Giles Deacon: King of London
He's the Cumbrian lad who quietly rose to become British Designer of the Year. And now he's the hottest ticket in town. Susannah Frankel meets him
Saturday 10 February 2007
There are surely not many fashion designers whose claim to fame is a drawing of a budgerigar driving a Rolls-Royce but Giles Deacon, the current British Fashion Designer of the Year, rose to international acclaim for no more obviously starry reason than that. It is now the stuff of fashion folklore that when, seven years ago, Deacon took the helm at the Italian luxury goods label Bottega Veneta, working with his former girlfriend, the stylist Katie Grand, it was this very illustration that bagged him the job.
"We had this very unusual meeting with Laura Moltedo," Deacon says. At that point Moltedo was one of the owners of the brand that is today presided over by the Gucci Group. "It was in Paris, at the Georges V. We were sat on the bed and a bit like, 'Oh Christ, what's going on?' Anyway, I showed them my portfolio and Laura pulled out this sketchbook from my bag. She was totally hooked on that particular drawing. And from that point onwards it was all totally fine."
Well, kind of. In fact, Deacon, with Grand's super-slick eye to guide him, may have designed the type of high-octane, ultra-sexy and even more fashion-y debut collection that earns the moniker "show of the season". It was not long after, however, that Tom Ford persuaded the powers that be at Gucci to buy Bottega Veneta outright, and Deacon was unceremoniously replaced by the rather more classically minded and certainly more understated German-born designer, Tomas Maier. Ford, meanwhile, clearly knowing a good thing when he saw it, snapped Deacon up for himself, employing the designer to assist him on Gucci womenswear, for which he was still responsible at that time.
"I worked directly with Tom," Deacon explains. "It was great. He's a quite unique designer. Really, really talented but I only stayed for one season. It wasn't really where I wanted to be. I just fancied doing something else, really. So then I did a bit more pottering about... A bit more drawing..."
Giles Deacon seems a million miles away from the ferociously ambitious, straight-out-of-college, up-and-coming designer that this country in particular is known for. Of course, he is, in his own way, at the heart of fashionable London and has been ever since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1992, collaborating with his friend Fi Doran on the label Doran Deacon during the 1990s, contributing illustrations to Dazed and Confused and art-directing album covers for the folk singer (and former girlfriend) Beth Orton. But Deacon, 37, is also determinedly eccentric and there is something strangely satisfying about the fact that this tall, bespectacled character, with his dulcet Cumbrian tones, is today the toast of the British fashion capital. Deacon, for all his idiosyncratic ways, has delivered the show of the London season, every season, for the past three years. What's more, it was announced at the end of last year that the designer had been appointed to breathe new life into the classic British tailoring label, Daks. He will show his first womenswear collection for that brand in Milan later this month. Then there's the launch of a clothing and accessories collection for the high-street retailer New Look to consider, and the range of bags produced in collaboration with Mulberry and embellished with oversized studs in silver and gold.
We are sitting today in Deacon's studio in a converted Victorian school for boys in Shoreditch, where he works with a small and close-knit team of long-time colleagues and friends. A pair of egg-shaped fridges (named Courrèges and Paco, incidentally, after the Futurist designers André Courrèges and Paco Rabanne) take pride of place, as do framed butterflies and a particularly impressive box of rainbow-coloured fishing flies, testimony to the fact that budgerigars are not the designer's sole flirtation with God's creatures.
"Animals. They're nice aren't they? They're good things, animals," Deacon muses, almost to himself.
The distinct impression is that he would rather while away the hours dwelling on the animal kingdom rather than discuss his current signature collection, his most accomplished to date, and the reason, after all, that we have arranged to meet. Far from trumpeting the joys - or indeed sorrows - of creating not one, but many suitably ravishing gowns, and with apparently no interest whatsoever in gushing about inspiration, muses, embroideries and the like, Deacon simply says: "I know it sounds daft but we just started getting together things we like, the feathers, and a few studs, then we took pictures of them, started drawing on them and made the shapes from there."
The fact that these shapes were spectacular, even by designer fashion standards - a "car wash" ball gown constructed entirely out of pleated rosettes of shiny black fabric; a huge feathered cocoon from which the model's tiny features barely peaked out; an overblown ivory silk skirt with leather harness back - makes Deacon's understated description of their creation all the more remarkable.
"Ah, yes, the undercarriages," Deacon laughs. "We'd done a fair few of what we call super gowns and we wanted to get them a bit sharper. We worked from the underneath out, making these funny, bustle things. They took months and are beautifully done. The under structure is as nice, if not nicer, than the exterior. Movement became a really important thing too. We wanted to achieve lightness of movement and those dresses are incredibly light in the end. They collapse into nothing."
If this spring/summer season saw Giles Deacon's already hyper-glossy aesthetic soar to new heights, he has long been known for injecting a much-needed dose of high-end glamour into London Fashion Week which, since the departure of big names such as Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan at the end of the 1990s to Paris, has been, for the most part, a relatively downbeat affair. This is in part because Deacon - having worked at the aforementioned Italian status labels and also for that famed dresser of Sex Pistols and Popes, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac in Paris before starting out his own label - has rather more experience of fashion as a powerful global industry than the generation that came after him. It should come as no surprise, however, to discover that the designer was trained at London's Central Saint Martins, the epicentre of British fashion.
"I sat next to Hussein [Chalayan]," he remembers. "We're still good friends. We had a whale of a time. You know, people think he's going to be this super-serious person but he's got this really funny, gorgeous personality about him. Hamish [Morrow] was at Saint Martins while I was there. Lee [Alexander McQueen] was on the MA. Luella [Bartley] was there at the end too. And Katie [Grand]. It was competitive, but it was really healthy competition. Everyone had their distinct view of the world."
Deacon was born in Darlington, County Durham, but brought up in the Lake District until the age of 14. His mother is a housewife; his father worked in agriculture. "It was lovely," he says, "right in the middle of nowhere. The nearest house was three miles away. I spent all my time outside. You could just disappear for the day and nobody would worry about you, going up and down hills." He drew from an early age but is quick to point out that he was never the type to design dresses for teddy bears or dolls. "I've always drawn though - animals, mainly, but also plants. I drew ones that I saw and imaginary ones as well." Later, and back in County Durham once more, Deacon discovered the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. "They had this most amazing art collection and we used to have our history lessons there. I remember the Canalettos and this great big silver mechanical swan. Without wishing to sound lofty, that got me into the mindset of aesthetics."
Deacon "pretty much hated school," he says. "I never really found my footing. I just didn't like lessons. The good thing was that you could just walk out and you were in the middle of the Pennines. I used to wander off, I just went and sat. It was good for thinking."
The designer went on to complete a foundation course at Harrogate College of Arts. "I did really badly at school and then thought, all those times sat outside, 'Nice one, what the hell am I going to do now?' I rang round and everywhere was full. Two people hadn't turned up for the course at Harrogate so I got a place." He didn't look back. "I absolutely loved it," he remembers. "Painting, graphics, the whole job lot. Then came the fashion section and I just thought it seemed like the most fun. It wasn't so laboured, everything didn't seem so tortured which I can't really abide. Fashion was spontaneous and about getting things done which I really liked."
Having only been to London four times before, Deacon moved there to take his place at Central Saint Martins in the late 1980s, moving into a squat in Blackstock Road, Islington, for four months before finding somewhere a little more salubrious to live - "so I didn't have to carry all my possessions to college every day in case they got nicked," as he puts it.
It was at Saint Martins that Deacon met Grand, forming a personal and professional relationship that was to prove very important to him. It's no secret that, as one of the world's foremost image-makers, the editor-in-chief of POP magazine, former consultant at Prada and Miu Miu and now at Louis Vuitton, Grand carries considerable clout. As Deacon's creative director, it was she, for example, who persuaded the likes of Karen Elson, Linda Evangelista and Nadja Auermann to model Deacon's first catwalk collection when usually such big names would make no bones about overlooking the twice-yearly London season entirely.
"Giles was just this enigma at college," Grand remembers. "Everyone was gay and not very conscientious. Giles was straight, handsome and charming and like the head boy. All the female tutors were gaga over him." Even then, she says, Deacon's talent was undisputed. "He was just this guy that everyone was completely impressed by. Then, when I started Dazed & Confused [Grand launched the magazine with Jefferson Hack and Rankin while still at Saint Martins], using the London College of Printing office, we had this colour photocopier. Everyone who needed anything done for their portfolio tended to come to us and hang out, and Giles was one of those people." The pair went on to become friends and then lived together for a year and a half. "We split amicably but stayed very much in contact with each other."
When asked to describe Deacon's signature, Grand says: "I don't think his woman is much of a wallflower. We always knew it would be something quite flamboyant."
"It's not a difficult aesthetic," Deacon, for his part explains. "My designs are slightly subversive in their way; it can be in the cut, or the colour, but they're always obtainable, they're not so difficult that a 40-year-old woman wanting to go to a cocktail party looking foxy and a little bit different in something well-made would be alienated by them. It's all a learning process for us and we try to make it better, to make things look more beautiful, every season. Hopefully, if you saw someone wearing one of our frocks you'd think she looks quite interesting to have a chat with and say hello to. They're a bit 'We're on, we're out, we mean business'."
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