“you can have this idea…” — giles deacon, fashion designerBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
“In the thirteen years of having my own label I’ve done quite a lot of interviews,” says Giles Deacon. “I always like to be factual, have some good anecdotes and keep it quite informative and light. I’ve done my own media training you see, so I try to stick to that as a rule.”
The award-winning British fashion designer Giles Deacon has just arrived in Leeds on a train from Manchester, where he has spent the morning presenting a talk to fashion students about his career. It’s the same story he’s told to journalists, interns, Vogue, TV presenters, The Guardian, waiters, The Scotsman, Imran Amed from The Business of Fashion and anyone else who has thought to ask. Giles always presents his story the same way, which is to tell it like it has never been told before. It’s the same story he’ll tell tonight in a lecture hall to students, staff and invited guests at Leeds College of Art. A few of them will have already met Giles, during his tour of the fashion department earlier in the day.
That’s where we first meet Giles; rubbing his thumb over hand-embroidered beads on the arm of a blue coat.
Giles Deacon is tall, with model-like features (good cheekbones, strong chin), a melodic voice and short, silver hair that he parts to one side. Today he’s wearing a red, plaid button-up shirt and white trousers, rolled up to reveal brown loafers and bright blue socks. Colourful socks are part of Giles’s signature look, as are aviator glasses. Even with 20/20 vision, Giles’s Aviators are about as much of a fashion accessory as his sing-songy voice and an anecdote he tells about seeing Francis Bacon in Soho as a student; they’re all part of the brand, the charm, the person that is Giles Deacon, the nicest man in fashion.
They say that Giles Deacon is the nicest man in fashion, or if not they say something like it. Down-to-earth. Friendly. Considerate. Normal, they say. ’They’ are reporters, models, his celebrity clientele, employees, airline attendants, most of the hospitality industry, and a staff member from Leeds College of Art who picked up Giles from the train station and offered him a tour of the fashion department.
“He’s really nice,” she whispers, as we watch Giles wander through rows of tables while students work on their end-of-year projects.
“What are you working on?” he asks one student, hunched over a desktop computer.
“Not much,” is the reply that eventually, with a shrug, comes.
“Fair enough!” he laughs.
Giles is in a rush today, as he is almost every day. There’s tension in the room; he needs to be photographed, interviewed and fed before his presentation.
Giles is in a rush, but you wouldn’t know it. He leans on one of the tables and chats and chats and chats, flipping through pages of portfolios and tracing his finger over patterns. He doesn’t have much of a celebrity presence; you could easily mistake him for a tutor, and down-to-earth, considerate Giles — the nicest man in fashion — would take it as a compliment.
The down-to-earth Northerner, the newspapers have said. ‘Fashion’s unlikeliest darling’.
We’re now following fashion’s unlikeliest darling through the corridors of Leeds College of Art to his photo shoot in the airy textiles workshop, a room filled with fabric and plants.
“It’s nice in here,” says Giles. We nod in agreement.
Giles was right, he’s had his media training. The camera lens comes off and Giles is already posed — arms on his knees, one foot perched at the bottom of the chair. Ten minutes later and we’re sitting across from each other in purple chairs in LCA’s boardroom.
“I never really did proper art class at school,” says Giles. “My school wasn’t really arts-based, it just produced ridiculously good-looking rugby players.
“I’ve always drawn though,” he adds.
Your illustrations are wonderful, we say.
“That’s kind of you, you’re too sweet,” he replies, before changing the subject.
Giles grew up in the Lake District and spent his childhood outdoors drawing plants and animals. He didn’t read much, but he enjoyed looking at pictures in natural history books.
Fashion’s unlikeliest darling dreamt of being a marine biologist.
Not a fashion designer? we ask.
Not a fashion designer!? London, Paris and Milan’s fashion media exclaim.
“I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what that was. I always found the idea of the three year old saying ‘I want to be a fashion designer’ a bit creepy. From the age of three? I don’t believe you.” He pauses. “Of course, I’m being a bit unfair.”
Giles finished school with an E in General Studies (“Not much use to anyone,” he says) and did a foundation year at Harrogate College of Arts. It was here he met his favourite tutor, Cheryl Evans, who encouraged him to continue his studies in London.
“Saint Martin’s,” he says. “I just knew I wanted to be there.”
This was 1989, the year that British designer Wendy Dagworthy joined Saint Martin’s’ academic staff as head of fashion.
“She was just trying to install some new ways of working and operating there and put her stamp on it all,” says Giles. “I just loved it. I totally adored it.
“It was so exciting to be living in London.”
When Giles tells the story about his studies at Saint Martin’s, he always talks about two things: his Northern pragmatism and sharing a desk with designer Hussein Chalayan.
“I was known for being really square and working really hard,” he says. “I felt like it was a real privilege to get on the course and I used to get really fucked off with these people that I’d never seen before, that would arrive during the last term of third year. I think it’s my Northern pragmatism to want to do things in a place. I really wanted to make the most of it and learn as much as possible.
“Although I did have some amazing classmates,” he adds. “There was Phoebe Philo, Lee [Alexander] McQueen, Stella [McCartney], Luella [Bartley], Katie Grand. Hussain — Hussain and I sat together for three years. It was just a phenomenal period of time, a lot of these people were really putting the effort in.
“Saint Martin’s had that real art school sensibility; you were free to do what you wanted. You know what it’s like when you graduate. You think, Jesus, that time was so, so important. Did I waste any? Probably a bit.” He pauses, then adds, “but I worked really, really hard.”
Giles graduated and went to Paris.
Do you speak any French? we ask.
“Oh yes,” he says. “All my workmates there were French women, and the majority of them spoke in a northern Parisian slang. I suppose not slang,” he corrected himself, “but a northern Parisian accent. As a result of that, I speak like a female northern Parisian! I think it’s quite funny.”
We finished our interview and had been ushered off so that Giles could eat a sandwich alone and take a break before his presentation. People were milling about in the cafeteria downstairs, drinking wine, waiting to meet fashion’s unlikeliest darling.
“What was he like?” a fine arts student asks us.
Oh, he was really down-to-earth, we say. Really nice.
The crowd begins to shuffle towards a doorway at the end of the room, and we all pile into LCA’s lecture theatre and take our seats.
Giles enters the room in his plaid shirt, white trousers, blue socks and Aviator glasses and stands next to a podium. Behind him is an image of British model and singer Karen Elson from his Autumn/Winter 2015 show, standing with her hands on her waist in a spiked, black dress that splays out around her head like a wearable throne.
“Karen’s in her Queen Elizabeth I pose,” says Giles into a microphone, looking up at the model.
Giles tells his story again, right from the beginning like it’s never been told before. He was born in Darlington; he’s always drawn; “Saint Martin’s,” he says. “I just knew I wanted to be there.”
He talks about sitting next to Hussain, his Northern pragmatism, going to Paris, coming back to London, and going to Italy to work for Bottega Veneta. The audience gasps and laughs and go silent in all the right places, at all the right times.
Giles’s story is true, but feels make believe. Everything from 1992, when Giles graduated art school to a job with Tom Ford, up until the launch of his label in 2003, contains the same, strange magic reserved for Hollywood film stars.
“We had the show for my first collection the Royal Chelsea Hospital,” says Giles. “It’s an incredible building where all the Chelsea pensioners live.
“On one side they have a chapel and on the other side is a very beautiful hall, but it’s where they have all their meals. It transpired that we’d have to work within their mealtimes — obviously with great respect for the Chelsea pensioners,” he adds.
“The look on the faces of the people in the production company when I was telling them this! We had to ship all the lighting and runway equipment in to do the rehearsals, take it all out again so the tables could be set and the pensioners could have their meals, and put it all back again. By the time we managed to get the last Zimmer frame out at about six o’clock before the show was meant to start, there was this overwhelming smell of unusual cabbage, minced beef pies — not the kinds of things you’d associate with the launch of a new fashion label.”
He flips the slide. “And I do believe we now have full video of that first show.”
The room is silent, and then we hear the music — the magical, ominous soundtrack to a dark fairytale — as models begin to follow each other down a runway on the screen. The effect is strange and mesmerising, and for the first few minutes Giles says nothing and watches, the microphone clasped between his hands.
“I think I’ll explain a bit of this,” he says finally. “Again, from being lucky enough to work in Milan and getting some great acquaintances, I managed to call in a load of favours from quite a number of supermodels. It was very important to have girls of this stature, and many of these girls weren’t being used at all anymore. People were all wanting to do new faces, collections that had one homogenous look. I really wanted to have a collection of women who looked like they had lived lives and had some character about them.
“The result was phenomenal,” he says, “and it worked so well that the next day we were in the front cover of my three favourite publications, which are The New York Times, The Sun and Women’s Wear Daily.”
The audience laughs.
“It had a very English feel,” he says. “Slightly subversive but very feminine as well, which really wasn’t what people were doing at all in fashion. It was a very conceptual time; people wearing half a car door, that sort of thing.”
The audience laughs again.
As the film goes on, Giles talks and talks and talks, re-living each moment, each piece as if he’s re-discovered it. Be creative, work hard, be nice to people is his motto, and he’s followed it to great success. But for all his Northern pragmatism, Giles is still enamoured by this work, his work, that’s come from the same Giles who sat drawing plants by Lake Ullswater.
The film ends, and Giles begins to flip through photos of his most recent collections.
“This dress was a real favourite of mine,” he says, pointing to a photo of a model sitting on a giant glove in a layered black piece.
“We called it the car wash, because it was inspired by a car wash that was just around the corner from my house at the time.”
He skips to an image of a model walking down the runway. “This was a collection that we did in 2012,” he says. “The idea was that there was these posh women in a house that was beautifully decorated and it was on fire, and they collected their favourite pieces, and it’s wintertime and they’re running out into this frosted garden,” he begins to talk faster, his story running away with him.
“All of these pieces were made from satin organza strips which were hand burnt with a creme brulee torch. We have some wonderful photos of a giant cigarette we made with the girls resting on it.
“Oh,” he adds, excited, “and to top this one off, this collection had a dress that Victoria [Beckham] was interested in wearing to the Olympics.” He flips the image again to Victoria Beckham wearing a version of his dress. He pauses and looks up at it. “Of course, I wasn’t aware that she’d want it cut quite so short but she’s a very difficult woman to say no to. When I saw her driving in on a Swarovski crystal taxi into the Olympic Arena I actually fell onto the floor laughing. It was really quite something else.”
He flips to another image. “Ah, Solange Knowles at the Met Museum.” He sighs. “Well I was a little surprised when Solange appeared on the television and the dress looked different. We got in contact with her crew to ask what had gone on and they said, ‘oh she didn’t like the bit at the back so they cut it off.’”
The audience gasps. What have you done, Solange?!
“And I was like… okay,” he says. “‘…And, do you know where it is?’ They said, ‘yes it’s fine it’s in the hotel room’. But apparently the maids had thought it was rubbish and had thrown it out.” He flips the image again. “So Solange’s in the bad books.”
On the screen is a model with a cape draped around her arms, posing on top of a building overlooking the city. Giles smiles when he sees it.
“Ah,” he says. “This was a collaboration that I did with Jeremy Deller who is an artist and has also been a friend of mine since I was at Saint Martin’s. Jeremy and I are really big fans of William Morris, and we got hold of a stain glass panel he did and we printed onto Lycra.
“We made these,” he pauses, as if deciding what they made. “Well they’re like Olympic running team suits with William Morris’s stained glass painted on them and we made this big, shamanic shaking stick. There was actually a video of this that we shot at about seven o’clock on a Monday morning in Oxford Circus. Jess, who works for me, was wearing this and walking down the street. People were following her. She went into McDonalds with it!” He laughs. “It was very Jeremy, it was all quite exciting.”
Giles flips the image back to Karen posing like Elizabeth I, and asks if anyone has questions.
A student raises her hand, nervous. “How do you handle the pressure of being creative and coming up with new things everyday?” she asks.
“Well it’s a real treat for me to be able to work as I do,” he replies. “One of the most exciting and luxurious things about the job is you can have this idea, like as if it’s a post-it note in your head, and you can draw that idea 2D, and then have it made 3D within the day. It’s a really brilliant thing.
“And of course, I love working,” he adds, looking back up at the screen. “This is what I’ve worked towards for a really long time. I love it.”
Giles answers a few more questions, takes a photo with a group of students, and chats with a member of staff.
Before he leaves, he passes us in the corridor.
“That was really great,” we remark.
“That’s kind of you, you’re too sweet,” he replies, and turns from the corridor up a flight of stairs.
Fashion’s unlikeliest darling will be heading for the station soon, where he’ll get on a train for London. In the morning, he’ll bike to his studio in a converted brewery in the East End, in a fresh pair of colourful socks, his Aviators glued firmly to the bridge of his nose. He’ll keep telling his story, the same story he’s told to journalists, models, interns, Vogue and TV presenters; the story he told to a group of students and staff and invited guests at Leeds College of Art. Telling the magical story of his life again and again, as if somewhere in the audience that boy drawing by Ullswater Lake is listening.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 31