Taken from the Horror Issue of Wonderland, Winter 2015
After three years of near radio silence, the girl who inspired a generation of teens to shave their heads dominated Saint Laurent’s catwalk once again. Aggy’s back, and it feels good.
Canal Street, by way of the Rochdale Canal, is the Manchester gay community’s superhighway. Framed by trash bars and the odd roily alleyway, it is the only area of the city Lorraine Hollins would let her 16 year-old daughter Agyness Deyn go clubbing. Deyn, who back then wore her older brother Simon’s oversized suit jackets and sported a skinhead straight out of the Derek Ridgers cannon, would travel there every weekend from Rossendale, Lancashire, her hometown. Though the thoroughfare was dubbed Anal Street by local homophobes and its punters regularly shoved in the Rochdale, Lorraine knew it was the safest place for Deyn and her consortium of carboot sale punks.
“I was only allowed out if I went to the gay clubs,” Deyn tells me in the back of an Addison Lee, as we pass the old Batcave club doorway on Meard Street. “We’d go to Northern Soul nights there. We were in Blackburn in these tiny holes and we’d escape by going and dancing all night. People would bring talcum powder and put it on the dancefloor.” Alongside hometown cohorts Henry Holland and Jessica Fletcher, Deyn became a regular among the street’s trans and queer crowds. Dancefloors became runways, an artshow, the norm – fine preparation for the decade of high fashion, haircuts and hedonism to come.
Deyn has come a long way since Canal Street. The Dean Street clubbing days, nights on the tiles as a Nu-Rave patron and Fashion Week parties repping for brands like Burberry, Chanel and Kenzo are behind her, too. Her time in the tramlines of the fashion world – strutting for crowds from Westwood to Westminster Uni – are fading pixels in the mind of Deyn, a screen star hopeful settling into her thirties.
I’m in Deyn’s cab to discuss an upcoming lead film role that no doubt signals the next phase of her career. In Sunset Song, she plays Chris Guthrie, a young Scottish housewife who marries an abusive World War I conscript played by The Field of Blood’s Kevin Guthrie. It’s hardly her debut film foray – the 32 year-old played a Greek goddess in 2010’s Aphrodite and a stripper in neon-lit 2012 thriller remake, Pusher – but it is the first time the camera has stayed on her for more than a minute or so. In fact, it lingers long: in one particularly bleak, prolonged scene, a teary Deyn cradles her war-slain husband’s dinner suit. Director Terence Davies is known for putting both his audience and actors through the emotional ringer (2012’s wartime drama The Deep Blue Sea, 2000’s romance The House of Mirth), but this one really jolts the senses.
Davies spent an ridiculous 18 years adapting Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel for the big screen. His widescreen shots of the fictional Kinraddie Estate, minimal use of colour, natural light and Gast Waltzing’s serpentine orchestral score were inspired by Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi’s paintings of murky bedrooms. When Hammershoi did do portraits, subjects were drawn with their back to him. “[Davies] wanted it to look like that with this space. It’s kind of uncomfortable. When someone does that, they just rely on what’s there and push it without adding things on top, like music. This is the truth of the scene. Have it.”
Deyn’s been praised for the screen chemistry she shared with Guthrie, who turns from loving husband to rapist after returning from the battlefield. Filmed in a single un-choreographed take, the rape clearly takes a tough physical toll on Deyn and yet again makes for unpleasant viewing. “That part of the story was really fun to play in some ways, because you had to be all-in to do it. Kevin and I are such great friends, we had a good year and a half [to get to know each other] before we started filming. Specifically on these scenes, we were just like, ‘We trust each other, let’s go all-in, 100%, and then we’ll have it.’ Literally balls to the walls. Obviously there’s a kind of threshold where you don’t hurt someone, but having someone go like this [Deyn clamps her hand down hard on my wrist], is so much more effective.”
Despite her ongoing quest for new and challenging acting roles (Deyn tells me she turned up 20 minutes early for her Sunset Song audition after reading Gibbon’s book: “Chris is not afraid to risk and fight for what she believes in and what she thinks is right. When I was reading it I was like, ‘Yeah, this is a woman that I have to try and fight to play’”), she dipped her toe back into the fashion world last October. Her mate, Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane, called her up out of the blue when he was busy casting for his Paris Fashion Week show. Walking for the first time in four years was a stretch for Deyn, who back in 2012 officially called time on all clothing-related projects. “It’s funny, because obviously back in the day you know everyone – you know all the girls. But the girls there were half my age,” she admits. ” It sounds like I’m really old, but I always look back with a fondness for that age – your late teens to early twenties. It was fun to watch the new generation and how alive and inspiring and spunky they all are. You forget that: when you get older, you just chill out a bit more.”
Typically, Deyn walked the runway with stage-stealing charisma. But she never was interested in playing the glaring, lifeless clothes hanger type. Though she grew up idolising Stella Tennant and with her head buried in copies of The Face, fashion – the profession rather than the plaything – came to her by accident. Moving down to London at 17 to share a single student bed with the then-breaking fashion designer Holland (“we ate Pot Noodles… lots of Pot Noodles. And oven chips!”), she was scouted while charity bargain bin shopping in Kentish Town. Soon, Deyn became the pixie-haired head of a backstage-trashing young London fashion crowd – as likely to be seen in the front section of the NME as she was the Sidebar of Shame.
Deyn’s playful, creative side and disdain for any serious kind of PR strategy played into her favour. She was a blank canvas with which fashion’s big industry players could try out big ideas on. “I was always up for anything, jumping off shit, wearing shit, not wearing shit, shaving my head, doing this, doing that. I just thought, ‘why not’?” she says, recalling a POP magazine cover shoot where Ryan McGinley and Katy Grand had her throwing herself off office blocks in downtown Queens. Then there was her first Italian Vogue editorial with Steven Meisel, where she donned a Blitz Kid headpiece and clowny, coquette face paint. “Steven taught me about my body, how to move my body, and my taste with my body,” she says with a wistful kind of sigh. “… he knows visually what people need and what they want on a taste level, before they even know what they want.”
As the car pulls up to park, we sit contemplating the future. Despite divorcing Meadowland actor and scientologist Giovanni Ribisi earlier this year, Deyn seems calm and productive. In early 2016, spot her in dystopian epic Patient Zero and Coen Brothers comedy-musical Hail, Caesar! alongside George Clooney, Ralph Feines and Scarlett Johansson no less. Deyn may have narrowly missed out on starring in a now-cancelled David Fincher HBO saga, but she’s typically philosophical about the experience. “I’m supposed to be doing that right now, shooting the whole first series. But even the auditioning process was life-changing. It’s so inspiring how his clarity of thought is so sharp: what he says is so specific that you understand it immediately. Hopefully I’ll work with him in the future.” Besides, she’s pretty busy promoting a fourth collection from Title A, the fashion label she set up with sister Emily and friend Tracy Moore. “I love clothes and I love fashion, my aesthetic has definitely changed over the years because you experiment and grow as a person,” she reflects. “I was craving a simplicity in clothes that were kind of anti-fashion in a way. Not in a rebellious way, but I want this for the type of person I am – a girl that loves fashion but doesn’t aspire to be a fashionista. Does that make any sense?” It does, and chimes a little louder coming from her. I guess Canal Street doesn’t seem so far away, after all.
All clothing SAINT LAURENT BY HEDI SLIMANE
Photographer: Daisy Walker
Fashion: Matthew Josephs
Make up: Pablo Rodriguez at CLM using M.A.C COSMETICS
Hair: Panos Papandrianos at CLM using KIEHL’S
Fashion assistant: Toni-Blaze
Words: Jack Mills