Brief Encounters: Peter Gallagher-Witham

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 9:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 9:31am

Before joining French label Lacoste as head of design in Asia, Peter Gallagher-Witham (or PGW to his American friends), owned an art gallery in East London, worked on an equestrian farm in Ireland and headed up sportswear brands Under Armour and Nike menswear in Asia. He talks about his unexpected career moves, his fashion heroes and how he brought Mary Quant and Lacoste together.

"The idea of the spring 2014 collaboration between Mary Quant and Lacoste emerged when I was planning for Lacoste's 80th anniversary. Somehow, I remembered it was Mary Quant's 80th birthday this month.

I saw an opportunity to unite these two icons, and I took it. For me, René Lacoste changed the aesthetic language of sport with one revolutionary product, the polo, while Mary Quant realigned fashion and society with the mini-skirt. The language they both used in the early days was about 'freedom of movement'.

I was based in Tokyo, and I worked with a very talented team to devise a way to bring these two iconic names together.

The launch starts in early spring and can be found at Colette in Paris, Mary Quant in London and a few select stores in Asia. There's a rumour there will be a pop-up store and party in Tokyo.

Prior to Lacoste, for a little over a decade my life was all about sports apparel and casual renditions for the brand fan.

The irony is that sportswear is far more challenging than ready-to-wear, although for many in the industry it's perceived to be the opposite. So much of the process relies on storytelling, on meaningful attention to form and function, and genuine innovation.

My fashion heroes? It was a kind of roller coaster of fashion crushes. I loved Mary Quant for her part in revolutionising the High Street, for responding to and pushing trends forward, and being happy about it.

Then there's Tom Ford. Where would so many brands, designers and consumers be without Mr Ford guiding us all back to dressing for sex? He took a rather dusty old brand and turned it into something desirable. He had the Midas touch. I have enormous respect for Vivienne Westwood, Stone Island, Katharine Hamnett, Nigel Cabourn, John Galliano (forgiven, not forgotten), the real Jil Sander, and the late Alexander McQueen.

None of them relied on trends. Each took their own path, and I think that's why there is such a loyal following for them, even if some did fall pray to unscrupulous management.

But the king of fashion, for me, will always be Gianni Versace. He understood the alchemy for turning mortals into gods, with clothing, no less. I have total and utter respect for this man.

There comes a point in everyone's life when they take stock and ask tough questions about happiness and fulfilment. I've always had a very Jekyll and Hyde relationship with the apparel industry. I've p***** off a lot of people, but also made lifelong friends.

To be successful in this industry you have to give your all, and sometimes this means stepping away from who you are and putting on a mask. This mask can get very heavy at times and, in 2008, after a decade with Nike, I wanted a complete change, so I turned to art.

Opening a modern art gallery in the East End of London at that precise moment wasn't the smartest financial investment. But it was the best decision that I ever made.

Immersing myself in unfettered artistry was soul enriching and completely recharged my creative batteries.

It was like being teleported to somewhere completely utopian. I loved it and, although I gave up my gallery space, I still keep the passion alive and sell privately.

Going back into the apparel industry was far less daunting than you might imagine. I learned a great deal from this short experience.

The knowledge gave me the tools and energy to roll up my sleeves and jump straight back into the thick of it at Under Armour in Baltimore.

There's a quote, by English ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, that speaks to this: "Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike."

Hong Kong has changed so much since I first moved here that it is unrecognisable as the city I initially fell in love with.

Hong Kong design used to be all about fast and furious 'me too' fashion, and consumer choice was limited. It was more about hopping on a plane to somewhere else to get your season's clobber.

Today, everything is mostly different. Local designers have become a true force to be reckoned with. They really know their stuff and their talent is equal to the best fashion hubs around the globe.

What is more, mail-order has really changed the pace of designer retail.

I think if it weren't for our cousins over the border coming to spend their money in Hong Kong, things might be different.

As told to Jing Zhang