x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 November 2017

In conversation with fashion critic Godfrey Deeny - who has spent 25 years critiquing the industry

Fashion critic Godfrey Deeny, who recently gave a talk at Fashion Forward Dubai, takes us behind the froth and feathers of the cut-throat industry, which, in this digital age, is precariously dependent on both old-school habits and social-media hacks 

Godfrey Deeny, left, along with a guest and Simon Lock, the founder of Ordre, at the latest edition of Fashion Forward in Dubai. Getty Images
Godfrey Deeny, left, along with a guest and Simon Lock, the founder of Ordre, at the latest edition of Fashion Forward in Dubai. Getty Images

What an enigmatic character Godfrey Deeny is. The Irish fashion critic is possessed of steely wit and fearsome reputation, yet is chatty and jovial with a soft, lilting voice.

As a man who uses words for a living, each sentence Deeny utters is a journey; sometimes he slows down to almost a pause, only to race off in sudden machine-gun staccato. Topics are covered at blistering speed, yet reviewed and dissected in a very concise fashion, with each word chosen carefully.

Among all this, Deeny’s pedigree speaks for itself. He has spent 25 years critiquing the fashion industry, and is currently the global editor-in-chief of the Fashion Network, for which he left his role as fashion-editor-at-large at Le Figaro in Paris.

Prior to that he was the Dow Jones bureau chief in Milan, bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily in Paris, and European editor of W magazine. Then there was the period spent as editor-in-chief of Vogue Hommes and Vogue Hommes International, as well as editor-in-chief of Fashion Wire Daily, and let’s not forget his role as the men’s fashion critic of the Financial Times.

With an industry overview and an address book that many (this writer included) would sacrifice a lung to get their hands on, Deeny has interviewed almost every major fashion figure, many of whom he counts as friends. Case in point: when Christopher Bailey recently announced his departure from Burberry, he emailed Deeny privately to let him know.

The critic was in town recently as a guest speaker for the 10th edition of Fashion Forward Dubai, and I was able to sit down and delve, however briefly, into his wide-reaching – and acerbic – mind. Known for his impartiality and searing honesty, Deeny has earned a reputation for telling it how it is, which, in an industry seemingly awash with agenda-driven hangers-on, makes him a rare creature indeed.

“Twenty years ago, I remember sitting in a cab with Suzy Menkes – the most famous critic of them all – and she said: ‘So! We are off to see the next little thing.’ And you knew that whatever you were going to see, even if it was great, in three years’ time, that brand wouldn’t be there,” says Deeny.

Of course, a lot has changed since then – from the rise of the internet to the dearth of high-street identity. The social-media presence of a brand has become increasingly as important as the clothes it designs, and it would be easy to assume that emerging labels are bearing the brunt of the fast-paced industry.

Under its sheath of tulle, fashion is a business like any other and, in order to succeed, labels must be able to turn a profit. Having had little or no training on how to run a business, however, most designers must overcome a steep learning curve if they are to survive.

Faced with huge overheads and running costs, small labels have always faced a very difficult first few years, as they wait for the orders to roll in. Regardless of how amazing a collection might be, without orders, bankruptcy constantly looms like the wolf at the door. Far from speeding up the demise, however, the internet, Deeny argues, is actually a lifeline for emerging names.

“If you look at the young designers in London, the web has saved them. There is no question about it,” he says. “There was a long period where young designers were basically being squeezed to death by the simple fact that all their ideas were being copied by high-street brands: H&M above all, but also Zara, Primark – all of them are guilty of doing this.

“The web has completely changed the old model, and what has emerged is a sophisticated consumer who wants to buy those new designers and is prepared to pay for them. Companies like FarFetch or Yoox have gone to all these great Italian boutiques, such as Luisa Via Roma in Florence or Dell’Oglio in Palermo, which were each making maybe 3, 4, 5 or 8 million (Dh34m) a year, buying Japanese, Belgian and hipster Italian clothes, and dressing the wealthy in Italy.

“But then the [2009 financial] crisis hit, and a lot of them closed. Some hooked up with Farfetch, and now these brands have a turnover of 20, 30 or 40m, and have created a business model that’s been replicated by other people. If you look at the web – whether it’s Mytheresa, Moda Operandi, Matches or Net-a-Porter – there is a multiplicity of places you can go if you are a designer. So, the future is a lot better than it once was.”

Deeny cites the example of Greek fashion designer Mary Katrantzou, who he says sells in 280 stores worldwide. “The minimum order she is going to take from any store will be [at least] £50,000 [Dh241,000] per season, twice a year. Do the maths. That means she has a turnover of £30 or £40m. When I was going [to these small labels] 10 or 15 years ago, they were [getting] a million if they were lucky, and that’s why they couldn’t keep it going. Now designers are self-sustaining businesses.”

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That emerging names have access to a wider, more discerning audience is also a bonus for fashion-conscious consumers, because without smaller start-ups, there would be no big names in the future – every mega brand that exists today was once a struggling start-up.

However, new labels are still faced with the problem of how to get their message across and reach out to potential customers. Advertising is expensive and difficult to target; social-media influencers may reach the desired audience, but they often charge thousands of dirhams per post, which will be one of perhaps 20 a day. How then does an emerging designer build awareness of a brand?

Deeny suggests the primary tool, these days, is the internet. “It’s the sheer quantity of imagery that is out there. It’s not the bloggers, not even social-media influencers. Now information is instantaneous; in just a few days, images are everywhere.”

In this digital age, then, with every image available to everyone, I ask whether the old model of staging a fashion show is starting to become outdated, so should small-scale designers invest their precious cash in other forums?

He disagrees, suggesting the excitement generated by shows is unparalleled. “In terms of prestige and positioning, there is no substitute for a runway show,” Deeny tells me, “especially in one of the big [fashion] weeks. It positions you as fundamentally more relevant. You can do it without spending a lot of money.”

However, he admits that it can be hard to get in on the calendar, especially for the more prestigious fashion weeks.

“I am a member of the committee [Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode] that decides the calendar for ready-to-wear in Paris, and they get hundreds of requests. In the end, the team edits it down to about 30 people, and every six months we spend a morning going through it, deciding who should be put on and who should not.

"It is myself, a representative from four or five big houses – Chanel, Dior, Hermès – and a couple of local buyers – about a dozen of us. And that’s a very hard committee to get by if you want to get on the list. You would be surprised at the kinds of people we turn down. We want something creative, something that has something to say, something that addresses the aesthetic or the sociological. People will then go to your show and look at you. I think [having a show] is essential.”

Depending on the output and budget of a label, it can put up runway shows between two and eight times a year, showcasing its seasonal collections as well as cruise, pre-fall, menswear and haute couture lines.

As the ultimate showcase of creativity, the runway is the platform for a designer to broadcast what he or she can do, and throw ideas out for the world to see. And this is why critics such as Deeny are so important. Acting as the impartial eyes and ears of the audience, critics decipher the codes and references, and anchor the froth and feathers back into a sense of reality.

Simultaneously, they can appreciate the blood, sweat and tears behind every single collection. Seen through the veil of glamour, it is sometimes easy to forget how frenzied fashion shows can be, put on by creatives who can – and often do – change things at the very last minute.

Stories abound of entire collections being thrown out and redesigned the night before the show, while anyone who has been backstage can testify to the barely-contained chaos, racing against the clock with models being shoehorned into outfits that are barely finished.

Deeny cites designer John Galliano as an example. “With Galliano, the seamstresses were sewing on buttons and putting in zips on the last look while the first ones were going down the runway. So if you look at the creativity and actually go and see the shows, or see the designers the night before the show, I mean, let’s be serious here, it’s artistic.”