Interview: Giles Deacon, fashion designer

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SOME guys have a face for telly. Thanks to his chiselled features – enhanced by a light tan and modish outsize aviators – Deacon could pass for one of the cooler models in a lavish Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger advertising -campaign.

But this affable 41-year old is already a fashion star – a purveyor of gorgeous clothes at every level of today's fractious womenswear market.

For, in addition to his eponymous Deacon label (stocked in the world's greatest stores, coveted by movie stars – and one of the star attractions on the London Fashion Week show timetable), there's his phenomenally successful fast-fashion Gold collection for high street chain New Look.

And last year he additionally assumed the helm of the once great Paris couture house, Ungaro.

Add in his jewellery line, and the capsule shoe and bag range he designs for Nine West, and you might think Deacon has more than enough on his plate.

However, he's now also set to become a familiar presence on TV. Every Saturday for the next five weeks, Deacon will be caught up in a new Channel 4 format: the nationwide search for an exceptional new fashion stylist.

T4's New Look Style the Nation (hosted by Nick Grimshaw) is one of the first entertainment shows to exploit the relaxation in rules about product placement on UK television.

The high street chain will be getting its branding on everything (even the show's title, you'll note) – because, er, it's paying for it. Simple as that.

Deacon is joining Barbara Horspool (New Look's creative director) on a panel tasked with helping the public whittle down hundreds (or quite possibly thousands) of hopefuls to decide on one lucky winner – a girl or guy who'll scoop the opportunity to work as a stylist for New Look.

"'Why am I doing this show?' he echoes my question, acknowledging the challenge of squeezing yet another commitment into his working week.

"Because I thought it would be interesting. I've already got a strong relationship with New Look, so I thought it would be worth giving this a go."

He's just back from a three-week mini world tour – part of a flesh-pressing strategic push for his independently owned and financed Deacon label in the critical markets of the Far East and north America. "Fashion designers seem the busiest people on the planet," he jokes.

But even when he's not continent-hopping, an average week requires him to be what he terms eurolastic.

"I'll spend a couple of days in Paris, a couple back in London, some time at the factory in Italy .... I like travelling, but it can be a struggle to get home for weekends."

Deacon must have been an obvious choice to involve in this New Look-sponsored TV show – and not merely because his appearance will register so nicely on the nation's flat screens.

He's been doing his Gold collection for five years, and he sounds almost peeved when I dare to question his assertion that he finds the New Look people "a joy to work with."

He insists his relationship with them is characterised by shared goals. "I've always believed in the democratisation of design. Just because something is less expensive shouldn't mean it is less well designed. We've worked very hard on quality and value. We all want the same things out of this relationship – the same end result."

Two additional factors surely make his involvement in the TV show invaluable.

Through his rapport with Katie Grand – one of today's most successful and influential stylists – he understands the key role of stylists in the collaborative process of modern fashion.

The other? Occasional appearances on Britain's Next Top Model showed Deacon as a user-friendly antidote to all the bitchy put-downs that routinely become the jeopardy factor whenever a TV camera rolls in for a close-up of the fashion industry.

In this new show, I don't think Deacon will shy away from telling it as it is. Even so, people who have worked with him say he can be blunt yet never cruel.

Perhaps his warmth and down-to-earth manner are explained by northern roots. Born in Darlington, he grew up in the Lake District, before completing secondary school in Barnard Castle, and then tackling a foundation course at Harrogate College of Arts.

Finally, he landed at Central St Martins – the incubator of so many stellar fashion careers. Yet, although London has been his base for over 20years, Deacon still hasn't lost his hybrid Cumbrian-Yorkshire accent.

It was at St Martins that he first met (and dated) Katie Grand. Long after their 18-month romance, they remain collaborators. "She's my eyes and ears in the outside world," he explains.

"Stylists work in different ways with designers. Some come in at the end of the creative process, purely to work on the presentation. But Katie is involved throughout the season.

"She sees the direction I'm heading, and introduces ideas she thinks might be interesting. I like the way she can turn an idea on its head or make something that's already good into something very special."

Ultimately it will be the public who decide the winner of Style the Nation. But anyone who hopes to become a professional stylist surely needs to echo the energy, individuality and passion that Katie Grand has brought to each of Deacon's own runway shows since his supermodel-studded debut back in 2003.

That first Deacon show was what fashion pros term "a moment". And celebrities promptly formed a (reasonably) orderly queue to wear his gorgeous look-at-me eveningwear.

"The Deacon collection is always a little bit sideways. British in feel ... quirky." Although his things aren't brash, they suit a woman who has the confidence to take centre-stage. "I don't design for wallflowers," he admits.

Confidence is one of the qualities required to survive the challenges and setbacks inevitable in any fashion career. It's also key to emerging unscathed from the brutal selection process of any reality TV format.

Deacon will empathise with those whose hopes are dashed, for he's no stranger to the jeopardy that hugs the flip-side of opportunity. After graduating from St Martins, he was recruited by luxury brand Bottega Veneta to give its image a massive injection of Hoxton cool – only to be sacked the moment the founding family sold out to Gucci Group.

Yet the greatest challenge of his career to date must surely be Ungaro. "It's getting into its groove," Deacon suggests – with, I guess, his brain locked into wishful-thinking mode.

In fairness, his first Ungaro collections have been well received. But, in appointing him, Ungaro's owners had only just abandoned the sublime fashion madness that had previously seen them entrust creative direction to the troubled actress Lindsay Lohan.

Although it's got to be better to have someone who can orchestrate great clothes rather than tabloid headlines, the task of repairing Ungaro's credibility aprs-Lohan must be akin to pushing an articulated lorry up a cliff face or making a car from chiffon.

But given that a change is almost as good as a rest (and I'm quite sure Deacon has no time to rest), six Saturday mornings of T4 fun may be just what this engaging designer needs.

New Look Style the Nation airs on T4 (Channel 4) from 4 June. The show on 2 July features the Scottish leg of the nationwide search

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 29 May, 2011

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