AT PARIS fashion week last year, a lone fan held up a mournful sign outside the Christian Dior show. Bordered with flowers, it simply said 'The King Is Gone'. Until this month we weren't entirely sure where the monarch in question had disappeared to, but now we know: John Galliano died in The Sun but has been reborn (he hopes) in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair.
While others have chosen Oprah as their mother confessor, for the British designer, the Conde Nast flagship title was always going to be the front-runner for the fashion interview of the year. Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of the company, and a fellow pal of Kate Moss (Galliano designed her wedding dress), was personally involved in building a bridge between the British designer and the Jewish community.
The interviewer, Ingrid Sischy, donned a pair of high-fashion kid gloves. And there was always the selling point of an Annie Leibovitz photoshoot; Galliano, swathed in couture, looking pensive in an all-too-obvious 'wilderness' setting.
Perhaps equally predictably, the interview, which deals with Galliano's reasons for his outlandish anti-Semitic outbursts two years ago, is overwhelmingly sympathetic, presenting the designer as a victim of his demons, a lost soul who allowed his addictions – to alcohol and pills – to spiral out of control. It vaunts his creative genius and goes into some detail at his efforts to atone – he attended a bar mitzvah in London among other things. And yet for such a high-profile stab at rehabilitation, it has made a surprisingly small splash. Last week, the silence from New York's Fashion Avenue was deafening. Cathy Horyn, the New York Times' esteemed fashion writer, snippily noted the "curious shortage of goodwill" toward Galliano, while admitting that she was still "angry" with him because he " ... betrayed the trust of a lot of people: his friends, his colleagues at Dior, journalists."
And yet, behind the scenes, there has been some quiet applause at the second coming of Galliano, who has recently accepted a residency at Oscar de la Renta's design studio. New York magazine noted that Galliano's "crime was words ... nobody died". Don O'Neill, the New York-based Irishman whose shimmering creations graced the red carpet at the Tony Awards last week, told The Sunday Independent that "Galliano has been cast aside like a leper as the fashion pack scurry off to fan the flame and kiss the feet of the latest rising star". O'Neill noted a curious double standard in the frosty response that the British designer has been met with: "Actresses 'accidentally' have their home-made sex tapes pop up on YouTube, politicians text their penis pictures, CEOs are imprisoned for embezzlement, but within a few months the court of public shame moves on and they resume their careers with even more 'enhanced' celebrity or political profiles and go on to greater fame and success ... but not John Galliano?"
Perhaps part of the reason for this reticence to forgive has been that, in PR crisis management parlance, the 'optics' have been bad with this one. While Galliano's confessions have been in a carefully styled and scripted magazine article, with a necessarily limited reach, his downfall was all on video. "I'll never forget it," said Ronald Frisch, president of Saks, Fifth Avenue, of the moment he saw the footage. "It was Milan Fashion Week. I was at the Dsquared show. One of the folks had the download on their iPad. I was completely shocked. We were all leaning over the iPad. The immediate reaction was 'Jesus Christ'."
The exchange, captured on a grainy phone camera in a cafe on February 28, 2011, had by that point, gone viral:
Woman: "Are you blond?"
Galliano: "No. But I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be f**king gassed and f**king dead."
Woman: "Oh my God, do you have a problem?"
Galliano: "With you? You're ugly."
Woman: "With all people. You don't like peace? You don't want peace in the world?"
Galliano: "Not with people who are ugly."
Woman: "Where are you from?
Galliano: "Your asshole."
In fact, the back-and-forth, which went up on The Sun's website, was just the final straw for Galliano. His downfall had already been in train for half a week at that point. On February 24, 2011, police were called to a bar in the Marais district of Paris because of an apparently unrelated incident involving Galliano and a couple, Geraldine Bloch and Philippe Virgitti, who lodged a complaint against him.
Galliano, who had drunk a lot of Champagne and taken Valium, repeatedly insulted them with phrases including "f**king ugly Jewish bitch" and "f**king Asian bastard". Bloch, a 35-year-old art historian, said Galliano first asked her to shut up, then criticised her body and make-up. He made more than two-dozen anti-Jewish insults in the space of 45 minutes, she said. Another woman subsequently came forward to say he made similar insults to her in the same bar in October 2010. Bloch called French police and they began a formal investigation. Dior suspended him pending the outcome of this.
The video was used as part of the evidence, which seemed stacked against Galliano. Although the state prosecutor had requested that judges fine the designer saying that although he was not a "theoretician" of race hatred or anti-Semitism, this was "everyday anti-Semitism and racism" which, she said, was still "pitiful and dreadful". The judges ruled that Galliano had "sufficient awareness of his act, despite his addiction and his fragile state" and convicted him of racist and anti-Semitic abuse. The court suspended his fine, allowing for the fact that Galliano had admitted his guilt and apologised. In an echo of the support that Galliano would soon receive, the judges accepted the "values of tolerance" in his work.
They might have also noted that Galliano himself is the product of two very different backgrounds. He was born Juan Carlos Antonio Galliano Guillen in Gibraltar in 1960 to a Spanish mother, Anita, and a Gibraltarian father, who was a policeman before he became a plumber. Years later, Galliano would feel nostalgia for this time, filled as it was with vibrant colours, sunny skies and sensual fabrics – a contrast to the low skies and itchy school uniforms to come. When Galliano was a child his father moved his family from Gibraltar to London in search of work.
"We moved to a very poor South London suburb called Battersea," the designer told Sischy. "Now it's called Bar-tar-shay – it's terribly chic, my dear. But when we were there it was rough, rough, rough. Grey thunderous clouds, wet chalk. I felt like an alien."
A solitary child, Galliano did not adapt well to his new surroundings. His devoutly Catholic family were unusually into fashion and appearance. His mother, a Flamenco dancer, dressed her son in a sailor suit, a practice that hardly endeared him to his new schoolmates. His creativity and camp mannerisms meant he was often bullied at his London boy's grammar school. He was never strong academically, and found his calling only when he went to City and East London College to study design before going on to Central Saint Martins, where he made an astonishing impact. His talent was so self-evident that his graduation show, a sell-out entitled Les Incroyables, was immediately bought up for the window of Browns boutique in London. Galliano, always skint, could not afford a van and had to wheel the clothes up to the shop himself. He had dipped ribbons in treacle and stained blouses with tea, seemingly inventing techniques as he went. There were altogether only eight outfits in that first collection, but the impact was enormous.
One of Galliano's earliest customers was Diana Ross.
His rise through the fashion world took place against a backdrop of an early Eighties nightlife that would inspire its own mythology. Soon-to-be-famous club kids like Boy George and Leigh Bowery were parading themselves in a spirit that the former would later describe as "ich bin Kunst" ("I am art"). No outfit was too outrageous. Galliano remembers frequenting Taboo – the nightclub which formed the hub of all this life – and his encounters with the doorman, Tasty Tim, who had a trick of holding up a mirror to would-be club patrons and asking them 'would you let yourself in?' Galliano, naturally, was always allowed to skip through the entrance.
By the early 1990s, Galliano's reputation had spread internationally. He was adored by fashion editors and revered by his rivals. His 'muse' was Lady Amanda Harlech (then Amanda Grieve) who was a fashion editor at Harpers and Queens. She agreed to work for free, simply to "be on that incredible journey, crossing the sea of fashion with him and his adventures".
His output was salivated over by the press – Sischy pretty much sums up the response when she describes him as "a wizard of cutting, a master of layering and materials and a brilliant showing" – and the clothes flew off the rails. Despite this, Galliano never seemed to make money and it was hoped that a move to France would put him on a more secure commercial footing. Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley alerted his boss, Anna Wintour, to Galliano's talents and the pair colluded to make introductions, which smoothed Galliano's move to Paris. Talley also charmed famed Parisian hostess Sao Schlumberger into allowing Galliano to show at her mansion in the French countryside. Seventeen outfits – run up at the last moment from the few scraps of black fabric which Galliano could afford – would be worn by supermodels like Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington, who gave up their usual fees to become part of an epoch-defining fashion moment.
Showing a flare for the dramatic, Galliano's invitation to the show was a rusty key. Fallen chandeliers and upturned chairs set the scene inside. Models sauntered down the runway in jackets that morphed into kimonos. Galliano's signature 'bias' cut was everywhere.
Anna Wintour called it "an emotional moment" and the show won him the second of several British Designer of the Year Awards. His star was in the ascendant.
He certainly made a convert of Bernard Arnault, the chairman of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH who believed Galliano could reinterpret Givenchy for a new audience. In July 1995, Arnault announced Galliano as the new haute couture and ready-to-wear designer for the label. The announcement was a shock and caused uproar in the French press. The fashion house had a refined image – it was associated with older women and Golden Era Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn – and the idea of Galliano with his bleached hair and insouciant attitude taking over seemed unimaginable.
The designer responded with his own charm offensive, booking himself into exclusive Parisian beauty salons, where he charmed the wealthy society matrons who doubted his sincerity.
Within 18 months, his place in the fashion pantheon was assured as he was appointed the chief designer at Dior, where he would again give new life to a classic fashion name. Under his direction, the label enjoyed a comeback with younger women and a new coterie of celebrity fans, which included Kate Moss and Gwen Stefani. His runway ideas were still outre but, inevitably, they trickled down to the high street; Galliano was credited with making women's outfits more risque while popularising camouflage and dirty denim.
His daring was rewarded, however: in his first four years at Dior profits soared and Galliano was garlanded with awards.
Behind the scenes, however, the designer was coming apart at the seams. Just three weeks after his conviction in Paris, an inquest in London established that his much-loved friend and business partner Steven Robinson had died of a cocaine overdose – he had been found dead at his flat in 2007.
The death had a lasting effect on Galliano. "Steven protected me from everything so I could be creative," he told the court. "With his death I found I had no protection." In his grief, the fashion icon had begun to drink even more heavily. Wine, he believed, would help him sleep.
"I had all these voices in my head, asking so many questions," he told Vanity Fair, "but I would never for one second admit that I was an alcoholic. I thought I could control it."
In the weeks before the fateful confrontation in the bar, Sidney Toledano, the CEO of Dior, had repeatedly encouraged him to get help. Galliano's response was to tear open his shirt and ask Toledano if the ripped torso underneath could possibly be the body of an alcoholic.
In his Vanity Fair interview, Galliano says he had one person to hold the cigarette, and one to light it. But he had nobody to get through to him with the truth. He was isolated and cosseted.
The scandal provided the opportunity for rehab and self-reflection. In the clinic he attended in Arizona, all of his personal belongings, including Keith Richards' book Life, were confiscated and his sole visitor during the traumatic first weekend was Linda Evangelista. When he emerged, chastened, the fashion world showed its support.
Diane Von Furstenberg, herself the child of holocaust survivors, spoke up for Galliano and Kate Moss invited him to her nuptials – he had designed her wedding dress.
In an echo of his past it would again be formidable Vogue Anna Wintour who would play a key role in facilitating his comeback.
She approached Oscar de la Renta and asked if he would consider working with Galliano. The elder courtier instantly agreed. "I also believe that everyone should have a second chance, especially someone as talented as John," he told New York magazine. "And he has worked so hard on his recovery."
At de la Renta's New York Fashion Week last February, Galliano the man was nowhere to be seen but his influence was writ large in the distinctively baroque creations on the runway.
There has been speculation that de la Renta is grooming Galliano as his successor. The future of Galliano's label meanwhile is uncertain. Many stores dropped it in the aftermath of the scandal. The former enfant terrible of British fashion was due to teach a master class at Parsons – the NYC design school – last month but it was cancelled amid fears that it would end up resulting in the designer having to defend himself again. "Galliano's trial should be over," his interviewer/cheerleader Sischy wrote. "Now it's time for him to get out the scissors. And ribbons."