Giles Deacon: The boy is back in town

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Tonight, Giles Deacon returns to London Fashion Week. Susannah Frankel talks to him about vampire rabbits, Celebrity Squares and his new job at Ungaro

Step into Giles Deacon's Brick Lane studio of a balmy summer morning and one could be forgiven for thinking this was the spacious hideout of a particularly privileged teenage girl.

It's not just the fairytale, fondant-coloured beads being painstakingly sewn on to small swatches of fabric, or the ghostly pale toiles, fit for a princess, on mannequins all around. There is also the wall covered with pictures of sweet, fluffy white rabbits to consider, some of them primped and preened to the point where they resemble the sweetest soft toys. "Look at them," ponders Cumbrian-born Deacon, who is neither female nor teenage – he turned 40 last year. "I'm using them as a reference for pre-fall. They remind me of beauty pageants in America."

It should come as no great surprise that things turn out to be not quite so textbook sugar-and-spice as they may at first seem. There are vampire rabbits, their huge fangs almost as big as their ears. There's a tiger rabbit, too, covered in orange-and-black stripes. Undercutting the heart-warming with the somewhat sinister is very Giles Deacon. "Ah, the wonders of Photoshop," he says before heading off to his office in one corner of the space, at which point, bang on cue, Clara, another rabbit, this time of the living and breathing variety, appears. Something of a celebrity in fashion circles, Clara belongs to Katie Grand, editor-in-chief of LOVE magazine and stylist to, among others, Louis Vuitton and, of course, Deacon himself. "She's coming to say hello, she's great in fittings," says Deacon – Clara, not Grand, that is. The latter, Deacon's long-time friend and collaborator, is currently away on safari.

Whichever way one chooses to look at it, this is all a far cry from the too-cool-for-school froideur of the average fashion designer's HQ – more show-and-tell than show-off in flavour. As Deacon himself puts it: "You don't get this at Balenciaga."

Any apparent whimsy and quintessentially British sense of good, furry-friend-inspired fun belies the fact that his is, nonetheless, one of this country's most high-profile fashion concerns. And if Giles Deacon has long been among the capital's most successful designers, well-known not least because he also has a long-standing relationship with New Look, for whom he designs a capsule range, he recently upped the ante somewhat by signing a deal to become creative director of the Parisian fashion house, Ungaro, for whom he will design collections alongside his own.

This evening Deacon returns to the London catwalk, having shown in Paris for the past two seasons. In 2009, he was recipient of France's ANDAM award. Worth €160,000 (£134,000), it is backed by the French National Association for the Development of the Fashion Arts, LVMH, Gucci Group, the Pierre Bergé Society and Longchamp, among others, hence the move. Having landed the job at Ungaro, however, it now makes sense to take his signature line back to London – and very welcome it is too.

Giles – as it is known – was much missed, bringing as it always did a much-needed injection of grand-scale glamour ("I hate that word but can never think of a better one") to an arena that, in recent seasons at least, has been uncharacteristically quiet. And no one would ever accuse Deacon of that. Or: "Anyone looking for a black cashmere sweater isn't going to come to me." Instead, the designer is famed for highly structured big-entrance dresses aimed at a woman who likes to be noticed. "Clothes that a wallflower would like, that's not my thing," the designer confirms. "I like people who look interesting. I think we're about timeless elegance with good creative input through cut, a new way of construction or fabric development."

With that in mind, past moments have included a "carwash" dress, the overblown skirt of which was constructed out of glossy black "brushes"; a grey wool ball gown decorated with a smashed mirror; and a pair of particularly fierce silver leather biker trousers. Then there are the prints to consider. "It's safe to say we're not big on normal florals," Deacon laughs. Instead, a certain playfulness and even humour decrees that monkeys, spiders and blood-splattered Bambis have found their way into Deacon's collections by now. And, of course, the accessories: less-than-demure headwear by the milliner Stephen Jones – scaled up metallic Pac-Man head-pieces, for example – and a small but perfectly formed nappa leather baby dinosaur handbag, complete with beady gold eyes, cut quite a dash.

In person, Deacon is more understated than his work, stating simply that he hopes tonight's show "will be a good one" and hinting at a finale based on the never knowingly fashionable 1970s game show Celebrity Squares. Explaining the move back to London he says: "It's just that what with the Ungaro appointment, we sat down and discussed the logistics of doing two big things in Paris, and obviously the mental and physical strain on staff would be quite high. Although there is a full team at Ungaro, most of my crew here will also be working on it, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to come back and show in London. I live in London, I work in London, my friends are all in London. Showing Giles in Paris was a good experience but I'm over the moon to be back."

From a sales perspective, Deacon's label, launched in 2003, is now making money, "just", due both to the international exposure that a presence in Paris affords a designer and, perhaps more importantly, to a licensing deal with Italian manufacturer Castor Srl, which came hot on the heels of the ANDAM award and aimed to ensure that Deacon's work reached a wider audience.

Back in town, Grand, who will also work with Deacon on Ungaro, says: "When designers start working with manufacturers it is a process of trying to figure out how to go forward. Giles was so known for doing those big gowns and, realistically, you have to think differently when you've got a factory involved. I think that what Giles does is quite confident. It's pretty brave in places. I think he has a really good sense of colour which no one ever really picks up on..." All of which makes not only his own collection stand out in an over-saturated market, but also perfectly qualifies him for the new job.

True to form, his appointment was confirmed under less-than-usual circumstances. "I got a call from [Ungaro owner] Mr Asim Abdullah, asking whether I would be interested in having a meeting with him," Deacon says. "I was booked on a Friday morning flight to Paris to see him, but it was during the ash cloud and everything was cancelled. I went to Milan Central station and it was beyond bananas. There were thousands of people all trying to get out." Help came in the form of Happy, Giles' distinctively named driver, who normally takes him from factory to factory in northern Italy to oversee production of his collections. "Happy and me, we set off at 2.30 in the morning. He'd never driven to Paris before so we got the sat nav on. We got there at about 10.30. I had lunch with Mr Abdullah and the conversations went from there. It was all about where they want to take Ungaro, and I just had one of those gut feelings, really. I thought to myself: this could be a really interesting opportunity."

Interesting to say the very least. After all, Ungaro has been subject to more than its fair share of controversy – not to mention designers – over the past five years. Briefly, Emanuel Ungaro, who opened his house in 1967 on Paris's Avenue Montaigne and was known, in particular, for ultra-swanky, ultra-French and ultra-expensive haute couture gowns, sold his business to Ferragamo in 1996. While during the 1980s and even the 1990s, business was healthy, by the time the eponymous couturier retired in 2004 his label was haemorrhaging money and, in 2005, Abdullah, a former computer engineer who made his fortune in computer technology, stepped into the breach, installing Mounir Moufarrige as chief executive. Moufarrige duly employed – in this order – Peter Dundas, Esteban Cortazar and then, most bizarrely, Estrella Archs with Lindsay Lohan to oversee the creative direction of the label. It's small wonder, given the veritable train smash of a collection that the latter pair came up with, that, last December, Moufarrige stepped down. Marie Fournier is now Ungaro chief executive.

"Initially, what I remembered about Ungaro as a teenager was its very vivacious Frenchness," Deacon says. "Gorgeous, vivacious clothes. To me, it had lost that Avenue Montaigne quality and needed to regain that. It's an amazing heritage and I want to go back, but with a new point of view."

The designer is taking the highly pragmatic path of showing his first designs for Ungaro at the Paris collections next month away from the glare of the catwalk, opting instead for a more modest presentation where anyone interested can both talk to the designer and see his clothes up close.

Given the merry havoc that La Lohan's runway debut wreaked on the Ungaro image, it is a shrewd move.

"I've worked very closely with the ladies in the atelier," Deacon says. "They're super-good. We've got lots of gorgeous prints in there, a funny mix of old ones and new ones. It's a bit lighter than what we do for Giles."

The same cannot be said for the designer's new workload, especially given the challenging nature of this particular beast.

"It's like any new project," Deacon says. "It's a very exciting one. There will be lots of expectation, I know. I try not to think about that, though. If you did, you'd just go round the bend."

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