Giles Deacon on his clothing line “Giles”, his collaboration with New Look und Fay, his way to independence, freedom, role models, punk and new rave, and learning at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.
When did you get the idea to make fashion your life?
Early already, but I can’t name one pivotal experience. Unlike other designers, as a child I wasn’t fascinated by my grandmother’s underwear! Our family lived in the remote Lake District in northern England. There was an interesting and rough mix of kids from the old English landowners and the gangster kids from Newcastle. I found the mood stimulating. I didn’t like school. I was more interested in artistic things. So, after school I took a foundation course at Harrogate College of Arts. One of the tutors in the fashion department suggested I try the Saint Martins College of Art in London. I applied and immediately was on good terms with the director. A few months later I started my studies.
Did fashion school leave you a lot of room for your own ideas?
I was in the same class with Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen and Luella Bartley, but also with Katie Grand [Deacon’s former girlfriend, founder of Dazed & Confused and Pop Magazine]. Two years behind me was Stella McCartney. Somehow, almost everyone attended Saint Martins. There was a main program, but the school also hosted various guest professors for shorter projects. We could fortunately study with people like John Galliano, Georgina Godley and Calvin Klein. Saint Martins saw itself as an open-minded art college. We could also study with the sculptors or graphic designers for a few months if we felt like it. The interdisciplinary freedom was good for me. This free-spirited notion of an art school inherited from the 60s and 70s was soon over. Today, the designers at Saint Martin receive a much more commercial education—even if that often goes wrong.
Giles Fall/Winter 2008/09 Collection
Persons leaving Saint Martins like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano or Stella McCartney later took over major Parisian houses. In 1992, after leaving Saint Martins, did you profit from the boom in the British fashion scene at the time?
No, the high point for British designers came more around 1995/1996. In contrast to many of my colleagues, I didn’t immediately want to start working on my own label, but get out of London, travel, see what’s going on in the world and gather experience at other houses. First I went to Paris to Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. I enjoyed working with him, because he has an interesting personality and with his imaginative designs is something like the French counterpart to Vivienne Westwood whom I have always admired. In the early 70s, Castelbajac also lived together with Malcolm McLaren for a while in the Pigalle neighborhood in Paris.
How did you get from Castelbajac to Tom Ford?
At Castelbajac, I especially took care of the Japanese licenses—ballpoint pens, ties, umbrellas and polo shirts—and learned how to use a brand name commercially. At the time, Castelbajac liked drawing figures and symbols like mice or hearts, which were then adapted to the Asian market. The Japanese were crazy about it. After two years working for Castelbajac in Paris, I wanted to return to London where I worked for fashion houses on High Street and also as a freelancer in the USA. I was underway all the time until I met the owner of Bottega Veneta before the brand became part of the Gucci Group. I came to their attention through a drawing, which is how I became chief designer of Bottega Veneta until 2001. Then I witnessed the hostile takeover of this family company by the Gucci luxury company—a fascinating and at the same time exhausting experience.
Giles Fall/Winter 2008/09 Collection
Then you were taken under contract by Gucci’s guru Tom Ford. What did you learn from your various experiences and as of 2003 bring to your own “Giles” label?
When I worked at Gucci with Tom Ford, I didn’t have a special responsibility but was supposed to give him ideas. That was interesting, but I wanted to do something else. After leaving Saint Martins College, I worked together with the most diverse people and learned that there are no good or bad methods. That the one or other designer is commercially more successful doesn’t mean anything. I am only interested in the type of a feeling one comes home with at the end of the workday. As a freelancer, I had a few daunting experiences with authority structures: One person has the say, all the others are terrorized, wear black and have empty desks. I’m not doing my job to end like that. Pressure is not inspiring. “Give me 20 versions of this skirt by this afternoon!” Methods like that are completely useless!
Why after almost ten years of working for others did you want to work independently?
In a short time, I learned a lot, but since I don’t like playing it safe, one day I wanted to throw myself into the arena and take risks. I wanted to develop my label in London—I’m British after all. But I didn’t want to do an eccentric London collection, but immediately speak to a universal audience. Because British designers are regarded as having a lot of ideas but also as amateurish. One quickly thinks of “Crazy London,” but also of bad work and poor fashion shows. I didn’t want to be like the cliché, but make and present very professional fashion with a smaller budget. That is why for my first show I wanted top models like Linda Evangelista, Karolina Kurkova, Eugenia Volodina, and already knew in which stores my collection should hang.
Giles Fall/Winter 2008/09 Collection
What was the idea behind your first collection which you showed in London in 2003?
My first show was presented in the Royal Chelsea Hospital, the home of ten so-called Chelsea retirees, war veterans. The ideal context in which to contradict the “Crazy London” cliché. I didn’t want to show eccentric, but refined and sophisticated clothing. I am looking for a fashion for women, not for teenagers, which plays with the imagination and retains a certain secret. Of course, with your designs you can’t please everyone, but I was glad that my collection wasn’t only noticed in Great Britain but worldwide.
Which women do you see as fashion icons or muses?
I don’t have a muse, but I love the style of six of my female friends, who aren’t necessarily famous. If I have an idea and all six like it, then it was good. But if only two or three of them would wear one of my dresses, then I scrap the idea. Our dresses look particularly good on certain women like Elizabeth Salzman or actress Thandie Newton who from time to time turns up in the atelier. If you’re asking me about prominent people… our clients include actresses like Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johannsson and Claire Danes. I want diversity: My dresses should be worn by young, cool girls just as much as by 55 to 60 year old women.
Do you understand why some designers are often more creative in the stylistic context of a certain label than when designing their own line?
Yes, but it is also practical, because collaborations bring the money you need for your own company. After my first own collection different fashion houses approached me. I first had to ponder which people and infrastructures suit me. I also recently started designing for New Look, a London fashion chain from High Street. Almost at the same time, Daks approached me, but our collaboration then started a bit later—because it took a while to sign the contracts. And now I also work with Mister Della Valle for Fay. I like it, because within Tod’s Group I have a longer-term perspective. And since I have always been a fan of sportswear, I like the idea of developing a luxurious sports line.
Does one have to be schizophrenic to simultaneously work for such diverse labels?
No, because I hope there is a type of continuity. During my ten years at Castelbajac, Bottega Veneta, Gucci and others, I learned to adapt to various worlds. I always have to take different price classes into consideration, but can rely on their infrastructures. For New Look and Italy’s Tod’s Group, I can realize, produce and bring my ideas to stores incredibly fast. Because the time is tighter, I have to better organize my own line and focus on what’s important. That’s why, together with Katie Grand, I plan our daily schedule all the way to next September. I have to know exactly when I work for which brand, so I don’t waste time.
So, in addition to your collaborations, you design four collections per year for “Giles”…
Yes, the summer, winter and interim collections. At first glance that might look like a lot. But just look at Christopher Bailey: For Burberry, he designs 16 collections per year. That’s almost one and a half per month! So things aren’t all that bad for me. And if you’re well organized, you can even work smoothly.
Giles Fall/Winter 2008/09 Collection
Who do you trust with your ideas before you realize them?
I especially rely on Katie Grand , but also listen to everyone who works with me here in the studio. With Katie we discuss certain feelings, moods and directions, like if the collection should take a gentler or harder direction. We have been good friends since we got to know each other at Saint Martins. She studied fashion journalism there for a year before she helped start Dazed & Confused. Today, she not only advises Marc Jacobs and myself, but a host of other designers as well.
Is there an article of clothing, certain basics that you return to in each of your collections?
No, but of course I have a certain preference for certain forms and moods. I love mixing styles, but on the other hand, you also have to think of the customers and stores—from season to season they are supposed to be able to recognize a certain form. Recognizability is the trademark, the capital of the good designer. Almost everyone can describe the look of Helmut Lang, Yves Saint-Laurent or Marc Jacobs. In the same way, I hope the work from our studio carries its own signature too.
In retrospect, you don’t see any parallels to other designers?
Things like that don’t bother me—on the contrary! Many designers are so vain that they want to protect their “inimitable” style at any price. They remind me of certain students from Saint Martins who were so paranoid by the success of others that they completely separated themselves off from everybody. Perhaps this crazy fear that our ideas will be stolen is a thing of our time. I think a world of healthy competition is more productive than the usual tendency to absolute ownership.
Other independent designers like Anne Valérie Hash pursue a strategy that is careful in a similar way to survive on the luxury market, but show less of an appetite for collaborations…
Believe me: A lot of young designers also design collections for other brands on the side without making a big fuss about it. After all, they have to earn money to continue their own line. I don’t necessarily want to open my own boutiques everywhere. But through my collaborations with other big houses and chains, I also advertise for “Giles.” In the USA, we were almost unknown—until the bags we designed for Mulberry hit the stores there and were sold at high prices.
A few years ago, Givenchy was discussing you. Do you flirt with the idea of making haute couture?
Time will tell. At the moment, I am focusing on turning my “Giles” collection into a meaningful universe and showing it in the right environment. It is supposed to be humorous, dark, sexy and of high quality. At a fashion show, buyers and journalists often can’t see the work that goes into each article of clothing. Everything goes much too quickly there and afterwards the Internet can only provide a superficial impression of the collection. But if you then look at the clothing up close, you see that some of the items are made as lovingly as couture pieces.
What inspires you at the moment? Do music and painting play a role?
Yes, I constantly listen to music when I am working. At the moment, I swear by Ricardo Villalobos, Philip Glass and the new record by Sébastien Tellier, “Sexuality.” Fashion and music have always been closely connected. Of course, I am influenced by what I see and hear: music, art, cinema. I last saw “Control,” because I am a Joy Division fan. Music plays a big role in our shows. I work on that together with an old friend Steve Mackie, the former Pulp bassist: For the shows, he mixes Philip Glass, Cocteau Twins and old demo tapes by Joy Division or plays with the 80s disco sound.
Today, Pete Doherty (for Hedi Slimane) and Amy Winehouse (for Karl Lagerfeld) are fashion role models. Here in London, could a certain fashion style emerge from a new music direction—like once with the punk of the Sex Pistols and Vivienne Westwood/Malcolm McLaren?
Something like that can happen again—only not to the same extent. Punk was a real social movement, not just a style. At the moment, new rave is also making street sportswear more socially acceptable. These kids have a crazy style and their look keeps spreading from cities like Berlin, Paris or New York. Of course, as a music movement, new rave is harder to grasp than punk was at the time, but today’s club culture also clearly influences fashion.
Do you think of the London club kids when you design your reasonably priced “Gold” line for New Look?
Yes, because the customers for my New Look collection are teenagers who don’t dine in chic Mayfair or Manhattan restaurants, but prefer to go dancing in clubs. I am for democratic design. My friend Hussein Chalayan finds fashion political, but I don’t have a political or subversive message. I believe in the democracy of design. Regardless of whether someone has 2 million or just 20 pounds at the bank—they always have the choice of how to spend it. I can understand if you do not want to or cannot spend 8,000 pounds for a dress from our Giles collection. I design “Gold” as an independent brand for New Look and not as my own collection’s affordable sideline. Despite the modest prices, the quality of the material and the print should be high for each individual piece. With the “Gold” line, I can make my ideas accessible to a broader public and break out of the fashion world per se.
Interview > Marcus Rothe