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Designer Giles Deacon: ‘I never wanted a billion-dollar business’

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Many British fashion designers have careers that burn twice as brightly, but with the brevity that the proverb implies. A notable exception is Giles Deacon, who launched his self-funded ready-to-wear label GILES at London Fashion Week in February 2004 and has neither vanished nor been absorbed into a luxury behemoth.

His last GILES presentation was in 2015, but it was a shrewd business move, not an exit into the wilderness — he shifted to couture, devoting himself to an already impressive list of loyal celebrity customers, including Kylie Minogue and Scarlett Johansson.

“By 2009 the label had grown to the point where it was too much to organise our own production,” says the 54-year-old designer, sitting in his sunny rooftop studio in Dalston, east London, with a herb garden outside. “We then worked with a company in Italy to make and sell the collections, which involved six years of commuting from London every week.

“At the same time, retail had changed — stores were under so much pressure for sell-through per square foot that they would only give you a couple of rails on a floor with other independent labels . . . I remember working out the numbers we needed to carry on, and I realised my heart was in the world of making couture, rather than committing to another licence. I never wanted a billion-dollar business. It was about quality of life and, also, sustainability — in every respect.”

In 2024, Deacon’s name carries as much weight on the red carpet as luxury brands with their lavish marketing budgets. Last year, he dressed Beyoncé in a custom blue dress created in collaboration with Tiffany & Co for part of her world tour. He made Pippa Middleton’s wedding dress in 2017, and dressed Billy Porter in a gold-feathered bodice and skirt, incorporating a digital print of the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace, for the 2020 Academy Awards. Sarah Jessica Parker has a museum-worthy collection of his designs.

“In fashion, it’s imperative to keep moving with the changing demands of the industry,” says long-term collaborator, stylist Katie Grand.

Talking to me today, Deacon is surrounded by rolls of fabric from the collection of textiles and wallpapers for luxury interiors brand Sanderson that launches this week. The designer has a long history of collaborations, from Mulberry to New Look and confectionery maker Cadbury’s (he has a sense of humour). His latest tie-up incorporates a refresh of classic patterns dating back to 1860 from the Sanderson archives. There are also several by Deacon himself, including a stripe motif from 2005.

“The Aperigon sawtooth stripe is one of my signatures,” he says. “I went to the Brighton Pavilion in 2019, when Stephen Jones used some of the pieces I had made for an exhibition of his millinery, and the Regency colours and stripes in the building inspired the stripe for the new range. I wanted a collection that was decadent but could work in a small flat in London as well as a stately home.”

There are 21 patterns, and Deacon has been experimenting with upholstery samples to turn into garments. At the studio there is a work-in-progress piece — a voluminous coat in the nut-and-alabaster-coloured variation of Regency Aperigon, a pale matt fabric with a regal, copper satin sheen in the contrasting stripe. In another corner, an archive couture dress in a print featuring rows of ornately speckled eggs is arranged, as if in a Victorian display case or illustration.

Deacon in his Dalston studio with a selection of his designs for Sanderson, as well as archive couture © markcoflaherty.com

“My father bought me those actual eggs from a collector in Chicago in the early 1990s,” says Deacon. “I created a print of them, laboriously, with a mix of photography and hand drawing for a dress in 2016. I always thought it would translate really well into wallpaper. I’m going to use it in my own house.”

While Deacon emerged from the capricious east London club scene of the 1990s, he was already “establishment”. That first collection he showed in 2003 came after periods spent working as head designer at Bottega Veneta, and then at Gucci under former creative director Tom Ford. When considering how and where to launch under his own name, he asked fashion buyers what they thought of London at the time.

“They said they came when they could, but there were only so many badly produced shows they could tolerate, with one car door hanging off a model’s arm, and no lighting. So, I thought, great — London it is!” It was an open goal for someone commercially minded.

He describes the aesthetic of his first collection — shown on supermodel friends he’d called in through favours — as conjuring up “a grandiose, decadent, very English kind of lady, with bespoke and interesting fabrications”. The debut won him Best New Designer at the British Fashion Awards in 2004, Harvey Nichols signed an exclusive, and it went straight into Bergdorf’s in New York.

It is connections as well as talent that have motivated Deacon. He shared a desk at London design school Central Saint Martins with conceptually focused fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, but instead of launching right after graduation as Chalayan did, he sought mentoring, including from Richard Nott from Workers for Freedom.

He then worked for [French fashion designer] Jean-Charles Castelbajac, “handling ties and accessories for the Japanese and Korean market. It was so organised in terms of what the product needed to be, and working in different teams gave me a sense of creative discipline.”

While luxury brands can contrive runway imagery to go viral, Deacon often gets more reach by dressing celebrity clientele. After an introduction by a mutual friend, the photographer Tim Walker, Cate Blanchett wore one of his digitally printed dresses in Cannes in 2015, featuring imagery of Tudor-era jewellery — and a gallery interior in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. “It’s still one of the most photographed pieces I’ve ever made,” Deacon says.

Deacon’s dress for Beyoncé incorporated pointed bust panels that had a touch of the Marvel superhero, without venturing into costume territory. That bust shape reappeared again at the British Fashion Awards last year, on Deacon’s life partner, actor Gwendoline Christie, who wore a chocolate-brown gown with exaggerated versions of the wired bust panels that resemble flames as well as wings.

Gwendoline Christie poses for the camera in a dark brown satin evening gown with elaborately shaped bodice and matching stole
Gwendoline Christie in Giles Deacon at the British Fashion Awards in 2023 © FilmMagic

She says of Giles that “his focus is on the experience of wearing the piece in a multisensory way — especially how it makes me feel, and how do I want it to make me feel”.

Deacon’s career is one example of how slow fashion can work as a business. There is a team of just five at his studio, some of whom have been with him since his first collection. He creates luxury product, without the inherent surplus waste of commercial ready-to-wear, and his clothes are for women appearing in what can be quite an aggressive spotlight, aiming to both project and deflect.

Fashion is changing fast, but there’s still a space in which you can think big while also staying sane, small, and afloat.

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