Saturday, June 25, 2011

A week with male model David Gandy

David Gandy, one of the world’s most successful male models and the extremely handsome chap credited with helping men’s fashion turn away from the drainpipe shape and pale complexions that ruled supreme for several years and back to beefcake, is in the gym. I am watching him. Thus far, there have been multidirectional lunges and press-ups involving a large ball. I have done very little except perch on a stool and sip at some greenish water given to me by Gandy’s personal trainer, Nathalie, which, she explains, will help alkalinise my system (I think). I am, however, exhausted; watching a 6ft 2in, 15-stone man lift his own body weight while strapped into some kind of medieval stirrup contraption is enough to puff anyone out. “Do you want to have a go?” asks Nathalie, as her charge takes to a hideous-looking climbing machine. I do not. Even the warm-down involves lying on a bed of nails.
But, Gandy tells me afterwards, he reckons Nathalie was going pretty easy on him today, perhaps because I was there, and perhaps because he is not, at the moment, in one of the truly fearsome conditioning phases that precede a major advertising campaign and that see him virtually decamp to the gym, banish booze, bulk up on protein and cut down on carbs. Right now, in the midst of London Fashion Week, which happens to have coincided with him turning 30, he is letting loose a little, although the extent of that seems to be that he follows his healthy salmon lunch with a highly decorated cupcake. I promise not to nip back to the gym and tell Nathalie.

The (normally) rigorous routine shows. Gandy is an extraordinary shape, like an inverted pyramid on long, limber legs; he also has the kind of strong, chiselled features that make you think of firemen rescuing puppies from blazing buildings. Broad-shouldered, rippling of arm and tight of torso, it is little surprise that photographers often seem keen to persuade him out of clothes and into the scantiest of scanties; the breathless postings on numerous websites confirm that his fans are highly appreciative of such an approach. The “David” calendar, shot by Mariano Vivanco for Dolce & Gabbana in 2008, which poses its model in all manner of apparently quotidian situations – taking a shower, prone between rumpled sheets, eating a takeaway and, rather less obviously, adopting an attitude of prayer – is beyond suggestive. “Those shots were a little risqué,” concedes Gandy, before explaining that Vivanco had taken his very first head-shots and that they had subsequently become great friends. “It could have been embarrassing, but it was fun.”
Also fun – there were beautiful girls and speedboats, after all – was Mario Testino’s Capri shoot for Dolce’s Light Blue fragrance, the 2007 campaign that transformed Gandy’s career. Hitherto, he had been a highly employable commercial model, constantly hopping on and off planes to be photographed for catalogues and advertisements throughout the world. He was not, however, a particularly well-known name, and neither was he entirely satisfied with what he was doing. After Light Blue, he was the face of one of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses. Like all overnight success stories, though, there was more to it than met the eye.
For a start, Gandy might never have become a model had it not been for the good offices of a student housemate. “We were watching a television show,” he tells me, “and they were doing a modelling competition and she said, ‘You should go for that.’” He laughed it off. Only a month later, when the phone rang telling him he was down to the last 15 on This Morning (he hung up, assuming it was a wrong number), did his friend confess to having entered him secretly. When he won the competition, and with it a place on the immensely powerful Select Model Management’s books, he was told he’d been plucked off the “no” pile at the last minute. He was 21 and into computers, cricket and rugby, not clothes and cameras; he’d thought he might want to work with cars or animals. Subsequently, his university friends told him he was known around the campus as Model Dave. “I might have got a few more dates at the time if I’d known that girls were calling me that,” he says, a mite ruefully.
But, despite that initial triumph, Gandy had entered modelling at a tricky time. “It was when the androgynous, skinny Dior guys were in the industry,” he recalls. “I was laughed at when I used to walk into castings… people would go, ‘It’s the big guy!’” It was suggested to him (more tactfully, one imagines, than it might have been to a female counterpart) that he could lose a little of his bulk. But he stuck to his guns; if anything, he says, he wanted to have a bigger and better body. “It was the suits that mattered, not [the models],” he notes now, “which I don’t think appealed to anyone. It
might have appealed to the fashion industry a little bit, but to Joe Public, I don’t think they could get what fashion was talking about.”
For three or four years, he worked steadily and successfully, but he was beginning to tire of the treadmill of economy air travel and endless shoots. After intense discussions with Select, he took the radical step of turning down all offers of commercial work and rebuilding brand Gandy; sophisticated, elegant, sensual – and undeniably big. Eventually came a Dolce & Gabbana shoot in Los Angeles with renowned photographer Steven Meisel (“I loved it. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do’”) and then, on the back of that, Light Blue. Goodbye economy, hello business class, and hello the covers of VMan (“The Making of a Supermodel”) and L’Optimum’s “Sixty Years of Cannes” special issue. Although Gandy doesn’t discuss money, it’s fair to assume that he earns a more than healthy living wage; and while he is keen to debunk the myth that models won’t get out of bed for less than £10,000, one imagines they don’t lease out their faces for peanuts.
So what is the life of a male supermodel like? Well, Gandy is at pains to point out in the week or so that I spend with him that what I’m seeing isn’t entirely typical; it isn’t always London Fashion Week (though, to my outsider’s eyes, it always seems to be Somewhere Fashion Week), and it isn’t always his 30th birthday. When he invites me to accompany him to a fitting at Dolce & Gabbana’s London store, he’s juggling his forthcoming runway appearance in Naomi Campbell’s Fashion For Relief show in aid of Haiti with attendances at the Elle Style Awards and the Harper’s Bazaar Love Ball, hosted by Natalia Vodianova for her charity. In between, he’s planning to pop back to his native Billericay to celebrate his birthday with his mates.
“David’s like our family, so I do bark at him,” says the lady at Dolce, as she ushers a slightly late Gandy towards the rail of suits, shirts, ties and scarves and rows of highly polished shoes that have been laid out for his arrival. But there seems to be more hugging than barking, even though the team is at full stretch dressing the likes of Kylie, James Blunt, Kasabian and Alesha Dixon for that night’s Brit Awards. The task today is to choose two outfits for Fashion For Relief, the only stricture being that the show’s creative director has stipulated a light palette for the catwalk, with no colour darker than grey. A period of consideration ensues, garments held up to the light, fabrics caressed, and then Gandy slips into a dressing room and emerges in a white suit, its jacket edged with black, white shirt and a thin white tie. Loafers and brogues go off and on; Gandy might be the only man I have ever met who uses a shoehorn. The effect, it must be admitted, is something else – suave, slightly edgy and thoroughly raffish. “Lovely,” I say, though nobody, quite rightly, has asked for my opinion; in any case, I later realise that the correct term of approbation is “stunning”.
The second outfit, a casual look, is more of a test for my limited understanding of high fashion. I’ve grasped – just – that jeans these days must be ripped; but I don’t get the clearly deliberate haven’t-tucked-your-long-johns-in effect created by the patterned lining that pokes out at waist, thigh, knee and ankle. But add a tight white waistcoat and a beautifully tailored grey jacket and the ensemble does, indeed, begin to look lovely. I mean stunning.
Gandy is clearly as interested in the clothes he models as he is in maintaining the body beneath them; although D&G doesn’t require him to wear its lines when he’s out and about, he frequently does because they fit him, he says, like a glove. He is slightly despairing of the capacity of the average man (and, to be blunt, the average British man) to throw outfits together and to wear suits that do nothing for their body shapes. He wonders whether he’s identified a gap in the market and, possibly, even a new iPhone app, “to help with the simplest things in the world, like how to match your shoes with your belt. I see guys who will have a great tux, but then come with a four-year-old bent-up shoe and spoil the whole thing. For someone to say, ‘Buy some decent shoes, or don’t wear that big buckled belt with that…’ You see people who think if they’ve got Hugo Boss, they’re going to look great – well, you’re not going to look great, because it doesn’t fit you. On the other hand, you can go to Marks & Spencer or to Zara and buy a suit for £200, pay a tailor £50 to lengthen it or shorten it, or take in the trousers, and that’s what makes a suit absolutely superb.”
The next time I meet Gandy, London Fashion Week is in full swing, and he has agreed to further my fashion education by taking me to see Antonio Berardi’s show of women’s clothing. Outside a warehouse in Bloomsbury, early on a freezing, drenched Monday morning, models in dressing gowns shiver underneath umbrellas during hasty fag breaks, their hair further protected by wads of cotton wool; fashionable types pick their way down the soggy gravel drive in implausibly fragile-looking shoes; a man in a turquoise feather parka looks, at least, warm. Gandy has spent the weekend in Essex, attending a Rat Pack-themed party thrown by a friend also reaching 30, complete with ice sculptures and girls jumping out of cakes. I bet he had the best suit there, I say, and he looks graciously sheepish; he loves the fact that few of his longstanding friends even know who Mario Testino is, and instead gleefully jump on pictures of him dressed outlandishly (most notably when he appeared in US Vogue as Superman: “It was like Christmas come early,” he grins). He also had a nice dinner cooked for him by his mum – “My bit of respite,” he says. He speaks often and lovingly of his family, the passion for cricket he shares with his father, the idea of taking his nephew to a children’s sleepover in the Natural History Museum. His mother accompanied him on to This Morning, and he was thrilled when his grandfather, not well at the time, was able to watch it. Not that any of them are fashion insiders: he also confides that his mother once rang him excitedly to tell him she’d seen him in a magazine. On inspection, it turned out not to be him at all. “There’s a side of me that adores having them know nothing about it,” he says.
Once inside, Gandy is in his element; noticeably, he has an ability to switch seamlessly into professional mode, composing his face and stance instantly when photographers approach him for a quick snap. He tells me he’s still not used to having his picture taken in that kind of context, but I’d say he’s adjusting to it pretty well. He is here simply because he is friends with both Berardi and the show’s creative director, but he clearly enjoys the opportunities to mingle with the fashion world’s great and good that his increased visibility has brought. When an organiser beckons him to the front row, he gallantly makes sure I’m invited, too. While we wait for the show to begin, he fills me in on the highlights of the Fashion For Relief show, which included him nicking Skin’s chair in the backstage mêlée and a guest appearance by Ronnie Corbett. (“All I wanted was for him to sit down in a leather chair and tell me a story. It would have been a dream.”)
The clothes, when they begin to loop around the room, are exquisite: dramatic but somehow austere, shades of milk, blood and fuchsia (as the press release has it) cut into sleek silhouettes that somehow combine theatricality with wearability (if you are slender enough). Several of them feature sheer black bodices that are worn, here if not in real life, with no undergarment, providing a flash of nipple that is somewhat incongruous at 10am. “We think we’re cold,” Gandy whispers to me.
I’m struck by how different the lives of male and female models must be; at this show, and no doubt most others at London Fashion Week, thinness is still very much the order of the day, and all the women wear stilettos so high that they are forced into an unnatural, tipped-back gait. When one of them stumbles on the final circuit, the audience reacts with a gasp of fellow-feeling and, as she removes her shoes, a rousing round of applause.
But Gandy has built his career on quite a different representation of the body, one in which the kind of muscle definition normally seen on a thoroughbred horse, together with impeccable grooming, conveys an image of supreme health, vitality and male beauty. That image also presents us very clearly with a particular view of masculinity, one that implies strength, vigour and potency. You don’t, of course, get to look like that without the gym regime, the protein shakes and the intricate attention of numerous couturiers, stylists and photographers, but Gandy’s stock-in-trade is also a kind of naturalness that sees him eschew make-up and airbrushing. Despite the evident artifice of the fashion industry, and despite his own preternaturally good looks, Gandy seems curiously unaffected by it all, as though he’s having a blast but can’t take it all too seriously. “There’s a bit of Zoolanderesque presumption about who you are,” he tells me, referring to the Ben Stiller film that featured a male model of mind-bending stupidity. “And in some ways I’m trying to break that trend. People think if you’re in modelling, you stay in modelling because you can’t do anything else. But I’m at the top of my league, I’m having a bit of influence on people for once, and I’m enjoying it. It’s opening up many doors, so I’d be pretty stupid to leave it.”