Born c. 1973 in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales; son of a factory worker and a homemaker. Education: Earned undergraduate degree in textiles from Brighton University; earned graduate degree in fashion from the Royal College of Art, 1997.
Addresses: Office —65 Goldborne Rd., London W10 5NT, United Kingdom.
Internship with designer Koji Tatsuno in Paris, c. 1993; launched own line, Brother Julien's Ghetto Couture, 1994; head knitwear designer for Chanel, c. 1994-97; launched Julien Macdonald label, 1997; entered partnership with Gruppo Lineapiu, 2000; women's artistic director for House of Givenchy Haute Couture, 2001-04.
When British designer Julien Macdonald was named the newest designer for Paris's venerable House of Givenchy in 2001, the announcement was received with some degree of alacrity by the fashion world. In business for himself for just four short years prior to that, Macdonald's claims to fame included a stint at Chanel and the creation of the stage outfits for the Spice Girls on their first world tour in 1997. His three-year run at Givenchy was a difficult one, marked by scathing press reviews and charges that he had irreparably damaged the design house known for the cool, understated elegance long associated with its unofficial muse,
An exuberant personality along the lines of fellow Brit designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, whose fortunes were also made in Paris early in their careers and at the helm of Givenchy, Macdonald was barely 30 years old when he took the job. Born in a small town in Wales called Merthyr Tydfil, he inherited a love of sequins and sparkly things from his mother, a former swimsuit model who made an art of dressing up for an evening out. Pop culture was another important influence on him during his adolescent years in the mid-1980s. "I had a very isolated upbringing," he told the Independent in another article. "I aspired to the things I saw on TV." He credited flamboyant androgyne Boy George as an early fashion inspiration, and found that making his own clothes was an excellent way to express himself. He asked for a sewing machine for his sixteenth birthday, but had never planned to pursue fashion as a career—instead he took ballet and acting classes, and was accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Britain's top training ground for thespians. He opted instead to earn a textiles degree from Brighton University.
After that, Macdonald won a spot at London's Royal College of Art in its graduate fashion design program. He did an internship with designer Koji Tatsuno in Paris and wound up designing the fabrics for one of Tatsuno's 1993 collections. Back in London at school, Macdonald entered a student design competition and his work was noticed by Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel's chief designer and a couture legend. Lagerfeld mentored him and eventually made him head knitwear designer for Chanel, and in the mid-1990s the daring sweaters and other outfits Macdonald designed for the label won rave reviews and sold extremely well.
Eager to strike out on his own, Macdonald left Chanel to launch his own label in 1997. His work was heavy on the glitz and sequins, and his first major coup came when he was asked to design the tour outfits for the Spice Girls at the height of their fame. Fashion-conscious celebrities began to favor his dresses for the red carpet, among them Elizabeth Hurley, Nicole Kidman, and Madonna. His London fashion shows became a sought-after ticket for their over-the-top themes, and a roster of pop stars was usually in attendance in the first row.
However, like many independent designers, Macdonald struggled to stay afloat financially. Relief came when he signed a partnership deal with Italian yarn and clothing manufacturer Gruppo Lineapiu in the fall of 2000, and it was at an Italian showroom that an executive with Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennessy (LVMH), the luxury-brands group, chanced upon Macdonald's line. The Paris-based company, which owns a dazzling array of the world's top designer labels and prestige companies, quietly brought Macdonald to its headquarters for a round of interviews. In March of 2001, the company announced that Macdonald was to be the new women's artistic director for House of Givenchy Haute Couture. The news, noted Rachel Cooke in London's Observer, "was greeted with surprise and even horror. He was, it is fair to say, the last person anyone expected to get the job." Other candidates were rumored to have been Stella McCartney, Olivier Theyskens, and Alber Elbaz.
Even Macdonald himself was stunned, according to Cooke, given his relative lack of experience and reputation for exuberantly styled frocks. "Even when they asked me to go over to Paris for the interviews, I had no idea which job I was being considered for," he recalled. "I mean, at the time, they were looking for someone for Pucci, too. It was all very James Bond." Givenchy had an older customer base, and had struggled along since its founder, Hubert de Givenchy, retired in 1995. Monsieur Givenchy's muse had been his longtime friend, film star Audrey Hepburn, and the elegant, chic designs created with her in mind were the company's trademark look for years. Both John Galliano and then Alexander McQueen preceded Macdonald at Givenchy in what was viewed as LVMH's determined strategy to inject some much-needed verve and sexiness into designs coming out of the somewhat moribund atelier.
Macdonald did well with his first ready-to-wear collection at Givenchy, and it sold well, but his couture designs were greeted with scorn by the fashion press. He had been given the job with a mission to shake things up, he noted in the interview with Sherwood for the Independent, "but, as time went on, we realised that the customers and the press didn't want Givenchy to change I don't find a black dress with three holes exciting. I don't find the black cashmere pencil-skirt suit fun. But I kept quiet and did my job."
LVMH did not renew Macdonald's contract in 2004, but he had continued to produce his own line during his Givenchy stint, and returned full-time to it in London when his Paris role came to an end. Other ventures include a limited-edition Barbie he did for Mattel, and a mass-market line, "Star by Julien Macdonald," launched at Debenhams, a leading British retailer. He was relieved, in the end, to finish his last Givenchy collection, after which he headed back to London and "cried for half an hour with sheer happiness," he told Sherwood. "I'm not bruised by the experience, and I am glad I did it. I could have been set up for life if I'd been happy. But I wasn't."
Independent (London, England), February 15, 2003, p. 7; December 8, 2004, p. 2.
Interview, April 1994, p. 20.
Newsweek International, July 16, 2001, p. 66.
Observer (London, England), February 10, 2002, p. 3.
WWD, March 15, 2001, p. 1; March 16, 2001, p. 7; July 5, 2001, p. 1.