Nov 22, 2012 / By Toni Jones
Essex boy David Gandy is the world's only male supermodel, bursting on to the scene in a pair of tight white pants as the star of Dolce & Gabbana's steamy fragrance adverts six years ago.
Today he is the poster boy for men's fashion, diversifying his brand from cover star and catwalk king to launching his own apps, starring in a short film, working as part of the BFC Men's Collection: London Committee and representing the UK internationally as part of the Olympic Closing Ceremony's fashion tribute.
This week (Nov 19, 2012) he was invited back to Oxford University for the second time to debate the importance of men's fashion with acclaimed editor of Esquire magazine Alex Bilmes and here he writes exclusively for FEMAIL about the experience.
'This week, together with Alex Bilmes, Editor of Esquire Magazine, I was privileged to be invited back to Oxford University to address the Union about "The importance of men's fashion."
'The University President kindly gave us a private tour of the beautiful building, rich in history and, as we were to find out, also in the caliber of previous speakers, whose images graced the walls.
'The Queen. The Dalai Lama. Mother Theresa ... I looked at Alex, part humbled, part terrified. We shared a silent 'no pressure' glance, smiled and adjusted our ties as I took another gulp of my Guinness wondering why I'd brought it with me from the bar when no one else seemed to ...
'Fashion is a subject I’ve become increasingly passionate about since working in the industry (I had little knowledge or interest in it at University). As I looked around the full room of students who had come especially to hear us speak, I wondered what, if any, influence our discussion might have on their careers.
'Whilst menswear is still far behind women’s wear in many ways, we are experiencing a boom in the industry and a resurgence in men’s fashion. The stigma that there once was around a heterosexual man having pride in their appearance is going - it’s OK to care about your appearance. Being a man, is back in fashion.
'We now have our own dedicated men’s fashion week in London (London Collections: Men), talent from film, TV and music are modeling for fashion brands, Esquire are launching their own biannual style supplement next year and the explosion of mobile/social media and online plays to men’s shopping habits - speed and ease.
'Without a sticky Union carpet in sight, we entered the beautiful Union debate room, itself very stylish and full of well dressed students. Suddenly I became very aware of my tongue (was it always this size??).
'Our hour long discussion covered many areas of men’s fashion from it’s impact on the economy, Britain’s strong heritage in style, history, how men shop and changes in men’s media, right through to why it’s important to take an interest in your appearance.
'It was great fun – the questions from the floor were smart and funny. No, I don’t feel objectified by women, but I do feel the pressure of high expectation! No, I don’t think I’m the best looking man in the world – not even the best looking man in the room
'Our hour had almost ended. I wondered if our talk was quite as intellectual as those shared by previous speakers. The last question, ‘What’s the most important part of a man's wardrobe’ was a nice easy one to finish on. 'Men’s shoes are hugely important' I answered, and went on to explain why.
'With that, I checked mine, straightened my jacket and walked into the room of students to have a drink with them in person - to find many of them looking at their shoes too. So, perhaps some of what we had shared had resonated after all?
'Who knows, maybe some of these students will be our creative designers, fashion journalists or model faces of tomorrow? The future of men’s fashion presents great opportunity and growth. I hope we inspired some people to look at it seriously as a potential career for them.'
Interview: David Gandy & Alex Bilmes (New!)
“Yes! He’s an incredibly stylish man. People laugh when I say this, but no one pulls off a double-breasted suit like him; he drives an Aston Martin, he always looks impeccable. Really, you’ll never find a picture of him not looking superb.”
I’m sitting opposite David Gandy, dubbed the world’s only male supermodel, famous for his role in the Dolce and Gabbana Light Blue campaign (remember? The boat, the blue, the briefs? If not, Google it immediately - you’re welcome). With him is Alex Bilmes, the editor of Esquire magazine, formerly Features Director at GQ. They’re talking about the London fashion scene, which they believe is finally learning how to show itself off. As Gandy says, London’s learnt how to “use what we have, and what no one else has. This year Prince Charles opened the first London Men’s Fashion Week. No one else can do that – no one else has the royal family!”
Preparing for my interview with Gandy and Bilmes was quite a challenge. Aside from attempting to make myself look as attractive as was physically possible in order to ensure that Gandy, the most beautiful man in the world, wouldn’t be able to resist asking me to dinner (sadly, he managed), I had to prepare for both an experienced journalist, and a model who, to be frank, I didn’t expect would be able to string two sentences together. Perhaps fortunately, on meeting Gandy, I realized my assumptions were entirely incorrect. As I quickly hid my list of questions including ‘is it awkward having to get naked so often?’ and ‘will you be doing Movember?’ (he won’t, by the way), my assumptions about Gandy were quickly shattered.
Both men talk passionately about their involvement with London Collections: Men, “a brand new showcase of British menswear, style and culture”, and the direction that London fashion is taking. Bilmes tells me that London fashion is special, that “historically, there were only really two great international homes of men’s wear: Milan and London. The amazing thing about London men’s fashion, and women’s too, is that it’s a combination of two extremes. We have the avant-garde, pop culture, street style which we’ve always led the world in and then there’s the more traditional formal style: Savile Row.”
They stress that London fashion might be leading the pack, but in a “traditionally British” manner: we don’t like to talk about it. “We’ve been too brusque and self-deprecating about it [London fashion]. We’ve had the most amazing people come out of the London fashion scene and it’s about time we started banging the drum about what we can do”, Bilmes tells me. He lists Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and Vivienne Westwood as some examples of designers steeped in, and shaped by, British culture.
Both men are on the committee for London Collections: Men, and I ask Gandy why he thinks fashion is so important. He replies, “What’s the first thing you look at when you meet someone? Their eyes. And the second? Their shoes.” I ask about the Olympics, and Gandy’s experience walking as a part of the closing ceremony alongside models such as Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. His immediate reaction? “It was terrifying.”
But he goes on to speak of the change that the Olympics has kick started for British culture: “I think what Britain did well with the Olympics was to invest. Britain’s not very good at investing, but we showed that we can with the Olympics. Fashion brings a hell of a lot of money into an economy which is struggling at the moment and [having a fashion show as part of the closing ceremony] brought to light our fashion heritage and its importance.”
Bilmes echoes this sentiment, “The thing with fashion is that because it’s glamorous and glitzy its sometimes perceived as being lightweight but David’s absolutely right: it’s incredibly important to our economy. It brings money, investment, and a buzz to our country and our city in a way that some less glamorous professions don’t. That’s something that needs to be recognized and that’s what London Collections: Men is about – it’s us, the actual industry, saying were going to make a fuss about ourselves.”
Both Gandy and Bilmes speak with pride of Britain’s modelling credentials, Gandy mentioning that, “Kate [Moss] is still the best model in the world at the end of the day.” However, asked about the potential problems with an industry which more and more frequently sees women sacrificing their health for their careers they are more reticent.
They both see this issue as almost exclusively a female one: Gandy says, “I was never worried about not being sample size. People told me I had to lose weight and I went the opposite way. I don’t think there’s such pressure on men to have to be a certain size.” He emphasizes the designer’s role in this situation, comparing it to a chicken and egg situation. “Yes, designers make clothes in a certain size - sample size. But it’s impossible to know whether this is because they were making clothes to fit models, or if the models are made to fit the clothes.”
They speak of the media’s influence, and Gandy reiterates, “There are naturally thin girls and people say “Oh, she must be anorexic”, but that’s just not true. Some people are just physically thin. I’ve been with girls”, he pauses, and I hold my breath, thinking he’s going to delve into his romantic history, until he continues, “on shoots who eat more than me but are still wafer thin.”
I wonder if Gandy takes this relaxed approach to his physique, if he’s ‘just naturally’ an Adonis? “No, it’s not a natural physique. I work at it. If I’m training for a shoot I’ll work out maybe five times a week, if I’m just maintaining a plateau then maybe three or four.”
We move from models to modelling, a career which Bilmes stresses, “is a skill like any other. I think it’s a funny thing which most people don’t understand, and I don’t necessarily understand it either, but I can recognize it. People think it’s just someone so good looking they just stand there in the clothes and you can take a great picture of them but that’s not actually what it is. It’s difficult to describe because it’s not like being an actor or a doctor.”
Gandy interrupts, “It’s almost harder.” My feelings at this statement were probably something along the same lines as yours, but Gandy doesn’t mean this (I don’t think) literally. He stresses that modelling is just a combination of skills and practices very different from that of a more usual profession. “You have to take in what the magazine wants, what the client wants, what the photographer wants, and then you have to convey that in a second in a snapshot. It’s a very difficult thing to do, and some people absolutely physically cannot do that.”
I ask both men what advice they’d give an aspiring model or journalist and, surprisingly, their answers are the same: “perseverance.” Gandy acknowledges, “one photographer might not like you, one agency might not like you, one production firm might not like you - but someone probably will. It’s just a matter of patience and perseverance and being realistic at the end of the day. And you need someone to believe in you.”
Gandy is very aware of how much he owes to his agency, Select Model Management, and the people there who have always believed in him. Bilmes echoes this sentiment, “You have to take the knocks and ride out [the unsuccessful years]. We’re the same as anyone in that we needed a break.”
I can’t help but wonder how important they think it is to get that elusive ‘lucky break’, especially for people graduating into an economy looking pretty bleak in terms of career prospects. Bilmes is firm on this subject, “Luck’s what you make of it. Plenty of people get opportunities and blow them, or ignore them, or don’t even know that they’re there.”
Gandy quotes one of his favourite sayings, “There’s no such thing as luck. There’s a well-prepared man waiting for an opportunity.” He continues, “If you’re not prepared for it and that opportunity comes along and you ruin it then that’s your own fault and you cant blame anyone else.” So that’s it then, I think, persist for long enough and we’ll all make it? Bilmes is quick to correct me, “Oh, and then you have to work really, really hard. You just do.”
The two men have to head back to London and as we shake hands I notice Gandy looking at first my eyes (swoon), and then my shoes (shit. Uggs. That’s probably a fashion faux pas), and I remember, “What’s the third thing you look at?” They laugh and Bilmes jokes, “My own shoes, just to make sure they’re better.”