Giles Deacon: An audience with the king of British fashion

With his latest collection, Giles Deacon is as playful as ever. But as he tells Carola Long, having fun is a serious business

Saturday 06 March 2010 01:00 GMT

When Giles Deacon was invited to Florence as a guest of the chic trade fair Pitti W, he had the pick of the city's Renaissance palazzos in which to show his pre-collection. Unfortunately, they reminded Deacon of "drawing schools that Emma Thompson makes films about" and that, as anyone familiar with his decidedly non-Merchant Ivory designs will concur, "is not what we are about".

Instead, Deacon chose to stage his presentation away from the city centre and the Pitti fair, at the Richard Ginori porcelain factory, where the prestigious company makes china for the Vatican and Miuccia Prada.

Inside the factory, with an hour to go before people arrive, it's eerily empty apart from Deacon's team busying around his installation. Amiable as ever, despite a cold, the Cumbrian-born designer explains, between coughing fits and curative sips of vodka and soda, why he chose the quirky venue."I saw how elegant and sought-after the porcelain is," says Deacon, "and then I saw the picture of the factory with the big ball at the top, and thought that it looked like the factory in The Simpsons. It's this brutal Thirties Fascist building but it produces all these elegant pieces, and there was some fit there with our clothes and the industrial feel of it all."

It is a perfect fit, and the scene inside the factory is "very Giles" in its mix of humour, grandeur and subversion. The production company Gainsbury and Whiting created individual tableaux vivants with models or mannequins complicit in the most surreal of scenarios. One model stands inside a wire cage loading white plates on to an uphill conveyor belt only for them to smash in a heap, another installation features a heap of plates with a mannequin's legs poking out. Resembling something made by Sarah Lucas if she was inspired by Guy Bourdin, it reflects the tradition for Pitti Uomo and Pitti Woman's guests – who have included Viktor & Rolf and Proenza Schouler and Raf Simons – to do something extraordinary.

"I wanted to show the clothes in a way that meant people can wander round and have a look at the detail," says Deacon, who won British Designer of the Year in 2006 and is one of the industry's most fêted figures. He's often associated with grand gowns that subvert the conventional notion of the red carpet dress, but the autumn/winter 2010 pre-collection is mainly daywear – of a particularly sophisticated variety. Models, in fluorescent wigs or hats made from swirling paper plates or paperclips by Stephen Jones, wear: an olive-green leather coat with moulded ridges and panels (created by the same people who made Batman's suit); silk T-shirt-shaped shift dresses printed with industrial images such as spanners; cropped black trousers with a silver paperclip pattern, worn with a masculine blazer. The eveningwear pieces include a slim paperclip-print gown and a long grey column dress made from tailoring fabric, complete with, at the hip, a small furry creature with bulging joke-shop eyes.

"People don't necessarily realise that there can be just as much work on a quiet jacket as an overblown gown," says Deacon, "but a small detail can put it right off kilter, as opposed to making you think, that looks like a laugh, I'll wear that."

Having a laugh, as he puts it, is pretty central to the Giles Deacon world. That's partly because the designer, who is today clad in jeans, velvet blazer, T-shirt and colourful new trainers that he picked up at the airport en route to Florence, has a droll sense of humour and a soft spot for pop culture. He loves the TV programme Dog Borstal, in which "the animals behave better than the people," has "a secret hankering after Emmerdale" and loves Mad Men, particularly ice-cool blonde January Jones. His clothes, too, often use patterns, cartoonish motifs or textures in a way which shows that sharp, considered tailoring and fun can coexist. Take Deacon's spring/summer 2010 show, which features the sleekest of shift dresses made out of fabric covered in bright pink spiders, and handbags in the shape of dinosaurs. Just don't call it irony, though. "People are always saying, 'You use irony,'" complains Deacon, "and it's like, actually we don't use irony, we use wit and playfulness and irreverence. We aren't taking the piss out of people."

Deacon's customers are a bit too smart to fall for that anyway; it takes a knowing, confident woman to wear his pieces, which are designed to "make a woman look and feel empowered". Asked to describe his typical customer, Deacon says, "I can't say who they are but they range from 22 to 55 and most of them are very, very high-powered career women who have these really interesting jobs from super high-up barristers to very fashion-aware young women. It's an interesting mix. People like our clothes [sweetly Deacon talks about "our" clothes in acknowledgment of his team] because they are conversation pieces and make a statement. The customer who likes to be noticed is important to us."

It was creating clothes that make a statement for the right reasons, and not just by being predictably sexy, that got Deacon noticed. He graduated from Central Saint Martin's College in 1992, but didn't start his own label until 2004. In the interim, he worked for Jean-Charles de Castelbajac in Paris, at Debenhams, and from 1998 to 2002, he was the head designer at Bottega Veneta. Despite an acclaimed debut for the Italian label in 2000, he was sacked when the Gucci group bought it.

After collapsing with an infected saliva gland, Deacon ended up in the Ear Nose and Throat hospital. Once recovered, and after much soul-searching about his future, he started his own label, which launched at London Fashion Week in February 2004. A phalanx of starry models, namely Karen Elson, Lily Cole, Eva Herzigova, Linda Evangelista and Nadja Auermann, all appeared thanks to Deacon's college friend and one-time girlfriend Katie Grand, who styled the show. The collection marked him out as one of Britain's hottest talents. Deacon became a regular highlight of London Fashion Week, and one of the event's most polished designers.

Away from the catwalk, he designs a range for the high-street chain New Look and has worked on numerous collaborations including ones with Cadbury's Caramel, Sky HDTV boxes, Mulberry and Converse. So many collaborations in fact, that a sample question at a fashion pub quiz asked which of a list of labels Deacon hadn't worked with.

Last June, Deacon was awarded the prestigious ANDAM award, a prize of €160,000, backed by, among others, the French National Association for the Development of the Fashion Arts, and showed his collection in Paris for the first time last October. According to Deacon, "the move to Paris was really good", sales were up significantly, and his new licensing deal with Castor Srl meant he could accommodate the increase and ensure punctual deliveries. He thinks the move was essential because although he loves London, he "needed to shift the way the brand was seen". He says, "I think it was very much, 'Oh there's Giles, let's shoot a few pieces, it's a nice business but not really going the way it should be' and I couldn't really work out how to move it on while we stayed in London."

Deacon also received his ANDAM award in the nick of time. It's only open to designers under 40, and he passed that particular milestone at the end of last year. He celebrated in style – taking in Harry's Bar, Home House, the Ivy bar and Bistrotheque. The night ended with him losing his keys, breaking into his own house in Dalston Junction, then realising the keys were in his pocket all along. How the hell did he break in? "A misspent youth," he says dryly. Deacon says he's not bothered about turning 40. Perhaps that's partly because his youthful good looks are intact. "It'll catch up with me," he sighs, "one day I'll do a Dorian Gray and there will be a picture in the attic. I'll look like Helen Daniels from Neighbours after her stroke." However, he does admit to thinking, "what happens when I'm 50 and I've not done this or that? I just know that that feeling would really upset me."

He's working on an accessories line which he hopes to launch at the start of next year, but is there anything else he has a burning ambition to achieve? Deacon pauses and smiles. "Watch more Dog Borstal, that's what I'd like to do."

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