One of the more peculiar things in the peculiar world that is fashion has to be the fact that these days, the signal that a young designer has “arrived” is the announcement that they have just signed up for a second job. In any other industry that usually means the first job is not working; in this one, it means the opposite.
Just think of the names: Karl Lagerfeld (his line, Fendi, and Chanel); John Galliano (his line and Christian Dior); Marc Jacobs (his line and Louis Vuitton); Matthew Williamson (his line and Pucci); Jean-Paul Gaultier (his line and Hermes); Sophia Kokosalaki (her line and Vionnet). And now comes Giles Deacon, last year’s British Designer of the Year, and the current creative director of the British brand DAKS, who will hold the first runway show of his tenure this Friday. In accepting the job, Deacon is agreeing, first, to design an extra four collections a year – above the four he does for his own brand – and, second, to be judged each time on whether his talent extends to the global brand-renewal that is the Holy Grail of all heritage houses.
Indeed, the spotlight will be particularly harsh on Deacon, a designer who has been widely touted as “the next big thing” in British fashion, compared to the last generation of greats like Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, and rumoured to be up for every job going, from Givenchy to Ungaro. The anticipation about when he would go, where he would go, and whether he would be able to do it all, has been brewing for almost a year.
Which raises the question: given the fact that his eponymous line has doubled its business every season since it began, why risk the failure? After all, for every designer who succeeds at juggling two brands and two aesthetics, there is one who fails; indeed, it could be said that Deacons’ predecessors at DAKS, Tiziano Mazzilli and Louise Michielson of the cult London label Voyage, failed; they certainly didn’t make any noise with their designs. And why risk it with a label like DAKS, which, though huge in Asia – it made €1bn ($1.31bn, £670m) in sales last year – and at least recognised in the UK, is almost unknown everywhere else? It has only been three years, after all, since Deacon launched his eponymous collection (he had been creative director of Bottega Veneta for a few years before).
Well, according to Deacon, exactly because DAKS is so unknown. He may be taking a risk, but it is a calculated one. “The absolute last thing I wanted to do was go into a house on the back of someone like Phoebe [Philo, ex-Chloe designer], where everyone had a very specific idea of what I should be doing,” says Deacon. “I liked the fact DAKS was an unknown quantity. It’s more like Gucci before Tom Ford got there. There’s a lot you can do.”
DAKS was founded in 1894 as a men’s tailoring business (the name is a combination of “Dad” and “Slacks”), but famed, mostly, for its store on Piccadilly Circus. When people thought of it – if they thought of it – they thought “traditional, conservative”. Boring. But Sankyo Seiko Group, DAKS’s Japanese licensors for 21 years, had seen the brand’s success in Asia and had other ideas. They bought it in 1991 from the Simpson family and in 2005 hired Bruno Massa and Anthony Wilson as joint managing directors with the goal of making DAKS as well known in the rest of the world as it was in, for example, Korea, where it’s the number one non-domestic brand.
To do that, “we needed to make a statement about the design and identity of the brand, to attract attention from the press, and get retail windows,” says Massa. So, two years ago they signed Mazzilli and Michielsens and decided to show their luxury line in Milan, but the result never coalesced into a coherent vision. Deacon, whose star is on the rise, may change all that.
“He’s very cool, and yet quintessentially British,” says Massa. “And he can do something that is very creative, but also close to the root of the brand.” Which is? “A very rich heritage of modern tailoring.”
This is why they did not ask Deacon to give up his own brand the way, for example, Bernard Arnault did when the young Italian designer Riccardo Tisci joined Givenchy. Indeed, such a requirement was a deal-breaker for Giles, who said past discussions had always ended when the subject of suspending his own line was raised.
“I mean, if you look at what’s happened over the last five years, you can see how easily a designer can end up leaving the bigger house, for whatever reason,” he says. “And then what do you do? Re-launch, over and over again?”
Massa says: “For me, the more success he has, the better it reflects on our brand. And his brand acts as a real laboratory for design.” (Translation: he gets to exercise his wilder inclinations there.)
As for Deacon, he does not feel DAKS will be a drain on his creativity; rather, he says, the discipline of working within another genre will help stretch him, and complement his own work. “DAKS is a much more restrained silhouette, and there’s a real emphasis on daywear, outerwear, and tailoring,” he says. “It’s more stripped-down. In that sense, it’s English, but what I did not want it to be was a pastiche of Olde England – I think we’ve had enough of that, whether from Ralph Lauren or Paul Smith. What I’m trying to get at is more John Pawson in a stately home” – to contrast with his own brand, which is characterised by statement-making prints and textures and dramatic silhouettes.
If it works, DAKS is predicting, Massa says, quadruple growth of the brand in European markets in the next two years (the length of Deacon’s current contract) and assorted store openings, including Paris, Milan, and New York. For his part, Deacon is hoping for access to a larger, and perhaps less fashion-insider audience, reached in part through a planned DAKS Luxury ad campaign. And then, of course, there is the extra money that can be re-invested in his own brand.
Deacon says he just has to organise himself with military precision and give up his Saturdays.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published