Thursday, 17 March 2011

He's in fashion. When Matt met David.

David Leavens contemporary and worldly career in fashion has seen him dress everyone from  Princess Diana to the Beckham's. Chatting fashion with him was bound to be a intriguing insight for any fashionista.

Forget Miranda in The Devil wears Prada. Forget the cut throat reputation promoted by the likes of Julian McDonald in Project Runway. 'Fashion people' can make it big, can be respected, while showing a lot more than an ounce of humility.

David arrived fashionably early at the port side Ibiza cafe in his signature black leather jacket and crisp white shirt. Before I could start firing questions the conversation was geared more to David sharing his contacts and career advice before even a sniff of him showing off about his outstanding achievements.

...but with just less than two hours before my flight back to subzero, post Christmas Liverpool, the interview must press on.

Tell me a brief history of your career in fashion?  

After a five year stint in a gentlemen's' outfitters, where I originally worked at thanks to my dad not wanting me to sit on my arse, I slowly realised I really wanted to pursue a career in fashion. Then I moved to London and worked my way up from sales representative to managing director of Nicole Farhi and carried on working there for 22 years, finishing in 2008.

A lot of my time was spent looking after the business, the sales people and my own team of 15. I also helped making creative decisions about fabrics and making sure the collections were commercial enough yet exciting enough to keep the brand on top of trends. Then after the commercial line started, 12 years ago, I helped take the brand international.

What is it about the fashion industry that lured you in?

It's so fast moving, four seasons a year with the added high summer and Christmas party collections your always chasing your tale and running out of time. It's a really quick turn around and I think that's always exciting. The risk element as well, you buy in new fabrics and stock and you never know wether the general public are going to like it or not. Always working with new talent keeps it fresh too and defiantly keeps me young. You always have to be on your toes. It's fun!

What's the Nicole Farhi design ethos.  

We kept 30% of the collections high fashion and the rest geared to be more wearable. So without sticking to a particular look it was about women being able to build on their wardrobe and being able to add to the existing Nicole Farhi pieces they had bought 2 or 3 years previous. The mens main line was the same, it was about creating a classic look that complemented the fashions of the time. 

Nicole's creations were born of her own personal style, yet we added extra elements like patterned dresses and prints that she wouldn't have worn but they made the collections into a whole offering of style. 

Have you traveled a lot with your career?

Hugely, mainly New York, due to the two stores we had there plus the client's wholesale showroom that I set up. I traveled to Milan every three weeks to look after the other showroom there. Then Paris, other places in Italy like Florence twice a year for the mens wear trade fair. After the business grew I traveled as far a Dubai and Kuwait where we opened two franchise stores.

Who do you most respecting the industry?

Nicole, she has such high standards. But also fashion wise Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren because they have such a distinct style. You walk into any of their stores around the world and you walk into their world. However you can't ignore some of the young designers, without them you wouldn't have that much needed inspiration. London especially, It's full of new talent.

Is there anyone you disrespect?

Unfortunately yes. The brands that copy, but that's part of the business and that's never going to change and I suppose on the other side it's bringing fashion to the people that could never afford to buy into the actual designers.
There are also a lot of people who don't take the industry seriously and think they can just come and play with fashion, be a designer, set up brands and they think that it's just going to happen. It doesn't work like that. You really have to work at it. It's the same with retail. There are an awful lot of good retailers that have worked at it and have took big risks, then there are a lot that just think it's just going to happen just because they have money to back it, so they fall flat on their face.

Did you always take risks when getting in new design talent?

Not so much, I mean they have to have a good portfolio to start with, but at the end of the day every design had to be geared to the brand and signed off by either Nicole or Stephen (Stephen Marks, along with Nicole, was the founder of French Connection). You have to have that young influence in what your doing. Over the years numerous people in the design team have managed to go off and set up their own labels and another now designs for Balmain.

What's you experience with celebrities?

Quite varied, some clients were all about being discreet and others keep things high profile. When I dressed the Blair's I had to sign a confidentiality agreement, though I'm sure you're ok to print this now. I even got invited to lunch at Downing street. Other clients included the Beckhams, mainly David he loved all our linen lines so when he spent time in the far East he stocked up on a lot of that. I've dressed Clive Owen, Colin Firth and way back when, Lady Diana. She used to turn up at our Sloane Street store in the morning before it had opened and just knock on the door. She was quite lovely even down to the fact, she actually paid. We would have been more than happy to oblige though. A lot of celebrities expect clothes for free from designers. In general Diana was probably our least fussy celebrity client. None of the drama of security and body guards or an unnecessary entourage. Diana used to just turn up or go around Harvey Nichols and just do her own thing.

How has the industry changed since you started in fashion?

Well there are many more people doing it now including lots of great talent but also a lot of people who just want to get into it for the glamour. I don't think they realise it's not always glamourous or realise how much work actually goes into the runway shows and collections.

When I started at Nicole Farhi there were fewer big name designers and people used to be more likely to wear just a hand full of names. Even simply the way people dress now has evolved, now it's more about being experimental with young or unheard of designers. Women will now mix a skirt from Topshop with a Gucci top and a designer pair of shoes. Twenty or so years ago people would of just build their whole look from Armani or whole look from Nicole Farhi. The customer is now a lot more savvy.

The department stores and small Boutiques have to supply a much bigger range now and of corse the Internet is changing everything too. The shops are struggling to keep up with the ease of buying on line, it's eventually going to make fewer successful high street shops. 

What's in store for you now?

I'm currently helping a new and very talented designer who isn't established at all. She specialises in cashmere knitwear. I'm helping her beef up the collection by adding things like woven pants to go along side the knit wear. She will also now be progressing from just kids wear to women's wear. I'm also doing a lot of freelance work with bigger names helping them improve on what they have got. Like working with a multi brand wholesalers, whose business is going really well but I'm helping to take them to the next level. By using my contacts like the head buyers from Harvey Nicole's, wer'e really going to expand their brands. So there are exciting things ahead,  I have lots in store.