My Style: Poet & Performer Michael Giacon

The author, academic and Strangely Normal super fan discusses his love of clothes. Photo / Rebekah Robinson

Colour and flair define the fashion of Auckland creative Michael Giacon. He tells Viva about his wardrobe.

Style with substance, it’s a concept woven through Michael Giacon’s new book, undressing in slow motion, even informing its title, and the poetry tome is being released on May 29. The poet and former academic is also a Strangely Normal super fan and has been frequenting the store since 1980, building up an enviable collection of the brand’s clothes. “They were absolutely cool and absolutely unique,” Giacon told our colleague Joanna Wane for a 2022 Canvas profile of Michael Cox and Claire Dutton, the design duo behind the beloved O’Connell St boutique.

“I still recall the thrill of walking into Strangely Normal on Friday night after work,” he tells Viva for this story, the latest in our My Style series, and he’s wearing their clothes on the cover of his new book, trousers made from Liberty floral fabric and a shirt festooned with a pattern of coffee beans — an enlivening look that distils a joy in self-expression.

Giacon discusses his love of fashion and clothes-first approach to getting dressed with Viva.

Describe your personal style.

I’d describe it as having two enduring bases: colour, pattern and print; and the more achromatic and monochrome. I do combine these in looks, I’m drawn to contrast including old with newer.

A fully voiced example of the former is the cover of my first book of poetry, undressing in slow motion. I’m wearing Strangely Normal Liberty Print trousers with their coffee bean print shirt. I wanted something that stood out on the bookshop shelf but that also suggested the movement of undressing, the abiding motif of the book.

I like to keep my clothes and therefore have what might be considered a vintage collection, which I wear. Sometimes someone will say, “Is that shirt new?” and I can say no, “I’ve had it for years”.

What influences your fashion sense?

I feel the enduring influence is seasons, specifically, the change of seasons. On a practical level, there is, of course, a strong thread of “fashion sensible” in this. At the moment I’m transitioning my wardrobe; in essence, cotton to wool, less to more. It’s a bit of a business but I enjoy preparing to “archive” summer shirts and tees, retrieving coats and jackets. In theory, there’s an element of clearing out in all of this.

What’s your favourite item of clothing and why? Where did you get it, how do you wear it?

How to choose? I’ll say it’s a blue Armani Exchange soft leather jacket I got in Sydney maybe 12 or more years ago. I wear it with gloves and scarves (often a favourite polka-dot Vivienne Westwood one). I love it because it’s warm, has lots of pockets and a hoodie option and goes with jeans to more tailored trousers. Most special, it was part of a gift from a very dear departed friend.

An Armani Exchange leather jacket is one piece he counts as his favourite.
An Armani Exchange leather jacket is one piece he counts as his favourite.

How do you put a look together? Do you think it through the night before, or even weeks in advance? Or do you let your mood in the morning guide you?

Very much thinking about the occasion, selecting, laying out options, preparing days in advance, and matching on the day, but there’s usually a final look in the mirror and switches may happen. The extent of this preparation can, of course, vary. During the day if I’m going to lunch, “into town”, a gallery, or an appointment there’s always the enjoyment of planning, selection, tweaking — and a weather watch.

What comes first, accessories or clothes, and why?

Clothes first. I have favourite accessories: a couple of rings and family wristwatches. I wear spectacles - two pairs, a Prada frame for general wear and Armani for occasions. I wear a St Anthony of Padova medallion (our family saint). I quite like badges which I often wear on a World Billet camouflage jacket: Aladdin Sane, ‘I’m a poet’, ‘CAMP RAGE’, the theme of this year’s Samesame but Different queer writers festival. And then there is my Zara man-purse shoulder bag, which has been immortalised in poetry.

Do you listen to any music when getting dressed in the morning, or have any other rituals or things that set the tone?

There is a ritualistic musical element to the morning: vocal exercises based on singing lessons I had long ago with a great teacher, Beatrice Webster, along with more recent input from ENT specialists.

Who do you dress for and why?

I want to say myself in the sense that I enjoy “dressing up” as in the questions above. It’s second nature to me. Also, I do MC-ing, chairing, readings/performances, panels, largely in a literary context such as the Samesame or around National Poetry Day; going out to events, shows, dinner, (clothes shops!) I prepare as in question four, so this embraces dressing for others. Again, enjoyable, builds confidence, and, for want of a better word, respectful?

Do you talk about clothes and what to wear with friends or family?

I talk with my sister, Edith, who has a dressmaking/seamstress background, and some friends, Bryce, Sunki.

Michael Giacon's parents Mary and Luigi Giacon in 1955. Photo / Supplied
Michael Giacon's parents Mary and Luigi Giacon in 1955. Photo / Supplied

What was your relationship with fashion growing up?

I grew up in a Pākehā Italian family. The latter predominated in all ways. Our family business was in terrazzo and marble and our home was a wonder of crazy marble (as in the entrance to Hotel DeBrett, High St), murals, Murano glass chandeliers — colours, patterns. Home in the 50s and 60s was also a gathering place for a vibrant Mediterranean community as was the Italian Club on Sunday nights.

It was wonderous and exciting to be in that grown-up glamour. The poem, il Club Italiano from undressing in slow motion is a bittersweet — dolce amaro — eulogy to those times.

... just kids running

through the supper room for dolce, Sunday night

after Mass, the Monaco on Federal Street grown-ups

dancing to Silvio de Pra and his fisarmonica

Dove sei, cara mia,

mia cara, dove?

black cocktail dresses, stilettos

open shirts, gold cufflinks flashing, cigarettes.

Marcello Mastroianni, Virna Lisi,

gli uomini e le donne, La Signora.

What’s one of your earliest fashion memories?

My brother Fred and his late wife Pia’s wedding reception in 1960 remains with me for its glamour and beauty. I’ve taken the liberty of attaching a snippet from a family photo at the reception of me in the outfit that was made for me. (I’m gleefully clutching the name cards from the wedding tables that I collected. I still have them somewhere. Disclaimer — I am not a hoarder).

Attending his brother's wedding as a child was his first fashion memory.
Attending his brother's wedding as a child was his first fashion memory.

How has your relationship to fashion changed since your teenage years?

Very much so. At school in the fifth form/year 11, I got into pop music, then a very broad range of genres. By the time I hit the University of Auckland (English/Psychology/Philosophy — yes indeed) in 72 I was a long-haired post-hippie John and Yoko pacifist in a priest’s cassock and embroidered jeans. Into the 70s mix went crimplene cuffed flares and platform shoes à la Bowie.

All changed in the summer of 1978-1979, before I went to Teachers Training College, and I recount this in my poem Love Beads in Undressing In Slow Motion.

‘friends said I looked like Jesus with John Lennon glasses’

‘I still have my patched, braided jeans but not the waist

that wore them ...

... stoned in the Domain the day before I shaved saved

and went to the barber’

‘a student job at Ranfurly War Veterans’ Home ...

that heated summer perhaps it was the disco

calling and all that clean-cut sexy desperate fun’

The key element with T Col and then a job as English Master at Auckland Grammar School was that I was getting a salary. I was living in the city and became aware of this intriguing shop on Hobson St. I still recall the thrill of walking into Strangely Normal on Friday night after work. Subdued in the wooden heritage building interior: the mannequins, jukebox, beautiful display units and racks glowing with gorgeous, finely made clothes. A 50s vibe, rock n roll-preppy, vibrant, masculine - strangely normal.

Other key shops were Frinton (and Clacton?) on Victoria St, Confetti in His Majesty’s Arcade and Monsoon.

I was going out to gay discos, dance clubs; 161 Ponsonby Rd, The Melba; dating. At Grammar we had to take a sports team. I do recall a number of occasions when I drove in my 1958 Nash Metropolitan directly from being out on the town to the sports ground and standing there shell-shocked and shivering in my party gear. (I was relieved of sports duty after my second year at Grammar when my soccer team created a dubious record of not scoring a single point. They were a very ... co-operative team).

What’s one item of clothing you’ve kept since you were a teenager? And one you regret getting rid of?

I still have the patched jeans as in the prior question. I regret getting rid of my 1970s platform shoes. Suede uppers, red/green/gold on the toe cap. Driving my Hill Imp in those platforms was a special thrill as was stomping to ‘Rebel Rebel’ at parties.

"In ‘72 I was a long-haired post-hippie John and Yoko pacifist in a priest’s cassock and embroidered jeans." Photo / Supplied
"In ‘72 I was a long-haired post-hippie John and Yoko pacifist in a priest’s cassock and embroidered jeans." Photo / Supplied

What piece of clothing have you inherited that’s particularly special to you?

A number of my late brother-in-law Joe Forsyth’s dress shirts. Joe was very stylish, he loved Paul Smith and Italian shirts. A favourite I’ve inherited is a black Vivienne Westwood shirt of his.

What item in your wardrobe have you worn to death?

The “man-purse shoulder bag” has been resurrected from the brink several times.

What item should you wear more but don’t?

Two suits, a classic black draped Armani and a Paul Smith.

Where do you love to shop?

Top three would be Strangely Normal Menswear, Mandatory Menswear in Wellington, and Zambesi. I also like to check out World, Fifth Avenue Menswear, Workshop, Standard Issue, and Barkers.

Who are your favourite designers, and why?

The wonderful founders and designers at Strangely Normal, Mandatory, and Zambesi; Paul Smith, Armani, Versace and Prada.

What items are on your wish list right now?

Not exactly a wish list but very much to the fore in my thoughts is the likelihood of shoulder surgery following an accident last June. Considerable immobilisation would be involved so part of the seasonal shift from question two above is considering how and in what I’ll be able to dress and what I might need to get — zips versus buttons, laces versus slip-ons, sizes, and volumes. A friend has suggested a cape and I have seen folks in dressing gowns and slippers in the supermarket ...

What do you find challenging or frustrating about shopping, clothes or fashion?

A positive challenge is mixing pieces I already have with each other as well as with new pieces. A recent example is matching a pair of fire-engine red cord World trousers with a Nom*d T-shirt. I’d had the trousers for some years so part of this was having them ‘let out’. The realities of a maturing body shape is, I suppose, a challenge, but there’s a great alterations shop in the Canterbury Arcade.

Who inspires you?

David Bowie endures in all ways. Joni Mitchell, my muse. I seek out both mature and younger exemplars in writing, music, design, and fashion. Last week I saw the doco Mad About the Boy: the Noël Coward Story. Talent, style, resilience and so very queer. In terms of fashion, it’s really fired up this urge I’ve had to wear 1940s-50s flat-fronted full-pleated trousers. I’ve been involved with the Samesame but Different LGBTQIA+ Writers’ Festival for a decade and the passion of younger generations to expand beyond the set strictures of identity, of life in Aotearoa, is inspiring. Kia kaha.

Is there anything distinctly “Kiwi” about your fashion (if so, what is it) and is there anything decidedly not typical of New Zealand style?

I love wearing Kiwi-made clothing and with, for example, Strangely Normal, Mandatory, Zambesi, I feel their designs could only come from them. Their work is also characterised by fine tailoring.

A key aspect of the Kiwi fashion I wear is boldness in colour and patterns/prints. I’m not sure that this is typical of menswear in Aotearoa though.

What has fashion taught you about yourself?

On a practical level, patience: the sighting, the selection, trying things on, biding my time then the strike of the SALE! (My favourite four-letter word).

Confidence, fun. To think outside the ... shopping bag. Being myself and how I present myself are connected. And that it’s more “style and fashion” than “style or fashion”.

What’s the best style advice anyone has ever given you?

To be honest, in recent years the best style advice has been along the lines of, ‘... perhaps try a larger size?’. In undressing I put it thus: ‘As I thicken my skin thins.’

I always appreciate the time and effort, suggestions and clear advice the people where I shop give, for example, when I’m considering or trying on item A or B and so on.

undressing in slow motion by Michael Giacon. Published by Michael Giacon/GTMpress, $30, is out May 29. It can be ordered from local bookshops and is available from Nationwide Book Distributors.

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