Irish fashion critic Godfrey Deeny on Karl Lagerfeld, Clerys’ suits, Armagh and Victoria Beckham
He’s a renowned international fashion critic and the only Irish person ever to edit Vogue Hommes. We meet the inimitable Godfrey Deeny
He has attended more than 10,000 fashion shows, counted the late Karl Lagerfeld as a friend, was emailed privately by Christopher Bailey when the designer decided to leave Burberry, called Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent by their first names, and has walked for Christian Dior and Yohji Yamamoto.
No, I’m not talking about Dylan Jones or Andre Leon Talley. I’m speaking of Irish man Godfrey Deeny.
The Lurgan-born, Clongowes-schooled fashion critic is listed in The Business of Fashion 500 (BOF), which describes itself as the definitive list of people shaping the $2.4 trillion fashion industry. BOF says Deeny is known for “the objectivity of his reviews, his sharp observation and acerbic wit”. The publication also describes his interview style as “thoroughly informed, opinionated, direct and sporadically merciless”.
What is the father-of-two like as an interviewee? I would say thoroughly informed, opinionated, direct and unerringly gracious.
Deeny is flying home to Paris with his partner Sonia and two young sons (one of whom is only eight weeks old when we meet), where he has lived for the past several years, at lunchtime on the day of our interview and photo shoot, yet he is more than generous with his time.
He is kind and polite and has absolutely none of the superciliousness that a power player in the global fashion industry might have returning home to his humble beginnings in Ireland. Although tall and well built, Deeny has a soft, husky voice and a gentleness to both his manner and his movements.
Despite choosing to study economics and political science (he had a childhood dream of becoming a progressive economist and helping the world; that or a filmmaker), Deeny says he was always “a media guy”. He edited his first magazine in Clongowes at age 12.
“It was a great time to live in New York …the city was bankrupt in the early 1980s and you could live there for practically nothing.”
“I had an opinion on a lot of things. I was curious and I could write okay.” While at Trinity, Deeny continued to write, this time satire for TCD Miscellany (now Misc. Magazine) and landed his first job on a local newspaper in the Italian capital before moving to New York to begin a master’s degree in economics.
“It was a great time to live in New York City,” he says. “The city was bankrupt in the early 1980s, and you could live there for practically nothing. I rented a studio on the Lower East Side for just $175 a month.”
New York was Deeny’s introduction to modern art, architecture, rock ‘n’ roll and club culture, each of which he embraced and used to inform his work. “You’ve got to treat fashion as a crossroads,” he explains, “and have an interest in all of those disciplines that intersect with it.”
Deeny is the only Irish editor ever of Vogue Hommes and he’s the inaugural international editor-in-chief of FashionNetwork.com, France’s leading fashion website (the post he currently holds). The list of salubrious titles doesn’t end there… Paris bureau chief of WWD, bureau chief of the Dow Jones in Milan, editor-in-chief of Fashion Wire Daily, men’s fashion critic of the Financial Times and fashion editor-at-large at Le Figaro.
“He said reporting on a catwalk show wasn’t just about the clothes. That was only one element.”
He learned his craft from some of the most iconic editors in the business, including John Fairchild and Patrick McCarthy. “They busted my chops and drove me hard. That’s stood to me today.” McCarthy, who Deeny describes as the greatest ever editor of W magazine, taught Deeny not to view fashion in isolation.
“He said reporting on a catwalk show wasn’t just about the clothes. That was only one element. He taught me to pay attention to the scene, how the brand was selling itself, who was there, and what the clothes were saying about modernism, sexuality and culture.”
It must have been intimidating to walk into these lofty fashion circles as a young man from a family of eight in Co Armagh, I suggest. “I never felt that,” Deeny says assuredly.
“I come from a very self-confident family; arrogant even.” He describes them as Northern Irish bourgeois Catholics and says his mother was a very clever, incredibly strict and elegant woman. “My father was once described as the best dressed officer in the Irish army,” he adds.
Deeny remembers him as a good dresser, with suits that were handmade in Clerys.
Few of us can count this kind of inherent self-confidence among our blessings, and Deeny admits it’s a huge advantage. But his success story is based as much around old-fashioned hard work as anything else. Deeny is a grafter. “I’ve no time for lazy journalists who don’t do their homework,” he says.
“It’s not a bad thing to always be a little bit paranoid about losing your job.”
He still feels the pressure to do what he was taught as a rookie journalist: file well-written copy efficiently and on time with no mistakes, and he tells me that when he travelled to Marrakech for the Dior Resort show in April (on the Dior jet), he filed four pieces that day, including an interview with creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri.
Deeny is not a delegator, he’s a doer. “It’s not a bad thing to always be a little bit paranoid about losing your job,” he says.
Deeny has been in the fashion business for 30 years. It was at the now defunct previews (remember the excruciating James Holt preview in The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda Priestly pursed her lips?) that he built relationships with iconic designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.
“Karl loved the media and he loved to talk, and he knew the power of a positive review,” says Deeny. Was he a genius? I ask. “Yes. Lagerfeld always got the message behind his collection across, but then he could talk about anything, from opera to the Renaissance. Karl understood the power of social media very early on, which was impressive for a man in his seventies. And he could crack a joke in four different languages.”
French and Italian
Deeny himself is fluent in both French and Italian. “They’re the languages of the fashion world. In the 1980s and ’90s, not everybody spoke English, so it helped me along.” And it still does. Deeny recalls attending and reporting on a LVMH shareholders’ meeting a couple of years ago and asking the kind of financially detailed question you might not expect a fashion journalist to understand let alone ask… in French.
“I have an economics background, and I was taught to spot problems on a company balance sheet when I worked for the Dow.”
You could say that the holy trinity of Deeny’s success has been confidence, hard work and likeability. “I have always been well liked because I’m fair to designers,” Deeny says. “And the French always liked the fact that I’m Irish; ‘Our Irish Guy’ they call me. I was also known to take a drink and go to clubs; to be sociable.”
“Victoria presented a series of dresses and I thought, I’d be very proud to go to a cocktail party with a woman who was wearing one of these dresses.”
The quality of cut and line are the true test of a designer, explains Deeny, and he considers Hedi Slimane, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein and Azzedine AlaI’a as great designers. I saw on his Instagram feed that he attended the launch of Victoria Beckham’s YouTube channel in February, so I ask him whether or not he rates the former Spice Girl as a designer. Deeny thinks she’s great and remembers going to one of Beckham’s very early presentations in New York before she began staging full catwalk shows.
“I always look at a collection and ask ‘where would a woman wear these clothes?’ Victoria presented a series of dresses and I thought, I’d be very proud to go to a cocktail party with a woman who was wearing one of these dresses.”
The fashion critic aligns his own style to “an Italian who has an olive farm in Tuscany, with Wyatt Earp-style boots.”
He laughs and reveals that while he may take his work incredibly seriously, himself not so much. He’s known to wear rather dramatic hats and considers Lock & Co in London to be the greatest hatmakers in the world, and his favourite piece is a purple fedora designed by Stephen Jones for John Galliano.
“Even Karl admired it… ‘My dear Godfrey…’ he exclaimed when he saw me wearing it.”
Deeny’s contacts book could rival that of Anna Wintour, yet you’d never know by his unassuming presence in the Westbury Hotel on a rainy Wednesday morning in May that he’d partied with Giorgio Armani on his 100-foot yacht.
The man’s got style.
Photograph: Al Higgins
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