Byline: Jessica Kerwin
LONDON — Long-legged and lean, like Gisele’s less-curvy German cousin, Susanne Deeken emerges from her East End apartment building, a Georgian among gritty Council Flats. One look and you understand why fashion people just swoon for her: Perfect army jacket. Graffiti-covered bag. Retro-ruffled shirt cinched with a cheeky elastic belt. Faded denim miniskirt. Goofy knit tights worn with tawny high-heeled boots. Two dangling earrings in the left ear, none in the right. She’s the Insider’s Insider, a quintessential trendsetter and, some say, the coolest girl in London.
Professionally, Deeken’s done time with John Galliano (“truly insane”), Martine Sitbon (who shared her taste in music and in guys) and Ghost. She’s the girl Alexander McQueen grabs and squeezes when they run into each other in the neighborhood Hackney pub. But then, Deeken has a knack for turning up in the right place, at the right time. Case in point: She’s a design consultant for Marc by Marc Jacobs. And of course, it all makes Deeken the perfect partner for a vintage shopping excursion.
First stop: Alfie’s Antique Market, a multistoried flea-market bonanza in St. John’s Wood. “You can get lost in here,” Deeken says. “It’s really lovely.” But it’s clear that this girl hasn’t lost her way in Alfie’s in a long, long time. “Susanne! You were just here two days ago!” one vendor trills. “I was going to call you!” gushes another. “We just got in something that you’ll really like.” Even the gruff vendors pull out the size nine heels and drop their prices when they see her coming. Though she already has around 300 pairs in her flat, all boxed and labeled with Polaroids, she often begins conversations with the query: “Do you have anything for big feet?”
At 18, Deeken left Germany for art school in Denmark, though her voice is still thick with the sounds of home. “I wanted to leave since I was three,” she says. “I had a little suitcase packed and ready with underwear, sweets and change.” But once the wall came down, the promise of a wild nightlife lured her into East Berlin’s underground club scene. She rode it out for four raucous months before enrolling at London’s mythic Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, where classmates included Stella McCartney, Anthony Berrardi, Lizzy Disney and Hussein Chalayan.
Deeken shops Portobello on Fridays and hits vintage spots in every postal code on others days, from Camden Passage in the Angel area to Cloud Cuckoo Land in Islington to Blackout II in Covent Garden. In New York, to work on the Marc line, she lives for weeks at a stretch in the Mercer Hotel like a post-modern Eloise, casing out the 26th Street flea market and always making time to dig through the bins at the Sock Man on Saint Mark’s Place. “I always like to be dressed up, not minimal, and I don’t like to look proper,” she says. “I like belts and bangles and funny shoes.”
In an effort to pare down their vast vintage holdings, Deeken and Camille Bidault-Waddington — with whom Deeken shares her London art studio and who also works on the Marc line — will provide what’s sure to be some of London’s best vintage shopping when the two open a small Portobello stall of their own this spring. But that day of reckoning hasn’t come yet. Yesterday, Deeken scored a vintage Cacharel blouse and a pair of “Seventies-trying-to-be-the-Forties” heels (pair no. 301). Today, she’s landed a homely, chipped painting of a Saint Bernard and an Edwardian era green-and-white striped waistcoat. So far.
“I never know what I’m looking for,” she says, pondering a potential pair 302 in evergreen suede. “At the moment, I like silly hippie things, but that could change at any moment.”
Deeken makes her way down the narrow, crowded sidewalk jostling strangers with her bags, when a man in a black parka comes careening around a corner. “Hussein!” she cries suddenly. And there he is, one of the world’s most reclusive designers. Chalayan immediately launches into a chatty expose about his backers, his search for a new studio and his recent financial straits before agreeing to a dinner next week. “So what’s happening?” he asks. “I thought you were going to do your own line.”
“Well,” says Deeken, “I’m just moving very, very slowly.” Later, sitting in a cafe, she admits that she has the machines, the cutting table and the studio, but isn’t ready yet. “Camille is so on my case to do it,” she says, “but all my friends who do their own lines are always on the verge of going broke.” Being in the right place at the right time is actually very hard work.