SINGAPORE (Oct 29): One could never describe Julien Macdonald as ordinary — the world that the fashion designer inhabits, along with his arresting creations, is an unapologetic antithesis of that.
During the inaugural Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur in May, the Welsh-born designer showed over 40 pieces from a women’s collection and a new and tentative men’s collection. Behind the scenes, Macdonald held two days of endless fitting sessions at The Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur, having brought close to double the number of pieces before deciding on how many would make it to the runway. The theme? Simply a celebration of the Julien Macdonald aesthetic, we were told.
“Fun”, “glamorous” and “glitzy” are words that best describe the overall vibe of his show and the essence of his brand.
“I never plan what I do,” Macdonald tells Options. “We just bring as many clothes as we can and then, depending on the models, we put the show together. Each show is completely unique and you see lots of special things you never get to usually see.”
The designer loves the idea of bedazzling his audience, which endears him to a long list of celebrity clients. If ever there was a brand tailored for those who walk the red carpet and whose lives are filled with glamorous and scintillating parties and events, Julien Macdonald would be it.
“I think each designer has something different to offer in fashion. My aesthetic is kind of an extension of my personality, as well as the many famous people who wear my clothes. I think what is different about my brand is a certain unobtainable quality; it’s aspirational,” remarks Macdonald.
He is not one to shy away from naming his impressive clientele, which includes Beyoncé, Gisele Bundchen, Taylor Swift and the entire Kardashian clan. Indeed, actress Kate Beckinsale made the headlines for her daring gown at the recent GQ Awards. The dress polarised public opinion, which is almost a hallmark of wearing the designer’s audacious creations.
The inextricable link between his designs and the celebrity world might have started subconsciously at a very young age, when Macdonald and his two sisters would spend hours playing dress-up and dancing around their living room while watching pop stars on television.
“When you’re brought up around women — my father always had to work — and I was brought up in a world of girls and feminine things, that’s what attracted me to fashion,” he recounts. “My mother was a very fashionable woman. She loved to dress up and go out, as did my sisters.”
Once an aspiring dancer, Macdonald stumbled into fashion upon entering art college. There, he realised he spent more time detailing the fabric that covered the figure he was supposed to draw than the figure itself, and discovered that he had an eye for fabric and textiles.
“In fact, I started my career as a textile designer. That’s why my clothes are often decorative, embroidered and printed,” he observes.
Having the distinction of being “discovered” by Karl Lagerfeld as a student after winning a competition where the Chanel maestro was a judge, Macdonald went on to start his career as the head of knitwear at the French fashion house. To this day, intricate knitwear is still his claim to fame as a designer. It was an immersion into the world of haute couture and one that would lead him to work under another fashion great, Alexander McQueen, and eventually be named his successor as creative director at Givenchy.
While critics have lamented his lack of edge or boundary-pushing as a designer, one thing Macdonald shows, as our conversation steers towards the 20 years he has helmed his own brand, is a sense of clarity as to where Julien Macdonald fits in the fashion universe.
“My brand never really evolves,” he says candidly. “I only do things that I like. At the end of the day, I don’t see myself as a trendsetter. What I do is celebrate men and women, the femininity and masculinity. My clothes evolve perhaps in terms of aesthetic — they become more complicated and expensive — and in terms of who wears them. I’m not an architectural designer like Yohji (Yamamoto) or Comme des Garçons.”
The frequent traveller counts hot tropical places such as Miami, Bali and Pangkor Laut among his favourites, with art and culture being some of his loves. While what inspires him at any given time may change, one constant is the people who wear his clothes.
He may seem to fixate on his celebrity clients and their glitzy high life but there is an astuteness in his focus. “Everybody wants to be associated with their favourite stars and many choose to do it through fashion. It’s a psychological thing. I think nobody wants to see reality. When you wear fashion, it’s your chance to be those pop stars or somebody you’re not perhaps, to celebrate being a woman or a man … What I do is about having your hair down, great makeup, great shoes, great dresses, just having the time of your life.”
Like many of his peers and the general trend of the fashion industry, Macdonald is now shifting his focus to ready-to-wear to access a wider market and expanding into menswear. In Malaysia, most would know Julien Macdonald through his diffusion range at Debenhams — a 17-year collaboration.
Calling it a very successful partnership, he says though that his own ready-to-wear range would take the middle ground between his couture pieces and the collections he does for Debenhams. Last year, the designer announced that he planned to sell half his company to investors and that he was already in negotiations with interested parties.
“I hope to find the right partner to invest in the ready-to-wear part of my brand and to develop it into a global brand with accessories such as shoes, bags and perfume,” Macdonald explains.
He credits his global perspective to his time spent at Chanel and Givenchy and also to being cognisant of the fact that it is necessary in today’s fast-moving fashion world.
“Young people now know what’s in fashion straightaway. They no longer need to wait a month to see what’s in fashion in the magazines. They can see who’s driving what car and what watch they are wearing. Everything has become instant. This has forced designers — and all businesses — to speed up the technology of their business. What’s fashionable today is old-fashioned tomorrow,” he observes.
In the end, it is all about accessibility, he adds. “It’s a very exciting time for fashion, as it is now much more accessible to everybody, not just those who have a lot of money. You now have a lot of different ranges and markets, from designer boutiques to more commercial ones.”
Changing attitudes to clothes and dressing etiquette also mean that brands can look beyond the traditional boundaries of design. “We now live in a world that is ageless; there are no fashion rules anymore. Today, a businessman can wear a tracksuit and work from his phone and be running a billion-dollar company. Same for women. What people wore to the gym, you can now wear for pleasure and go shopping in. If you look at the biggest brands in the world, such as Dior, it used to be all about chic elegance, all about being a lady. Now, the Dior woman has changed. She has become younger, a lot sportier, where it’s okay to wear a T-shirt, a pair of jeans. Louis Vuitton is the most luxurious brand and its head of design is a man who came from a street fashion background. Because he brings a youthful audience,” Macdonald points out.
So, where is Julien Macdonald headed? The designer is definitely keen to return to his roots, such as knitwear — which he says is a wide playing field and tremendously untapped by designers — and to explore current trends such as sports luxe.
But we can rest assured that the Julien Macdonald DNA will remain unchanged. “It’s always a party,” the designer grins. “I think I make people smile with my clothes. And everybody wants to live in a happy world.”
Mae Chan is a writer for Options at The Edge Malaysia.
This article appeared in Issue 854 (Oct 29) of The Edge Singapore.