International in Montreal in 1988. She was 21. She says on a visit to the showroom, Peter Nygard inappropriately touched her in front of a group of business people. (Ilonka Csano Facebook)

Csano said her female boss was there and she confronted her boss about the incident afterwards.

“‘I was scared. And why didn’t you say anything? I said I want to go against him in court. This is not right…. And she told me, ‘What are you going to do? He’s a multimillionaire Ilonka. There’s nothing you can do, so stop it.’ So that’s when I started feeling ashamed,” said Csano. 

Csano said her relationship with her boyfriend fell apart. She started missing work and eventually she got fired.

She recently heard news of Nygard’s arrest and wanted to share her story.

I should have said something. But I know it’s not much what I have to say, but it’s still something,” said Csano.

Nygard threatens lawsuit

Brenda Bourns said she stayed quiet about why she left Nygard’s company for more than a decade for fear she would be sued into poverty.

Bourns owns an event planning company and said a former Nygard coworker contacted her in the fall of 2009 in hopes Bourns would help her find a job. Bourns said the woman came to her home and the two chatted about their time at the company.

After she left, within 12 hours, there was a knock on my door at quarter to eight in the morning — the next morning — and I am served by registered certified mail, whatever it is, a letter from Nygard’s lawyers threatening me,” said Bourns.

Brenda Bourns says a former Nygard coworker contacted her in the fall of 2009 in hopes she would help her find a job. The morning after the two women met, Bourns says she was served with this letter from Nygard’s lawyers threatening her with a lawsuit. (Submitted by Brenda Bourns)

The letter accuses Bourns of breaking a non-disclosure agreement and threatens her with a defamation lawsuit.

“This is your notice and formal demand that you immediately cease and desist from any further communication with any person whatsoever about the conduct or activities of Nygard and its personnel,” said the May 5, 2009 letter from Fillmore Riley LLP.

“They specifically name in the letter the co-worker who was sitting at my dining room table less than 12 hours earlier,” said Bourns.

Bourns knew her co-worker hadn’t told anyone about their meeting and the lawyer’s letter scared her silent. She said she got off social media and ended any and all contact with anyone she had worked with. 

“I was just like, shut her down. I’m done. I’m a young mom. I had a son in Grade 6 and a kindergartner. I cannot go up against a billionaire. And I just went radio silence Nygard for a long time.”

Bourns said a former Nygard employee who worked in the IT department later told her all Nygard company phones were “tapped” and equipped with location trackers.

That’s how far the power of the control went,” said Bourns.

It was only after Nygard was arrested in Winnipeg that Bourns felt safe enough to speak out.