Julien Macdonald: Return of the Mac

He was the feted fashion designer who transformed red-carpet starlets into household names. Then he went to Paris - and the knives came out. After a six-month silence, Julien Macdonald tells James Sherwood just what went so wrong at Givenchy
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The Independent Online

Julien Macdonald is at his fur workshops, contemplating a £40,000 fox-fur coat. "They make the most exquisite, expensive coats in the world," he says, breathlessly. "When I questioned the price, my Russian selling agent said, 'That's nothing, love. Add some more Swarovski crystal, and they'll pay £50,000.' When people ask me if the luxury fashion industry is over, I have to laugh!"

Julien Macdonald is at his fur workshops, contemplating a £40,000 fox-fur coat. "They make the most exquisite, expensive coats in the world," he says, breathlessly. "When I questioned the price, my Russian selling agent said, 'That's nothing, love. Add some more Swarovski crystal, and they'll pay £50,000.' When people ask me if the luxury fashion industry is over, I have to laugh!"

For the designer famous for dressing women such as Joely Richardson, Kelly Brook and Kylie Minogue in infamous dresses, it is business as usual. But it's a business far removed from that which he has been used to. In 2001, at just 32, the gregarious Welshman was appointed to head design at the venerable French couture house of Givenchy. Three years, 36 shows, thousands of column inches of speculation and one unrenewed contract later, Macdonald is on his own again. Having delivered his final, largely well-received show for the label in April of this year, Macdonald's relationship with Givenchy is over, and the designer has spent the past six months fighting rumours that he is a spent force.

"Look, nobody was more surprised than I was when I got the job," he says, in an attempt to set the record straight about the circumstances that lead to his departure. "I thought that LVMH was interviewing me for Pucci. I was shocked when it gave me Givenchy. I was told that they wanted to change the image: make it sexy and fun - and very Julien Macdonald. But, as time went on, we realised that the customers and the press didn't want Givenchy to change. They wanted it to ooze Parisian chic and Audrey Hepburn. Well, I was never a fan of Hepburn. My favourite was always Marilyn Monroe.

"I thought I would grow to love it," he continues. "I didn't. What Givenchy needs is time. It took Galliano six years to make Dior work. I just wasn't prepared to stay. In the end, I told LVMH, 'I'm miserable and I'm going home.' I don't find a black dress with three holes exciting. I don't find the black cashmere pencil-skirt suit fun. But I kept quiet and did my job."

Arguably, the company was having an identity crisis long before Macdonald's arrival. Hubert de Givenchy's retirement in 1995 had left the label rudderless, and the company had failed to re-establish its image with the subsequent appointments of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. As Macdonald says: "If two of the most talented designers in the world couldn't make it work, then the odds were against me. McQueen hated it just as much as I did, in the end."

More than McQueen, Macdonald's relationship with Givenchy was always going to be volatile. The pairing of the young Welshman known for his love of silk, satin and sparkle with the label famed for subdued elegance was controversial from the start: how could a man who worshipped maximalists Roberto Cavalli, Gianni Versace and Dolce & Gabbana uphold Hubert de Givenchy's legacy?

But no one could have anticipated the slew of criticism, savage and personal, that accompanied his first collections. "Julien Macdonald was even more out of sync with everything going on in fashion," declared the International Herald Tribune's fashion editor Suzy Menkes of his Givenchy collection in 2002. "Audrey Hepburn's era at the house and her iconic elegance should not have been killed off so comprehensively," she continued.

Macdonald saved his credibility at the house only in his final show, where he delivered "a homage to what everybody wanted. It was an Audrey Hepburn collection - the little suits, the little black dresses, even the Sabrina bolero. I couldn't have made it more obvious". The collection won him the plaudits that eluded his previous collections, but Macdonald knew that it was over.

"I left that show alone, and my driver took me to the Eurostar. At home in London, I cried for half an hour with sheer happiness. I'm not bruised by the experience, and I am glad I did it. I could have been set up for life if I'd been happy. But I wasn't."

Macdonald is unapologetic about his time at the house. "I made Givenchy a lot of money," he says. "I left that brand with Bernard Arnault [the chief executive of LVMH] knowing that I'd taken it out of the darkness." Macdonald has yet to be replaced at Givenchy. The next appointment could be LVMH's last roll of the dice for the label.

Meanwhile, Macdonald is himself at a crossroads. His own-label spring/summer 2005 collection, shown in London, was less extravagant than usual, but he's determined not to be crushed by his experiences. Recent projects have included a range of crystal for Royal Doulton, uniforms for British Airways staff, a Julien Macdonald Barbie, and a mass-produced collection called "Star by Julien Macdonald" for Debenhams. Each project has helped to pay the bills and maintain the designer's profile.

Otherwise, the most obvious move, one would think, would be to open a London flagship store, as his peer Matthew Williamson has done. But Macdonald says he has declined offers of backing. "What with the diamonds and furs and fabulous dresses, we'd need 10 security guards on the door. Imagine it!" He laughs off the suggestion, but you can't help wondering whether, beneath the well-practised bravado, Macdonald isn't troubled by all the speculation about where on earth he can go now.

Macdonald insists that his customers should expect more of the show-stopping creations that have become synonymous with celebrities in search of column inches. When I suggest that his style is at odds with the current tweedy trend, he reacts quickly: "I like fireworks and stars, not pumpkins and marrows. I like glamorous things, and I hate Aran sweaters and corduroy trousers. Anything dowdy, I loathe. I like diamonds, furs, colour and glamour."

Macdonald seems to suggest that his style is beyond fashion. "You don't just come to see the clothes at my shows. You're invited to a party, you're given a champagne cocktail, you see celebrities, you enter my world. It is fun, glamorous and sexy."

Glamour. It's a word that Macdonald uses so often that it starts to sound like a mantra. He retains an almost Messianic ambition to dress the world in his high-wattage creations. And it's clear that his experience at Givenchy has done nothing to dampen his extraordinary self-regard - at one point, he says that "British fashion produces the best designers in the world - McQueen, Galliano, myself...".

But, while Macdonald could easily be derided for his somewhat superficial take on "what women want", it is clear that he has more depth than the party pages of some magazines might suggest. Certainly, he is a master of self-publicity - this is the man, after all, who put a Michael Jackson lookalike in the front row of his show in 1998; dressed Kelly Brook in an almost non-existent gown, complete with diamanté knickers, for the premiere of Snatch; and who has dressed Kylie Minogue, Cher and Nicole Kidman to the same stunning effect.

Yet, of his generation, Macdonald is the only British designer not to have left London to show in Milan, Paris or New York. "I'm happy here," he says. "There's enough glamour in Milan already. London needs all the help it can get - there are too many women waiting at bus stops in the rain. But London is dressing up again, and if it wants to keep me, then it must support me."

What should Julien do next?

'It was an enormous workload to juggle an own label with Givenchy, so perhaps Julien was stretched a little thinly. Now all the energy can go into his own label, he can move it forward. His latest shows have given us more wearable clothes compared with his usual premiere dresses'

Harriet Quick, fashion features editor of 'Vogue'

'Courage and valour. The magician of threads should license his knitwear to Japan and China, and let it sell like hot cakes'

Isabella Blow, fashion director of 'Tatler'

'Julien should go back to what he does best. We loved the intricate knits he created for Chanel in the late Nineties. It is knitwear, not sparkly little dresses for bling-bling celebrities, that is his true forte'

Vanessa Gillingham, fashion director of 'Glamour'

'Every designer needs to have something that makes their label unique. With Julien, it's his cobweb couture knits. He has been tagged as London's answer to Donatella Versace, and past collections have become a bit of a parody of that glam-slam style. He needs to make it extremely obvious that masterful knitwear is the foundation of his label'

Rebecca Lowthorpe, fashion features editor of 'Elle'