An intimate conversation with global fashion sensation and Welsh hero Julien Macdonald.
Julien Macdonald is a force to be reckoned with: the boy from Merthyr Tydfil who took the fashion world by storm, creating gorgeous masterpieces that cemented his reputation as one of the best fashion designers in the world. His unique brand of ‘glamour’, making his customers look and feel like superstars, has ensured that Julien has stayed consistent and relevant. The award of an OBE is the least he deserves.
Now living a world away from the Welsh Valley he grew up in, Julien has never forgotten his roots. By launching his highly successful high street range with Debenhams, he has made sure that ordinary women can still enjoy his creations.
To Welsh folk, Julien will always be one of ‘us’; his endearing down to earth personality with that strong Welsh accent a key reason for our fondness of him. The term ‘fabulous’ and ‘Julien Macdonald’ go hand in hand and recently he was given the ultimate nod of accomplishment when Beyonce, a long time wearer of Julien Macdonald, instructed him to make an array of outfits for her last world tour.
Now with London Fashion Week over, Julien chats to Style of the city about his phenomenal accomplishments, working with Beyonce and why Wales will always be his home.
As a global fashion sensation, what or who has been your biggest inspiration when designing your collections?
Each collection has a different theme, but to be honest with you my biggest inspiration are the people around me- the women that I see. My clothes are very glamorous and ‘out there’. A woman who wears a Julien Macdonald dress is somebody who is not shy; It’s the woman who is the belle of the ball, star of the show, and has an amazing character. My biggest inspiration is real women, as it’s these women that I see during the journey of my life. My clothes really empower a woman making her feel glamorous, special and like a superstar.
What are some of your fondest memories growing up in Wales?
I’ve always loved Wales. I’ve never lost my accent and have always been proud to be Welsh. I think the fact that I am Welsh has probably a lot to do with my success because it makes me different. People have asked me throughout my career “where do you come from?” When I say I’m from Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, they say “really?”
I’ve never forgotten where I’m from. I have always loved the outdoors-my parents were always outdoorsy and we did a lot when I was little. Growing up I was a member of the Scouts and I still love going to the Brecon Beacons and walking up to Pen Y Fan. I think what is great about growing up in a small Welsh town is the sense of community.
You are one of the biggest Welsh stars to come out of the Valleys, receiving the highest accolade of an OBE. How did you stay true to yourself when growing up in Merthyr Tydfil and not become discouraged with your ambitions?
As a boy, I was a normal young kid going to school…but thinking about it I did go to school in a castle! Perhaps subconsciously I was surrounded by glamour in a very working-class valley. I knew there was something different about me, but I just wasn’t sure what it was. Originally, I wanted to be an artist so I went to Cardiff Art College. However, I soon discovered that I didn’t actually want to be an artist, I wanted to be a designer. I remember being in class looking at other students and thinking, why is my cardigan longer? Why do I have pointed shoes when people are wearing round toes? There were always certain things about me that made me distinctive. Having a supportive family which never shied away from the fact that I was different certainly helped! They never realised that I would become an internationally recognised fashion designer. One of the proudest moments for my family was when I received an OBE from the Queen. It’s not often that a boy from the Valleys is recognised all over the world. I did it for Wales, for people who grow up in Wales and need somebody to look up to. I think everyone can fulfil their dreams- they just have to believe in themselves and never give up.
You embody a fabulous persona which is evident in your clothing. Describe the process you go through when coming up with a new collection.
It’s very hard to come up with ideas all the time. Every year I have two shows and those shows are the world of my imagination. So where do I go to find this world? I travel a lot looking for new inspiration and I think it’s the travel which ignites my creativity. Whether I’m in India, Bali, The Seychelles or South Africa, I will absorb local art, visit galleries, look at the people and buy objects. It’s the souvenirs which start off the inspiration for my collections. I tend to go to places which have a rich culture- like Africa, and I start my process by creating a world around me. I print off photos, images and fabrics which I use as a source for my inspiration. I always use people as a reference point, people I like to dress like Beyoncé, Madonna, Rhianna and I think, would that kind of person wear these clothes? It’s very much a kind of fantasy world of my imagination.
You dressed Beyoncé in some of your designs for her tour. What was it like working with her?
Beyoncé is one of my biggest clients, I’ve been working with her for a long time. It’s always great when I get the phone call and she says, “Julien I would love you to do something for my tour”. It is a great feeling when one of the biggest artists in the world wants to wear my clothes. I have made some incredible things for her. We’ve worked together on the MTV music awards, red carpet dresses and her international tours. She’s very appreciative. I speak with her on the phone about the inspiration of the tour and what she would like me to design. When she came to London, I got escorted backstage to meet her. She’s very kind, she was there with Jay Z her husband, and her daughter. She had literally come off the stage, put her robe on and came over and said hello. It was a great night as I got to hang out for a while. Lots of other people wanted to see her, but I was the only one who she spent time with. She’s a very humble person, very nice and kind. She becomes Beyoncé on the stage but when she’s off the stage she is quiet and softly spoken.
We have seen you dress some of the world’s most famous stars but if you could dress anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?
I’ve probably dressed everyone I have wanted to dress such as Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. Although I would like to dress Adele, she’s on my hit list- I met her through Alan Carr; Alan used to live next door to me, and she’s good friends with him so she was always in the garden! I’ve had a glass of wine and a Chinese with Adele, but never made a dress for her so I would love to dress Adele. I would also have loved to have dressed Marilyn Monroe and Prince. I’ve recently launched a menswear collection so hopefully you will see some amazing men wearing Julien Macdonald in the future.
Your collaboration with Debenhams has been a phenomenal success, do you attribute your beginnings in Wales to having a better understanding of the high-street shopper?
I started my connection with Debenhams over thirteen years ago. I was Creative Director for Givenchy in Paris after Alexander McQueen, and was getting bored designing clothes for rich people. I thought why can’t normal people wear designer clothes that are reasonably priced? I decided to team up with Debenhams and make my clothes accessible. All my friends, my mother and my sister used to say they loved my clothes but couldn’t fit into them and couldn’t afford them. I listened to what people said and started my relationship with Debenhams, aiming to design wearable clothes for people like the people I grew up with. It gives me huge pleasure to see my mother and sister head-to-toe in Julien Macdonald. I really love my relationship with Debenhams and go to the Head Office once a week. I love dressing normal people just as much as I enjoy dressing superstars.
We absolutely love your homeware range, how does your interior design work mirror that of your fashion?
My interior design range comes from a passion that I have. I’ve always loved interiors; I started my career as a textile designer so I love patterns and fabrics. I live in Notting Hill and I’m always decorating my house. My house is an inspiration and an extension of myself and my brand- it is probably the most secretive thing of my entire life-it’s my haven. When I design the interiors such as bedding or photo frames, I use all the things that I like, which often overlaps with my main collection.
Fashion week is of course one of your busiest times, but how do you like to relax or have downtime away from designing?
I really love to exercise and every year I set myself a challenge to make myself do something different. One year, I cycled from the North to the South of Madagascar; I have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and I’ve even done a trek in the Sahara Desert. In London, I go to “Barry’s Bootcamp” which is hardcore! I also like running around Hyde Park to get away from the “craziness”
You are not only a global icon but to us Welsh folk you are truly a hero, if you could talk to a young Julien Macdonald just starting his career, what advice would you give?
I would tell myself to never give up. People are very judgemental in life and you should always praise people. Whatever you do make sure you enjoy it. I think everybody in life is born with a gift but not everybody finds that gift. I was lucky to find my gift in fashion.
Quick Fire Questions:
I love Bruno Mars, Rhianna, Beyoncé it’s quite funny all the music I listen to, I try to dress them!
The last thing you ate?
A kale salad with a turmeric tonic and a naughty chocolate éclair. I have a very sweet tooth that comes from my mother.
Your biggest extravagance?
I collect crystal- mostly Baccarat and Lalique.