Julien Macdonald: Defender of the fur

Animal rights activists bombard him with flour and try to sabotage his shows, but the man who has put fur back on the world's top catwalks is unrepentant. 'They won't stop me using it,' he tells Julia Stuart

Sunday 19 February 2006 01:00

It didn't exactly go to plan. When the fashion designer Julien Macdonald arrived at the Cuckoo Club in Mayfair, London, accompanied by Paris Hilton, it was the heiress who was expected to grab the headlines. Regular fodder for celebrity magazines, she had just made her debut catwalk appearance in Macdonald's show for London Fashion Week, wearing diamonds worth £2m.

But the show had also featured a swathe of other models strutting down the catwalk in fur. A lone woman dressed in black from Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was standing outside the club armed with a bag of self-raising flour from Sainsbury's. As Macdonald and Hilton posed for cameras outside, the attacker launched and the glamorous couple suddenly looked as though they were covered in nuclear fall-out.

But it is Peta that now looks foolish. For, although it was the first time it had scored a direct hit on Macdonald, far from being annoyed, the gregarious 33-year-old Welshman found the episode hysterical. He and Hilton, who was also laughing, piled back into the car, dusted themselves down, and returned. But more significantly, it has made no impact on the designer's determination to continue to use fur. For if he stopped, he says, his business would probably collapse.

"It's become a common occurrence between myself and Peta. They won't leave me alone. Each season it gets a bit more pathetic," he said. "They walk on the runways and put banners up. What is a bag of self-raising flour going to do? I just laugh it off. At the end of the day, what they end up doing is generating so much press for me I couldn't even pay for it.

"Everybody has their own cause. The madness just gets worse and worse. The thing is they look like freaks to be honest with you. They dress up in black outfits or try and blend into the crowd and throw posters into people's faces and call them names. They have done it to me so many times now that people think I've planned the attacks myself. These ladies stand outside all night in the cold. Don't they have families or a husband?

"Whatever they do I'm not going to stop using fur. If I stop using fur in my collection I might as well close my business down. Almost 60 per cent of my business is catered for the Russian market and my biggest sales are fur. Russian women demand fur coats and they won't wear anything else because it's so cold and they want to look fashionable.

The designer, who shares his home in Notting Hill, west London, with two dogs and two parrots, uses what he describes as "the most luxurious fur possible" from Russia and Scandinavia, which has been approved by international fur federations. His penchant is for chinchilla, sable, fox and mink. "They're not from horrendous farms in China. The animals are treated in the best ways, you can't use any better fur than I use."

Macdonald, who built his reputation dressing celebrities such as Kelly Brook, Martine McCutcheon, Kylie Minogue and Joely Richardson in glamorous, barely-there dresses guaranteed to make the front pages, now has a complete fur range. His winter collection last season had 10 pieces; this year's has more than 60. The furs at his showroom in Milan attract buyers from all over the world.

"The same as Valentino, Gucci and Fendi, I'm building up a brand. Those big brands are successful because they have luxury items, and fur is a luxury item," says Macdonald, who is partial to wearing fox and mink. "I make women look glamorous and sexy. If you want to look conservative you don't buy Julien Macdonald. If you are an international traveller who likes fabulous things like diamonds and expensive clothes, you are attracted to Julien Macdonald."

The designer grew up in Merthyr Tydfil and still has his Welsh accent. His father worked at a Hoover factory and his mother was a former swimwear model-turned-housewife who would dress up in a fur coat and sparkly shoes. A keen knitter, she taught her son the craft when he was 13, along with his two sisters. He has been grateful ever since. After a degree in textiles at Brighton, Macdonald won a place on the fashion MA course at the Royal College of Art, where his knits were noticed by Karl Lagerfeld, the designer of Chanel. He liked the cobweb dresses so much he employed Macdonald for his own label and for Chanel haute couture, while he was still at the RCA. Macdonald went to Paris, happily sitting in a corner, his needles clicking away.

Ten years ago Macdonald launched his own label, and in 2001, much to the surprise of the fashion world - and Macdonald, who wasn't told what job he was being interviewed for - he became creative director for Givenchy, the house that dressed Audrey Hepburn. He lived in Paris during the week and got the Eurostar back to London for the weekend to work on his own collection. However, the talented knitwear and textile designer, who had carved a career out of glamour and glitz, failed to convey the chic heritage of the house and update it for the modern customer. Critics had a field day. Ironically, his last show, three years later, was the best he did there, with tailored black suits and prim little dresses.

At last he had delivered what they wanted, but by then the fun-loving Welshman was miserable and hated the constant travel. When he returned home to London, the man who is in his element sending a model down the catwalk in a silver-sequinned frock with a £2m diamond corsage cried with happiness. "I was never a fan of Hepburn. My favourite was always Marilyn Monroe. I thought I would grow to love it, but I didn't," he said.

Since then he has been concentrating on his own brand. There has been a collection of children's wear, a range of crystal for Royal Doulton, a Julien Macdonald Barbie and a collection for Debenhams. The designer can be seen on television as a judge on Project Catwalk, a Sky One reality show for designers fronted by Liz Hurley. It has been poorly received, but Macdonald, who for a while wanted to be an actor, adored it. "It's been incredible. I've absolutely loved it. I think Elizabeth is such an amazing woman. She is very, very beautiful. She's great, really good fun."

The animal rights protesters may be gunning for him, but Macdonald believes he is doing his industry a service. "I think the fashion industry is proud of me for doing something that I believe in. There is hardly anyone like me, really. I'm building a brand and doing what I want to do and there are hardly any really glamorous labels out there. There's Roberto Cavalli, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana and they are super-successful, but the people behind those brands are almost double my age. Not everyone likes what I do, but the ones that do will always be supportive. We all make mistakes, and at the end of the day, I am learning. Everyone has really, really loved my show this season. And my sales are phenomenal. It's been a huge success and Peta are definitely, definitely not going to stop me using fur. The humane way would be to call me and ask me why I am doing this. If they did they would have a much better chance of me working with them in a different way." Given Macdonald's love of fur, however, it is unlikely that a chat would dim Peta's fondness for hurling flour.

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