EARLY experiments making dresses from his mother’s bedding led Graeme Black to become Giorgio Armani’s right-hand man. Now the Carnoustie native is masterminding China’s bid to rule the world of cashmere
The Chinese fashion industry is one of the most dynamic on the planet, its bloggers, designers, models, magazine editors and style commentators more sought-after than those from any other country. The insatiable lust for designer labels has resulted in a market worth £25 billion and it is estimated that by 2020 China will have overtaken the US to become the world’s biggest luxury consumer. Heck, Fendi even staged a catwalk show on the Great Wall.
Throw into that intoxicating cultural mix a wee lad from the golfing town of Carnoustie, son of a bookbinder father and housewife mother, the only boy in the school sewing class who knew that, somehow, he was always destined for more glamorous things.
Now 45, Graeme Black says, “I had a very lively, noisy and energetic childhood. Our home was always filled with the comings and goings of my siblings and a few feisty arguments were always guaranteed. My mother catered to our every whim – she deserves a sainthood. I can remember coming home from school and she would be humming away to Edith Piaf while fixing lunch, so now when I hear Piaf sing I think of my mother.”
His two brothers have gone on to work in finance, while his sister, he says, “has created her own brood of energetic children”.
But Black’s future lay in fashion. “I didn’t have any contact with the fashion industry from within my family but I have always wanted to design, even before I knew what it meant. My first real memory of understanding I wanted to be a designer was when I saw a Karl Lagerfeld Chloé fashion show on TV and was so excited by seeing the clothes, the girls – the whole world seemed so exotic I was hooked.
“I then began to study hard so I could get into art school, doing every possible art, pottery, creative course to improve my chances of getting a place.”
Scottish schools these days, to the best of my knowledge, no longer offer sewing classes. But at the time Black duly went along, the only boy in the group, soaking up knowledge and working with whatever fabrics he could lay his hands on. “I once made a dress out of one of my mother’s sheets,” he laughs. “I tore it up into strips, then knotted it together to form a sheath dress with a hand-painted back panel. I thought I was a genius. As you can imagine, it was not the most flattering piece. I didn’t ask my mother’s permission and, yes, I did get into trouble for ruining a perfectly good sheet.”
He studied fashion at Edinburgh University, where his graduate collection showed promise – and bore a vague resemblance to those early experiments with his mother’s sheets. “I wanted to create a complete collection,” he says, “from designing the prints to hand-finishing the braided strips of fabrics I had fashioned into tubes – are you seeing a pattern here? This ‘delicate’ detail was used on collars, pockets and capes. The colour palette was challenging and the outcome unique, but I loved every minute of my time at art school and I’m still friends with all my class, most of whom are in London following their fashion dreams.”
London was calling Black too. He was so desperate to get to the fashion capital and start working that he didn’t care how he did it. “I ended up sleeping on a blow-up lilo on a friend of a friend’s floor, phoning and phoning, trying to get a job. It was the most exciting, scary and challenging time of my life.
“I did, however, start a job after two weeks, which was amazing considering it was with John Galliano.”
He doesn’t want to talk about the former Dior designer’s recent fall from grace, but simply says he admired his work, and that of Body Map, the label that was the toast of 1980s clubland. “It was a very special time in London and I was just happy to be there. I absorbed everything and enjoyed my first fashion experience.”
He went on to work with Zandra Rhodes, Salvatore Ferragamo and Hugo Boss, and spent time in Italy, rising through the ranks of Armani to become Giorgio’s right-hand man. His own label launched in 2005 and he became known for exquisite, ladylike tailoring, with the emphasis always on the luxe end of the market: Black’s spring/summer 2010 presentation included such valuable gems that the models needed a team of 20 bodyguards to protect them, while his autumn/winter 2009 runway show took place in Jacob Rothschild’s 18th-century Spencer House, where the fash pack were required to perch their fashionably bony bottoms on gilded chairs.
Black went on to design one-off pieces for the likes of Victoria Beckham, Elle Macpherson, Linda Evangelista and Iman, but all the time he was honing his talent and developing his signature style. “I have been refining my style each time I design a collection,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the greats of design and have tried to learn as much as possible from each experience. I think I learned about drawing from Zandra, fabrication and how to structure a collection from Giorgio, the accessory business from Ferragamo and simply the art of fashion from John [Galliano]. I feel the process of style changes constantly, and I enjoy that aspect immensely.”
Nine months ago he was approached by Erdos 1436, a Chinese group that controls a massive 40 per cent of the global cashmere market, to become its creative director and oversee a move into every major city on the planet. “I was contacted by a Japanese friend of mine that I know from Milano, who knew the owners were looking for a new direction and thought of me,” says Black. “I had a great conversation with the owners and got really excited about the project. The company is very large and has many divisions, and we intend to take the brand from being designed for the local Chinese market to developing an international business.
“The project is interesting because it is really expanding the scope of the collection and covers all aspects of the aesthetic creation, from knitwear to the advertising campaign to the store design concept. I enjoy that challenge of ‘complete design’.
“I’m still learning,” he adds, “which is very exciting. There is a fabulous energy there that I like a lot – my team is young and very dynamic.”
One of his major roles since joining the brand has been to design the fashion segment of the Miss World competition, which took place last month about as far as from Carnoustie as is possible to get – in the city of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia. “It was great fun and incredibly interesting,” says Black, who remembers sitting down in front of the family TV to watch the contest as a child.
“The competition has moved on so much from old-fashioned perceptions of solely a beauty consideration. As soon as I met Julia Morley in Beijing, I was hooked. She explained her philosophy and her ideas, and I knew I wanted to be involved. This is a celebration of womanhood in all its diverse forms, from beauty to intelligence, and the people I met were incredible. I really loved working with contestants and hearing all their amazing life stories. They were so inspirational.”
Now based in London and Beijing, where he spends around ten days a month, he also visits Italy once a month to visit the factories. “I’m always running through an airport with a bag in hand, discussing design details with someone somewhere.”
But he returns to Scotland as often as possible, and celebrated his 40th birthday at home. “I convinced some of my English friends that we’re not so bad,” he smiles, “and we had a fabulous five days in April in glowing sunshine.”
His fondest memories of Scotland are of the people, the energy “and the amazing light you get in Edinburgh – it is exceptional”. But while he misses the easy-going lifestyle, he says he doesn’t care much for the cold.
Next month he’ll be staging his first appearance at Beijing Fashion Week, followed by the opening of Erdos’s first international store in a year or so and an expansion in China. All of which means that the Graeme Black own-label collection has had to take a back seat for the time being. “To be frank, I have had to suspend my own line as I simply cannot do both,” he says. “Being creative director is a huge responsibility, and I want to do a good job.”
As for his dreams for the future? “I’m so excited about the future. Life has been wonderful so far, I want to laugh and enjoy every minute.”