Wednesday 23 January 2019

The fall of the king of couture

British designer John Galliano. Photo: Reuters
British designer John Galliano. Photo: Reuters

Emily Hourican

It's the talk of tout Paris. Creative supremo John Galliano, world famous for wildly romantic haute couture, has been sacked by his employer Dior for allegedly making racist comments. Is the pressure at the top of fashion so great it turns genius to self-destruction? And what of Dior's unseemly anti-Semitic history? As the damage created by Galliano's alcohol-induced meltdown continues to mount, Emily Hourican and Aoife Drew examine the flamboyant 50-year-old's dramatic fall from grace

When designer John Galliano is truly excited about something -- an outfit, a person, a moment -- he will describe it as "so very John Galliano!". This is the sincerest form of praise he can offer; it means something elegant and refined, but with touches of savagery, and says plenty both about how he views himself, and just how far he has travelled in life -- the plumber's son who became king of couture.

These days, he is deliberately grand of manner -- he dislikes being reminded of his origins; "I got so sick of seeing my father called a plumber in every article," he recalled rather loftily, not long before his father died -- and his speech these days is littered with French-isms translated literally, awkwardly, back into English.

Whereas he once slept on friends' floors or a grotty room above his studio garage, he now lives in an 18th-Century building a few blocks from the Picasso museum. His early enchantment with the decadent London club scene has been subsumed into an obsessive interest in exercise. "John doesn't just want to have good pecs," one friend has said, "he wants to have the best pecs in Paris." It's the same minute attention to detail that is so obvious in his work; he lives and breathes the vision for his shows, each one a completely formed story with complex characters and narrative; a fantasy with abundant life-force.

Even at his most dishevelled-seeming, Galliano's look is always artful and carefully constructed. He has his own personal hair and make-up team to perfect his image, a kind of swaggering, buccaneering punk -- pencil moustache, gold earring, long, tousled hair. Johnny Depp may have modelled his Captain Sparrow character on Keith Richards, but the look bears more than a passing resemblance to Galliano. At the end of each show, he commands the runway for a victory strut, haughty as any supermodel, dressed according to whatever story or theme is his current obsession. It was the same back in the Eighties when, as a notoriously wild student, he used to spend all week constructing his Thursday night outfit for Taboo, the legendary gay club where nothing was off-limits.

His journey in just 10 years from penniless graduate to head of the most successful fashion house in the world, is as flamboyant and fantastical as anything he has shown on the catwalk.

But as with all good fairytales, it wasn't accomplished alone. At strategic points all along the way, Galliano has been helped and guided by a relay team of people prepared to believe in him, committed to supporting the genius they could clearly see, often putting themselves out to do so. Yes, he has shown considerable guts by picking himself up from failure several times, but he has done it with help from an ever-evolving guard of honour.

When he graduated from Central St Martins in 1984, with a French revolution-inspired collection (drawn by candle-light, on parchment stained with tea), Browns, London's most influential fashion store, bought the whole lot. One wonders what Joan Burstein, then owner of Browns, and a member of St John's Wood Liberal Synagogue, must make of his recent disgrace.

On the strength of such a start, Galliano established a studio in London, but couldn't make any money. His business skills were poor and he was partying so hard that days and nights simply merged together, one long lost weekend. So broke that he had to dodge the rent collector, and increasingly aware that Paris was the only place for someone of his talent, he moved, only to find life equally tough there. But another unlikely fairy godmother was about to enter the stage. Anna Wintour came to see Galliano's work, and became his most influential supporter, flying the clothes to New York for a shoot and introducing Galliano to the bankers and backers he so badly needed.

To convince them that he was serious, no longer the party boy but grown-up and a contender, Galliano had to produce something for the 1994 autumn Paris collections, just three weeks away. He had no money, no clothes and no venue, but again, the world came to his rescue. Wintour found him a decrepit but picaresque chateau outside Paris, which he filled with dried leaves, handwritten love letters and dry ice. Kate Moss, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell offered to walk for free. He created dresses from black satin-backed crepe, "because it was cheap," with the help of Lady Amanda Harlech, who dedicated herself to being his muse and motivator from the time he was a student, even though he couldn't afford to pay her (and indeed they parted company after 12 years, when, divorced from Lord Harlech and therefore obliged to earn a proper living, she asked for a proper salary). A London milliner created a series of hats to complement the austere black clothes, also for free, and Galliano's star was truly born. It brings to mind a line from a Hilaire Belloc's poem: "There was a boy whose name was Jim/his friends were very good to him." Galliano's friends have been very good indeed, and that show became the most celebrated fashion event since Dior's New Look.

On the strength of it, Galliano became head of Givenchy, the first British designer to head a couture house (the 68-year-old Givenchy learned of the appointment when he read it in a release issued by his press office). There, he flourished, perfecting his technical skill and refining his style. A note sent to the seamstresses barely a month into his tenure said simply: "Tighter, smaller, tighter, smaller, tighter, smaller." Later, in an interview with The New Yorker, he would describe his vision thus: "My goal is really very simple: when a man looks at a woman wearing one of my dresses, I would like him basically to be saying to himself, 'I have to f**k her.' ... I just think every woman deserves to be desired. Is that really asking too much?"

From Givenchy he moved to Dior, where he has been able to give free rein to his beautifully self-indulgent, extravagant vision, staging shows in locations such as Versailles, the Gare d'Austerlitz and the Paris Opera, conjuring up versions of North African souks and the Romanov court. He has also frequently been provocative, claiming for example that the inspiration behind his notorious bag-lady collection came from "the unconscious style and formality in the way [the homeless] arrange and display their possessions, either on their person or in buggies and supermarket trolleys".

And now he has finally gone too far. The enfant terrible, with his desire to epater la bourgeoisie, has crossed a line, flouting not just staid convention, but decency and good taste. And he will not easily be forgiven. The friends who have so consistently supported him are silent, either through genuine disgust or because they can't be seen in his camp. The man to whom so much was given, of whom so much was expected, has let himself down. The designer whose extravagance was always sharpened by a grain of truth, has lost touch with reality. Galliano, for the first time, is on his own.

Emily Hourican

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