Chilling with Giles Deacon

Image courtesy of  W Magazine

Over the years I have interviewed many designers, each one memorable in their own way. I remember asking John Galliano to get up on the table to do the Flamenco (he didn’t and I was duly disappointed) while Stella McCartney lectured the waiter on animal cruelty when he suggested she order salmon for lunch. Then there was Rei Kawakubo who didn’t look me in the eye once and walked out as soon as she got bored.

My recent interview with Giles Deacon, who was in Hong Kong to launch a series of rugs for The Rug Company, was one of those better moments. I have become accustomed to designers with big egos so  it was a refreshing change to meet a good guy who loves to take the piss out of everything. It was super fun and his jokes about Lindsay Lohan – his predecessor at Ungaro – were priceless.

Below is our interview. I hope you enjoy getting to know him like I did.

A selection of looks from the Giles autumn/winter 2011 collection. Images courtesy of style.com.

FASHION designer Giles Deacon is a breath of fresh air in an industry overwrought with egos. But then again, a down-to-earth upbringing and a self-deprecating British sense of humour always helps.

Ours is the first interview of the day and despite the early 10am slot he is already there – designers are never early, so this is a first – and is busy stuffing his mouth with a sandwich. 

If looks are anything to go by, then Deacon is a serious artsy type. He is surprisingly tall, with square shoulders, dressed entirely in black save for a pair of pony hair animal print loafers. His signature aviator spectacles add to the art dealer cliché, but once he starts talking those preconceptions fly out the window.

He’s good humoured, unaffected and fun, but serious and interesting when he needs to be. In fact the whole experience is like going on a really good first date (And for the record, he is straight).

“The Rug what?” he deadpans when I mention his latest collaboration with The Rug Company, which launches officially this autumn.

“Oh that… It seemed like a very logical procedure. I am not specific about what type of collaborations I do and this project hit all my areas so we went from there. The rugs are, in third person speak, graphic. Classic in essence, with a slight subversion thanks to the use of things like chicken wire which has been blown up or chains. I have never made a rug in my life, I don’t think many people have. It’s like having three kids,” he says.

A man of many talents including designer and now rug maker, it’s hard to believe that Deacon once wanted to be a marine biologist. As a young boy growing up in the Lake District in Britain he would spend hours in the countryside, which inspired him to study the natural world. 

“I thought it constituted as a career misguidedly when all I liked doing was really watching things.  While I had my hands in the river I was also going to Newcastle every Saturday to go and buy records. It was an interesting way into fashion for me from an aesthetic point of view. I’d find out more about photographers who did the album covers, and come across magazines like Face and I.D. It was all visual and musical.

“It was never the thing of I want to be a fashion designer. It’s creepy when people say they looked at their mother’s underpinnings at the age of three. No one had a word with those children?” he asks bewildered.

After failing his Science A-Levels he landed a spot on an art foundation course at Harrogate at a family friend’s suggestion. From there he went on to Central Saint Martin’s in London where he graduated in 1992 with rising stars and fellow designers Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Stella McCartney and ex-girlfriend Katie Grand. 

Rather than launching his own label straightaway, he spent the next decade working at Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs and later Bottega Veneta where he became head designer on Grand’s recommendation. He lasted a successful four seasons until 2003, when PPR stepped in.

“Bottega was particularly interesting because it was the first time I have been involved in a hostile takeover. I was very poorly soon after, then I was convalescent and I thought what was on the cards? I was offered a very nice job at a highly respected studio in Milan but I thought do I want to be working in 10 years time at someone else’s studio? I wasn’t leaping up and down at the thought. I realised it was probably the worst time to start my line, so I did it anyway, and got a studio and team in place,” he says.

Deacon’s first show was held at London Fashion Week in 2004 to much fanfare, thanks in part to Grand’s stellar lineup of supermodels and his quirky but glam clothes. Since then he has built a name for himself as one of Britain’s top designers, winning awards such as British Designer of the Year in 2006 and the Andam grand prix award in 2009. His use of bold colours and fabrics on dramatic yet playful silhouettes have won over celebrity fans such as Victoria Beckham, Scarlet Johansson and Drew Barrymore.

“The aesthetic I have always liked is very much about a woman who is very forthright and very interested in statement things. She’s not a wallflower when it comes to clothes. They are clothes that don’t come with a sheet of instructions; you see it on the rail and want to wear it. I like it when people are out to events and they are wearing something interesting – it doesn’t have to be flashing lights but it’s conversational. If you are into aesthetic things, then it’s for you,” he says.

As a result his designs combine reality and fantasy and have included dinosaur handbags and dresses made from smashed mirrors, car wash brushes or embellished with Pac Man. 

Drama aside, there is also a very pragmatic side to Deacon which explains the numerous collaborations he has done within the fashion realm and outside of it. The list is as long as it is varied and includes handbag brand Mulberry to Carphone Warehouse and his latest, shoe brand Nine West. He also makes a cheap but chic line for British high street retailer New Look, which started in 2007.

“They are all different. Some were for a very obvious business perspective, some are purely aesthetic. It’s about bringing fashion to a wider audience. Just look at it historically – take someone like Paco Rabanne or Pierre Cardin, who had an enormous amount of global licences in the 1970s and 80s. Many designers find it difficult to use this vocabulary to extend their design to the world, but for me it’s a really great way to reach an audience who maybe can’t afford my dresses.

“The last decade has changed quickly.  Design is not just about purely the aesthetic, but the functional. It  makes designing more interesting, pleasing and easier,” he says.

Another challenge he has taken on recently is the troubled fashion house of Ungaro, which has long been viewed as designer kryptonite thanks to its ever revolving roster of creative directors and bad management. Deacon took on the role last May, following a lacklustre collection from none other than actress Lindsay Lohan. Autumn/winter is his sophomore collection for the brand and so far the critics are lapping it up.

“I was clearing out [Lindsay’s] desk, and there were lots of needles,” he says jokingly. “But really, Ungaro is great because it’s got a distinct thing for me because it’s a different woman in terms of character. It’s feminine, a little racy, it’s colour, print, floaty and light fabrics. Kind of a joie de vivre atmosphere, that’s essentially Parisian. My line is a bit more sideways.

“It’s interesting because it’s not a re-launch, but a launch of a new brand with a name people know. It will take a while to get everyone back on board but we’ll have fun and games.”

Deacon also plans to open freestanding stores for his own line within the next seven to eight months, most likely starting with a boutique in London. He also wants to continue growing the business and follow the footsteps of mentors such as Alexander Wang and Marc Jacobs, while continuing to stay in touch with what his customer wants and needs – something that many designers today don’t bother with

“People don’t want to see cloaked up designers, it doesn’t work. They want to have that accessibility, that conversation. The ivory world tower concept is a bit outdated really. You have to know what’s going on in the real world. Events like this, meeting people. It’s a nice modern way of working,” he says.

A modified version of the above was published in the SCMP on June 24, 2011

And the bits that didn’t make it in….

On the pros and cons of his job:

“Trying to stay up in airplanes, because I am in them far too often then. The nice part is the designing, the drawing,  the researching, working with the designers, the factory – that’s an absolute joy, that’s the fun bit.”

On surviving in the industry:

“That’s one of lucky things of not going straight into your own line and working with an external company. I have had quite a  ot of experience with an external company. I kinda know the structures, the complications, good things, how to navigate it and to keep it focused. You have to keep it clear cut especially with a large corporate environment. I am the owner and creative director, which is great but I can keep a clear focus of what I want. If you want to move on and survive in the world of business you have to do lots of thing. Its all about longevity.

On inspiration:

“When I am designing I like to think of someone somewhere, I just make sure they are not waiting at the bus stop.”

On Alexander Wang:

“I am a big fan of Alex Wang. He’s super smart, he’s stuck to his guns and aesthetic and created a 30 billion dollar business. He’s a really sound guy. It’s great to see someone go in on the business side and have a clear idea of what they want.”

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