High fashion hit a new low last year when the house of Ungaro handed over its coveted creative reins to the infamous Lindsay Lohan, whose stint, thankfully, was short-lived. Since founder Emanuel Ungaro hung up his sketch pad in 2004, the house hasn't been able to recapture its former magic, though five different design teams have tried.
Now, though, it seems that Ungaro's owners have come to their senses, appointing one of British fashion's brightest lights, 41-year-old Giles Deacon, as head designer. Deacon, whose own label is known for its playful approach, trained at the prestigious Central St. Martin's fashion school. He then worked for Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, headed up Bottega Veneta and assisted Tom Ford at Gucci.
There is little doubt that he has what it takes to revive the label. His first line for Ungaro, staged in a greenhouse pavilion at Paris's André Citroën Park last month, was bang on: romantic, coquettish and very French. A pink shaggy sheep purse was the pièce de résistance. Deacon was at The Room in Toronto recently for a salute to British design talent.
JEANNE BEKER: It's such a pleasure to see you here in Toronto, hot off, well, I can't really say the Paris runway because it wasn't really a runway.
GILES DEACON: Yeah, it was the psychedelic garden party, wasn't it? I was really thrilled with it. It took four months of really intense work and, to get it to that point, I was just super-happy. The cast, the setting, the collection … I'm really pleased. And it [creates]a clean slate, which is what we wanted.
JB: I've followed the history of Ungaro over the past two and a half decades and seen all the ups and downs. We all know there's been some weird stuff in the past, but this is a whole new chapter.
GD: Well, yeah, it is. If you look at Ungaro historically, it's got such an amazing heritage and has such resonance with so many people, [recalling]their first prom gowns or first cocktail dresses. And it permeates into a big part of society. That small chapter [with Lohan]was as funny to me as anybody else. But there's a lot more to Ungaro than that and, now that we've put it to bed, we can concentrate on pushing forward and taking it to where it should be.
JB: Why do you think, of all the designers they could have lured with this offer, they came to you?
GD: Obviously, I like prints, I like colour; there's a certain kind of femininity [in my own line]that I think they would be attracted to. And I also think it's timing as well. I think that, if I had been approached to do it six years ago, I would've done a very different collection than what I just did. So, maybe a bit of luck, who knows? But all those factors came together.
JB: It's been almost two decades since you got out of fashion school and decided to throw yourself into the world of high fashion. You've done amazingly well and your star continues to rise. How different do you think the fashion business is today from what it was two decades ago?
GD: I think it's very, very different. You have to be everything today. Two decades ago, people could just design stuff and it would kind of happen. But now we travel and do amazing things like trunk shows in Toronto. You have to be very aware of the business and its pace, the quality of everything from the production of the events and of the collections to the business delivery. It's all got to be much more professional and really, really tight.
JB: And does that part of the business appeal to you?
GD: Yeah, it does, because I like things to work. And we work. Everybody works really, really hard and I think we all want it to be the best that it can be. Everybody wants to do that in their work, don't they?
JB: In the old days, Yves Saint Laurent had Pierre Bergé and Valentino had Giancarlo Giammetti taking care of business. Now, you can't just leave things to your business manager while you just go off and be an artiste.
GD: I do think that those days have gone. There are some people who are very lucky to have great business partners, but I think you still have to be very aware and follow through with all the press, the interviews, those kinds of things. And I just don't think that people are interested in that ivory-tower, unobtainable thing any more. People like to be able to see things for themselves and have contact. I think that's really good.
JB: Besides your talents as a designer, you're also a wonderful illustrator. And you have a fantastic sense of wit and whimsy that often surfaces in your creations. Why did you decide on fashion?
GD: I did an art foundation course and I knew I wanted to do something in a creative field. And fashion just seemed like the most fun. I didn't set out wanting to be a fashion designer from the age of 3. It wasn't that kind of dream.
JB: You were working with French houses pretty early on and Castelbajac was among the first. Again, there was always a great sense of wit and whimsy in what he did. I guess that's why it felt so right for you?
GD: I've got huge respect for Jean-Charles's work. He's an amazing personality as well. But I always felt that there was this certain feminine side missing from his work. I kind of like it to be a bit more sexy. His work is a bit more oblique. But I like the fact that you can have some fun with clothes. They don't always have to have a tortured element to be valid. Some things can be quite stupid yet interesting. Life can be like that.
JB: Do you worry about what the critics say?
GD: The ones who I respect I do take a lot of notice of. I do find what they say interesting and invariably they're right. I think you just have got to keep an open mind about it. I don't take things personally. If you get bogged down in that, you just end up going off. But I think you do have to be respectful and take people's thoughts aboard, especially those you respect.
JB: Recently, I spent some time with Pierre Cardin in Paris. What a fascinating guy! He's 88 years old and still the ideas are bubbling up. But he was accusing young designers of just rehashing old ideas, saying that there's nothing that revolutionary going on in fashion these days. A lot of people are looking to vintage, looking back more than forward. What do you say to that?
GD: Well, I think people are looking forward. There are new fabric technologies. The construction of things is kind of progressive. There are new material developments. But fashion's always going to have its edgy times and its quieter times. Maybe [the latter]is just how it is now.
JB: Is being among this new wave of talent taking over some of these legendary fashion houses an empowering kind of thing or a humbling one?
GD: I find it really humbling, to be honest. There I am on Avenue Montaigne, working as a creative director in a beautiful salon that Mr. Ungaro himself worked in. And when I was putting together the Ungaro presentation, it was a bit of a "pinch yourself" situation. In the [flurry]of it all, I often think, "Wow. How did this happen?!"
Jeanne Beker is the host of FashionTelevision. This interview has been edited and condensed.