Kitsch grandeur: How Giles Deacon became the most adored designer of the past decade
Giles Deacon explains the inspiration behind his latest collection, an idiosyncratic integration of classicism and cartoon kitsch
The wood-panelled and pennant-bedecked Stationers' Hall in Cheapside reflected perfectly the autumn 2013 collection that designer Giles Deacon presented there late last month. Eccentric and arcane with a dash of kitsch, but handcrafted and with a homespun elegance despite its obvious grandeur. This is the sensibility Deacon has cultivated for nearly a decade now.
"In one sense, it seems like forever," he says when we meet in his studio, a week to the day before he was to unveil that most recent collection. "But in another, it seems like we're just getting going. If I manage to get to 15 or 20 years…" He shrugs.
In an industry where every year clocked up gives brands a chance to crow about "heritage", 10 years is practically a lifetime. That's a decade – or at the very least, 20 collections – that have impressed, inspired and sold. It's no mean feat.
But the 43-year-old isn't interested in that. He is resolutely modest, as if wary of inadvertently bigging himself up – perhaps because he already stands at more than 6ft, and is handsomely shouldered. When pressed, he politely suggests – without a hint of aggression, I hasten to add – that coming up with the words is my job.
Reticence isn't the usual reaction to Deacon's label, Giles. These are clothes that inspire reverie, rhapsody and effusive and fulsome praise. And they get them from just about every quarter of the industry.
Editors love Deacon because his gowns look like the sort of confections that even non-enthusiasts would find stunningly beautiful; stylists adore them for the quirks that make them irresistibly irreverent, modern and striking to shoot. Journalists analyse his pieces endlessly for their wit and diversity – they are timeless narratives given a new twist, like a fairy-tale princess yanked from her castle and plonked down in Piccadilly Circus. And buyers love Giles because, among other reasons, it sells.
As a designer working very much within an artisanal bracket, Deacon's work is rarefied, and restricted to a very small bracket of women with resources – yet, still, it sells. He has dressed Scarlett Johansson, Gwen Stefani and Princess Beatrice. Lily Allen was once carried out of an awards ceremony in one of his dresses, and he created premier WAG Abbey Clancy's wedding dress when she married Peter Crouch – a white corseted mermaid dress with yards of tiered silk at the base. A pregnant Clancy also modelled in Deacon's spring 2011 show, alongside a voluptuous Kelly Brook and 1960s supermodel Veruschka, then 71. Let it not be said that Deacon doesn't appreciate the female body in all its multifarious forms.
"I don't send celebrities up!" he cries, wounded, when I suggest his love of cartoon kitsch is something of a knowing wink in fashion circles. "What I like about them is there are lots of characters, but I'm certainly not taking the piss. Kelly [Brook] is a great woman – you might not like her but she's a great representation of a certain type of woman.
"I don't like those elements of snobbery that exist," he continues, referencing the fact that Kerry Katona once came to his show too. (She told attendant press that she had found it "really nice".) "We have high-society women, from the Royal Family to wealthy Texans or just a textile fanatic in Bristol. It's not about celebrity culture. People appreciate the workmanship."
Deacon's designs have in the past been called demi-couture, for all the intricacy of their fabrication and make-up. In fact, they're as close to couture proper as any contemporary designer outside Paris's hallowed Chambre Syndicale (which has rather stringent entry requirements) is creating. "If a piece is individually made to measure, then it's couture," he nods. "Not in the French manner, because it's done on machines, but we'll probably make 25 pieces a season, four to five [thousand pounds] upwards. [People who buy them are] generally quite old-school – it's a world of friends, and word-of-mouth is huge. They're very savvy about where they spend their money. They go to a lot of events and like to have something they know no one else will have."
Any more accessibly commercial projects he engages in also fly off the shelves. A capsule of dresses created last year for the boutique Matches is one example; a set of etched notecards for Smythson (Deacon is also a keen illustrator) another. Then there is the Gold by Giles Deacon range that he has made for high-street chain New Look since 2007. The first season's ad campaigns featured actress Drew Barrymore, followed by supermodel Agyness Deyn. Menswear was added in 2008 and cosmetics in 2011.
"I believe in the democracy of design," says Deacon. "You may have the money, you may not have the money. You can choose not to spend thousands of pounds on a frock, and it's nice to have something that has had some thought put into it. It's nice to design when things are available at everybody's prices."
Not for nothing is Deacon known as "the nicest man in fashion" (and he'll be mortified at that). As fantastical as his clothes may be at times (his spring 2009 Pac-Man collection, in which models wore cartoon helmets fashioned by the haute milliner Stephen Jones springs to mind, or the distended puffa-jacket fronts he added to glamorous gowns for autumn 2008, inspired by Poe's Masque of the Red Death), they are also terribly grounded, if not a little darkly comic. A spring 2008 sugary prom dress was undermined with a print of Disney's Bambi mid-decapitation; red-carpet-worthy gowns from autumn 2012 were inspired by a house fire and featured burn- and scorch-marks on pristine white taffeta and silk, while last season's print was of broken glass.
Deacon is a designer who deals in high and low culture regardless of his audience, in a way many in the industry are scared to. He is as at home with high art as he is with high school. (After our chat, he heads to a college in Tower Hamlets to enlighten students there about the possibilities of working in fashion and the arts.) From Pac-Man and Bambi to, more recently, Paul Delaroche's 1833 painting of The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, a pinnacle of Victorian schmaltz in the artistic canon: Deacon blew up her pained Raphaelite features and printed them on corseted silk dresses and knitwear for his autumn 2011 show at the Royal Courts of Justice.
"For me, those high-low references are interesting. What fascinates me about that painting is that it's always got the biggest crowd in front of it. It's the spot they have to parquet the floor the most.
"You make beautiful things and the way in which you make them can be incredibly modern," he explains. "I don't like po-faced fashion. There are things that make people 'get' us, and those things give us confidence. It all comes from a place that people find very refreshing. I think that there's a certain kind of northern practicality about it."
Born and raised in the Lake District, Deacon is hardly dour, but he is down-to-earth. He's one of a clique of northerners in London who have scaled the heights of the international creative industries with graft and a grin. "I think there must be some kind of force – desperation maybe – that took me from one 1980s corner to another, and made me want to get out of the North," he says. "I really wanted to move to London. It could have been Manchester – I didn't really understand what I wanted to do, but the place with all the potential seemed a big city."
After leaving Barnard Castle School in County Durham with below-par A-levels (including an E in General Studies, he admits bashfully), Deacon spent a summer in Portugal, clueless as to what he might do next. He had always been good at drawing – he won't classify it as art – and his mother suggested a foundation year. Duly following this lead, he took up a place at the very beginning of the following term when the original applicant failed to turn up, asked back immediately after showing the course tutor in Harrogate his collection of notebooks and sketchbooks.
"By December of that year, I had applied for St Martins," Deacon recalls. "When I got there, it was Wendy Dagworthy's first year." (The co-founder of London Fashion Week, and current Dean of School at the Royal College of Art, was formerly director at St Martins.) "I just worked really hard. A good proportion of people would come in at three in the afternoon, but I'd be in there at nine, nicking all the stitchers who were meant to be working with other people. I just sat there and learnt a shitload."
It was at St Martins that Deacon met many of the people he now surrounds himself with – people who have helped him make such a success of his label: the super-stylist and über-editor Katie Grand studied there, too, and was for a time Deacon's girlfriend.
After graduating, he went abroad to gain experience in the workrooms of established designers, and to learn the crafts of the trade first-hand. He took a job in the design studio of the French surrealist and pop cultural designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and from there went to Bottega Veneta as head designer in 2000 – a post untimely terminated the following year when the Gucci Group bought the company and installed Tomas Maier as creative director.
He was then employed under Tom Ford at Gucci's flagship label, but, during a stay of bedrest with an infected saliva gland, he decided to raise the capital (by selling most of his belongings) to start his own label. Models at his first show in 2004 included Karen Elson, Karolina Kurkova and Linda Evangelista, thanks to Grand's persuasive capabilities.
Deacon has since collaborated on accessories with the luggage label Mulberry and Katie Hillier (handbag designer to the likes of Marc Jacobs and Victoria Beckham), been creative director of heritage brand Daks and, in 2009, won the prestigious Andam prize, a French initiative, which aims to develop the careers of young designers. He used the prize money – €100,000 – to take his shows to Paris, where he created for spring 2010 the single most affecting accessory I have come across in my career: a holographic handbag in the shape of a benignly smiling dinosaur, prototypes of which disappeared swiftly when editors and models nabbed them backstage. Ridiculous maybe, but wonderful. (The fact that these never went into production still breaks my heart.)
"It might be a jokey collection, but it's all set within the quality of the work," Deacon says of his winsome aesthetic and the combination of that humour with his taste for almost antebellum-era opulence. "It's one foot in a 1970s sitcom, the other in a museum. You can't please everybody all the time."
Having channel-hopped his own collection to Paris, Deacon signed on in 2010 as creative director of the Parisian house of Ungaro, taking over from the film star Lindsay Lohan, whose first and only collection there was roundly mocked.
Deacon's work for the house was recognisably his, cartoonish and collectible, perhaps a little gauche for the Parisian circuit but predictably well received by London's kitsch clique. Yet the pressures of producing two shows in the French capital became too much, and Deacon and the label came to a mutual agreement to part ways a little over 18 months later, moving his own label's show back to London, where his design studio remains based in Brick Lane's Truman Brewery complex.
A week after we meet, Deacon takes a bow after yet another collection that has astonished and awed: sinuous 1970s-line dresses with exaggerated bishop's sleeves and valance hems; Empire-line sack-back gowns encased with golden fronds of leather; silk shirts and rasta beanies worn by Cara Delevingne, Edie Campbell and Kristen McMenamy.
"I recently moved to near the back of St Paul's," he explains of the collection. "It's a building I've known for a long time but I've never really spent a lot of time walking around it. It's got a good eeriness to it – I was thinking about grubby angels."
Never has couture been called "grubby" before. Then again, never has couture looked quite like this.
Giles is stocked at Matches, 60-64 Ledbury Road, London W11 (matchesfashion.com)
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