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PARIS — Emanuel Ungaro is hoping it will be sixth-time lucky.
This story first appeared in the May 26, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The French fashion house, which has seen a revolving door of designers since the retirement of its founder in 2004, has tapped Giles Deacon as its new creative director. WWD first reported the house was in talks with Deacon on April 19.
Deacon, who was named British Fashion Designer of the Year in 2006, takes on design duties at Ungaro following the departure last month of Estrella Archs, the chief designer hired to work beside former artistic adviser Lindsay Lohan. The actress-cum-tabloid fodder left Ungaro in February.
Marie Fournier, an 18-year veteran of the company who was named as general manager of the house in December, said Deacon’s appointment marked a turning point after a turbulent year that saw Lohan’s catwalk debut pilloried by critics and buyers.
“It’s a new chapter in the history of the house,” she told WWD. “We believe his British brand of creativity, together with the history and DNA of a French house, make for a terrific combination. Giles will reawaken the Ungaro style.”
Deacon, a graduate of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design who cut his teeth at Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Bottega Veneta, founded his Giles label in 2003 and rapidly showed a knack for ultrafeminine dresses with a quirky twist — typical catwalk accessories range from Pac-Man-inspired helmets to dinosaur-shaped handbags.
The 40-year-old designer will continue to produce his own line, which he has been showing in Paris for two seasons, as well as working with high street retailer New Look on the more accessibly priced Gold by Giles collection. He said he hoped to bring his strong feel for prints to Ungaro, known for feminine frills, polka dots and the color fuchsia.
“I obviously don’t want to infringe upon my own line, but I like things that are very feminine, lots of color, great prints, great quality, some unusual cuts. All of those things that I like in the world of fashion design I’m going to bring to what I feel is appropriate for the Ungaro woman,” he said.
Deacon said he would forgo the catwalk to present his first collection for Ungaro directly to press and buyers during Paris Fashion Week in October. “I kind of want to get myself into the spirit of the house,” he explained, adding he had already started delving into the archives of the label, founded in 1965.
Although the format of the presentation has yet to be defined, the designer suggested it could be in the spirit of his pre-fall show at the Pitti W trade fair in January, which saw models wearing brightly colored wigs sitting on mounds of smashed porcelain.
“I really liked the things that we did at Pitti in the spring. It works fantastically well because you can get a lot of people to see it and still have some great theater, some great impact and something really special, but it’s not a runway show,” he said.
Deacon expressed confidence about signing on with Ungaro, which has struggled to find a new direction since it was acquired from Salvatore Ferragamo in 2005 by San Francisco-based Internet entrepreneur Asim Abdullah.
“There’s lots of factors within it that made my decision one which I could definitely proceed on this time,” he said, hinting at failed talks in the past. “There have been certain managerial changes which meant that I felt it was a much more viable proposition.”
Former Ungaro president Mounir Moufarrige, who recruited Lohan to jolt the house, parted ways with the company in December. The Lebanese-born businessman has made his reputation with controversial decisions, such as hiring Stella McCartney to succeed Karl Lagerfeld at Chloé, but his risky gamble backfired in a major way at Ungaro, generating more controversy than consumers.
Since the founding designer retired, his label has been through five designers: Giambattista Valli, who now has a signature line; Vincent Darré, who is concentrating on furniture; Peter Dundas, who since has been appointed creative director at Emilio Pucci; Colombian-born wunderkind Esteban Cortazar, and the short-lived tandem of Archs and Lohan.
The company also announced last month that it has mothballed its men’s runway collection and parted amicably with its men’s wear designer, Franck Boclet, after a three-year collaboration.”
Deacon said he was conscious of taking over at a sensitive time.
“Yes, I’m totally aware and respectful of the pressure, but at the same time, I’ve run my own business for eight years and worked in lots of places,” said the designer, who has previously served as creative director for the British brand Daks and collaborated with labels including Mulberry. “I think as soon as you start worrying and thinking about that too much, you’re not concentrating on doing good work, which is the most important thing.”
Fournier said she did not think the Lohan episode had inflicted lasting damage on the brand.
“I don’t want to comment on the past because it’s fruitless,” she said. “I think the episodes of the past, whatever they were, will be completely forgotten and that we will be able to work on the future in a positive spirit.”
However, with only one point of sale in the U.S., she admitted she has high hopes for Deacon’s first collection.
“We have 50 points of sale worldwide and we hope to climb back to 120 next season,” the executive said. “We are pinning our hopes on Giles’ first collection because we hope it will attract U.S., European and Asian department stores, and that the clients who have always loved our brand will finally be able to find the product they expect.”
Ungaro shuttered its Madison Avenue store in February and opened what it calls a “pop-up” store in the Plaza Retail Collection, whose future will be decided at the end of the year, depending on the critical reception for Deacon’s debut showing.
“If everything goes well, we should extend the lease and remain in New York, and — why not? — reopen in a bigger location,” said Fournier.
The company now has only one fully owned store left, its Avenue Montaigne flagship here, in addition to four licensed stores: two in Moscow, one in Beirut and one in Qatar.
Abdullah earlier this year denied rumors he is looking to sell Ungaro, and indicated his goal is to make the loss-making firm “sustainable” by next year. Fournier said the owner was fully committed to making Deacon’s tenure a success, adding the brand is studying switching to a new manufacturer in order to meet the designer’s quality standards.
“Mr. Abdullah is extremely involved. He spends virtually two weeks a month in Paris,” she said. “He has given Giles his full guarantee that his every wish will be fulfilled and that he will have every resource at his disposal.”
Deacon said the opportunity to work in Paris for a French brand was too good to turn down.
“It’s phenomenally important. The kind of global interest and recognition you get from that is great from a creative and from an industrial business level, so it works super well on both levels for me,” he said.