The first time I saw David Gandy, in the flesh, as opposed to splashed across a billboard or magazine spread, was on a Saturday afternoon in a spit-and-sawdust gym opposite a pickle-jarring factory on a rundown industrial estate in Essex. When it rained, the roof of the gym leaked. Buckets would catch the water. In the winter, it got so cold that dumbbells would freeze to your palms. That Saturday, I took a break from trying to look tough, as you do in gyms full of tattooed bouncers and builders shaped like pizza slices, and there, drop-setting on the bench next to me, was David Gandy.
Except, of course, it couldn’t be the real David Gandy. Why would David Gandy have paid five quid – “sorry, mate, cash only” – to pump iron in a place where there was once a sign pinned to the tanning machine that read, and I quote verbatim, ‘Dear members, some **** has been fiddling the sunbed. You will be caught, and you will be dealt with’…? It couldn’t have been Gandy. Must have been a doppelgänger.
Then I saw him again. Just a few hours later. In the sticky-floored wine-bar at the end of my road. The sort of commuter-belt gastro-pub-cum-wedding-venue that does a thriving trade by hosting ‘Evenings with’ Neil Ruddock and Julian Dicks.
That was eight years ago, almost to the week. I know this because the month before I had persuaded the then-editor of the precursor to this magazine to take a punt and give me a job. If that tall, chisel-jawed, Roman-nosed hunk-of-a-man oozing testosterone at the bar really was David Gandy – and his Caesar-like silhouette was now garnering enough glances to suggest that it just might be – then as an aspiring young journalist surely I was duty bound to go and get the scoop.
I reminded David of what happened next last month, over a slap-up lunch at Mayfair’s glitzy nightclub-restaurant Quaglino’s. I’d like to say that the foundations of a budding bromance were formed that night, that these two Billericay boys had become bezzies, and that shooting the breeze over a boozy lunch had become the norm. The truth, alas, was that we had both arrived with an agenda. Me to secure an interview with the most famous face in men’s fashion; David to promote his latest brand collaboration – a vintage-inspired capsule collection with British luxury leather-goods specialist Aspinal.
Gandy played it cool, pretending not to remember our first encounter. “Ha! Oh no, mate! I hope I wasn’t rude – was I?” No, mate, actually you were bloody charming. You explained that you grew up in Billericay – news to most people in the town at that time I think – and that you were back visiting your mum. You pointed out your old school mates. Gave me the business card of your PA. Told me to tell her that you’d be delighted to be interviewed and wished me good luck in my new job. What a top bloke, I thought, running out of the bar to text my editor the good news, the obsequious little lapdog that I was.
That interview never materialised. David was jet-setting around the world at the behest of Italian megabrands and we were unable to pin him down. I tell the story because a) it’s a story I like telling; and b) because every time I’ve met David since he’s always been the same affable, charming, salt-of-the-earth, butter-wouldn’t-melt, all-round top fella.
“I still go to the local pub,” he says, now 38 and having traded suburbia for a townhouse in Fulham (you’ll struggle to find Razor Ruddock giving after-dinner speeches there). “I have conversations with people who recognise me. They offer to buy me drinks, I offer to buy them drinks. I’m hopefully the kind of guy that women can come up to and chat with and who guys don’t feel threatened by. We can have a couple of pints and talk about cars – or fashion if that’s what you’re into.”
The impact that David – along with the world’s other most famous David – has had on men’s fashion is hard to overstate. Having won a modelling competition on ITV’s This Morning in 2001– he’d been entered by a university friend, unbeknown to him – a 21-year-old Gandy was thrust into an industry that put androgyny on a pedestal. Not an aesthetic that’s easy to pull off when you’re a six-foot-three county cricketer and rugby-playing beefcake.
“I was never going to be that guy,” explains David, looking all fifties film star in a vintage Omega wristwatch, white open shirt and a wide-legged, wide-lapelled, one-of-a-kind Marks & Spencer suit (one of the perks of working with the high street authority). “For me, it was go big or go home.”
Committing himself to the gym, David swam against the current. His early work consisted mostly of look books for obscure German designers and campaigns for high-street names including H&M, Hugo Boss, Massimo Dutti, Gant and Zara. Then, in 2006, his dedication to the dumbbells paid off. His sculpted torso caught the attention of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who cast him in a pair of now-legendary bright white budgie-smugglers and commanded him to look brooding while splayed out on an inflatable dinghy in Capri. The resulting shots, captured by Mario Testino, formed the framework for Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue fragrance campaign. The adverts were plastered on bus stops and billboards around the globe, including a 50-foot wrap in New York’s Times Square. Not since Marky Mark went shirtless for Calvin Klein in 1992 had a pair of tighty-whities caused such a sensation. Almost overnight, the blue-eyed boy from Billericay achieved supermodel status.
“That Light Blue campaign really was the platform for me. It’s fair to say that things have gone OK since then – we’ve not done too badly.” Which is one way of putting it.
"The campaign propelled its protagonist to a level of fame not seen in the arena of male modelling before or since. For the rest of us, the advert coincided with a step change in the way we viewed masculinity. After the lager-swigging, fart-lighting laddism of the nineties, the muscle-bound Alpha was back. More pumped, more virile, more unattainable than ever. Thanks for that Dave.
In the decade that followed, as footballers, Topman and TOWIE dragged men’s style in one direction – towards carrot-legged jogging tracksuits and ripped-at-the-knee spray-on-skinny jeans – Gandy, along with Redknapp and Becks, those other two stubbly scions of style (not all footballers worship at the altar of athleisure), pulled menswear in the polar opposite, championing classic tailoring and ethical fashion.
“Sustainability wasn’t a subject that was even mentioned 10 years ago,” says David. Now brands are being more responsible. We have to look at this world of ‘disposable fashion’ and make sure that if people are buying these really cheap clothes, the sort you dispose of every three months, that they are aware that those clothes are probably not ethically produced. It’s better to buy things that are going to last you a long time. Things that you can get five or six different looks out of – sustainable can still mean affordable.”
Success means different things to different people. I’ve never thought I was the best-looking model, or even the best at modelling"
His hairline may have receded a little – pot, kettle – and wrinkles begun spreading like motorways on a road map around his eyes – “I look after myself, but I could probably do with more sleep” – yet for a man who’s less than two years shy of 40, Gandy is in incredibly good nick. He still works out, up to five times a week. The swimwear stuff takes longer to get in shape for, but that doesn’t stop him ordering a starter, mains and dessert. “I’ve never had to worry too much about what I eat.”
He also knows his way around a wine list, which takes the pressure off me.
A firm fixture at fashion weeks, now that he’s traded the catwalk for the front row, Gandy’s signature three-piece-suit look has proven catnip to street-style photographers, spawning countless fan pages on social media. Some of the most-liked men’s style posts on Instagram feature David in a double-breasted jacket, contrast-colour shirt and woven-wool tie, often paired with a newsboy cap or C-Crown fedora hat. The consummate midcentury metropolitan dandy. Accessorising is back in fashion. See the tie bars, pocket squares and lapel pins next time you’re at Ascot. Gandy played a part in that.
The Aspinal collaboration, an 18-piece, Spitfire-inspired range of briefcases, weekend bags and suit carriers – “we’re trying to put the glamour back into travel” – follows ambassador roles for Jaguar, Wellman Vitamins and Savile Row tailor Henry Poole & Co. Away from the camera, David has launched two apps – one for fitness, the other offering style tips – invested in both the London Sock Company and David Preston Shoes, competed in the Mille Miglia classic car rally, raced power boats for Vector Martini, been appointed to the British Fashion Council, and, thus far, directed two style-focused short films. No wonder he turned down roles in Fifty Shades of Grey and 300: Rise of an Empire. It’s a CV that’s led to the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home ambassador (omitted that earlier) to be labelled the ‘world’s most successful male model’. Is that a moniker that David allows himself to buy into?
“Success means different things to different people. I’ve never thought I was the best-looking model, or even the best at modelling. Hands down, if you walk into Select [Model Agency] today, some of the guys in there will be incredibly good looking, and incredible models. I looked at modelling as a platform, in a business way. That’s what female supermodels were doing and I wanted to rival those models. When I started it was a time where you would be in the same campaign as a female supermodel and you’d get a fraction of what they were paid. I wasn’t saying it was wrong, I was asking myself how do I get to that level? And that comes down to branding, giving prestige to a company and the same sort of reach that the Kate Mosses can.”
For evidence of the power of Brand Gandy, see Marks & Spencer. In 2014, the retailer launched a line of underwear, lounge wear and swimwear, modelled and part-designed by David himself. It became one of the company’s best selling lines. “I think we sold a pair of swim shorts every minute until they sold out.” Last year, the range expanded to include Orlebar Brown-esque beachwear. Devoted David Gandy fanboy that I am, I bought not one but two towel-cotton polo shirts. My girlfriend suggested that I wear one to the interview. “And remember, if people are looking at your table, they’re not looking at you.”
If the Testino-shot white-pants image solidified Gandy’s standing in the rarefied world of high fashion, it was his boxer shorts for Marks & Sparks that caught the attention of your mum – which is to say, made him properly famous. David’s presence in that wine bar eight years ago went relatively unnoticed (save for one hyperventilating wannabe writer). It wouldn’t be the same today. As his public star has risen, how has David’s personal life changed?
I'm not criticising digital. It’s just not all about numbers, it’s about which demographic you are reaching. How do you connect with people outside the digital world?"
“I do get recognised but I think I have a nice level of fame. People are very nice, very polite. I’ve never understood people who achieve fame and then say no to a picture. The public are the ones buying into you, following you, buying your products or your music. Shouldn’t it be lovely when they come up to say hello?” See, salt of the earth. What about social media?
“It’s 99 per cent positive. My girlfriend [a London-based barrister, who David’s been dating since 2016] and I have a pact where we don’t use it too much. We are very careful to try and avoid the public eye. She’s come off most social media channels. She doesn’t want to be part of that world. She’s into fashion, but that side of my life is very separate from the one we share together.”
Gandy arrived on the scene during glossy print’s glory days. Times change. Advertising budgets get redirected. Magazines close. Social media now provides the platform that newsstand magazines used to. Does the power to self-promote provide a stepping stone to aspiring young models?
“Nowadays you can achieve success by becoming a digital sensation. If you have the right surname, then [clicks fingers] you can have success like that. That has always kind of been the way, but brands are thinking less creatively and more about the reach provided by someone’s daughter or girlfriend.”
So it’s become more about connections than creativity?
“There’s not much I look at now and think ‘wow, that’s an incredible creative’, not like I used to in the 90s, when you used to see [American fashion photographer] Bruce Webber work with brands like Ralph Lauren. You’d see a campaign and just go ‘wow, that’s insane’. Now brands look at names and what do they do with them? A couple of social posts?
“I’m not criticising digital. It’s just not all about numbers, it’s about which demographic you are reaching. How do you connect with people outside the digital world? You still have to create incredible advertising and editorials.”
God-like good-looks got Gandy so far. The rest came down to bulldog determination and the sort of single-mindedness that means you’ll find an hour to work out in a leaky gym where people fiddle the sunbed even when you’re back for the weekend visiting your mum. It’s Beckham spending hours firing free kicks through a tyre suspended from a crossbar; Cristiano Ronaldo being the last one left on the training pitch.
As Gandy – single-name status came with the M&S gig – continues to mutate from model to brand-building businessman, are there any words of wisdom that he wishes he could whisper to his younger competition-winning self?
“Enjoy it,” he says, that megawatt-smile spreading across his face. “Take it all in. Don’t worry so much about what’s happening in the future.
“Obviously that’s a very easy thing to say. And if you’re not worrying about what’s coming next, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. I’ve always thought that if you haven’t got both feet on the floor, there’s a chance of toppling off.” Luckily both of Gandy’s are planted firmly on the ground.