Jul 2011 19

by Secretary

There is in every madman a misunderstood genius whose idea, shining in his head, frightened people, and for whom delirium was the only solution to the strangulation that life had prepared for him
– Antonin Artaud

The word “genius” is bandied about a lot in the fashion world, given, as it is, to the superlative. However, I would barely hesitate to apply it in the case of one man, a fashion superstar, a man who could be said to have been licked by lightning before he got burnt. I am talking, ladies and gentlemen, about a man named John Galliano.

People who don’t know about fashion will have heard of Dior. Dominating the proud couture tradition of Paris (the most important of the four big fashion centers, although we shan’t tell London, Milan or New York about that), its eponymous founder pioneered a daring New Look, selling a tangible chic to a clientele that had survived two World Wars and longed for a suitable way to give two fingers to rationing and drawn-on stocking seams. Just to give you some idea of Christian Dior’s resounding success in this field, by 1949 Dior made up 5% of France’s total export revenue.

Fast-forward to 1997, and Anna “Nuclear” Wintour (legendary editrix of American Vogue) was playing God again. It is something she is known for. The top job in the industry was up for grabs – creative director of the House of Dior – a position that in the past had been filled by greats such as Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Bohan. Whose name does this feared powerbroker throw into the ring? Why, that would be John Galliano.

At the time, Galliano was an Englishman of Spanish decent, lost in Paris. He had been heading up the House of Givenchy (the house who famously loved, and was loved by Audrey Hepburn), and he was the first Brit to do so. Givenchy was owned by luxury goods giant LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) and LVMH’s owner, Bernard Arnault, always consulted Wintour on his appointments. Dior was also controlled by LVMH, and so it was easy to transfer Galliano across the companies, making him by default one of the most known and influential men in fashion.

What Galliano brought to Dior first and foremost was fantasy. Whilst some designers champion clean lines and no-nonsense concepts, Galliano was determined to capture the imagination of his clientele – in 2000, for example, he debuted his “Homeless” collection, the show for which featured models dressed in rags, tatters, and newspaper print – all thrown together with rough stitches into delicate dresses. It attracted a lot of negative attention, but as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Or so Galliano began to believe.

Galliano was a couture wizard. Couture is another world within fashion; dresses almost beyond imagination, with price-tags so fabulous that they are discussed only behind closed doors (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it!). Couture is collected like art; the pieces are custom made by the most skilled needleworkers. In fact, the spectacle of couture is so costly that few fashion houses now even bother with it; for most it is not a profit-making exercise. However, you could guarantee that a dress from a Dior couture show would grace the front page of newspapers across the world, and while most of those who see these images could not dream of affording such things, they aspire to, so instead buy into the dream and the brand, purchasing perfumes, make-up, socks, bags, and jewelry instead – a way to own a little piece of the fantasy.

These little mass-market pieces of Dior made fabulous profits, and Galliano was the goose that laid the golden fantasy egg. He was, by fashion industry standards, somewhat spoiled by LVMH. While other up-and-coming British designers such as Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney struggled as any other business start-up might, Galliano (whose original own-name company went into administration in the early 1990s) was relatively unburdened by financial concerns.

This did not mean that he was without pressure. The creative demands of his position were enormous, and he had been manning the most prominent job in fashion (with possibly the exception of Anna Wintour’s) for nearly fifteen years when, it seems, the burden of being Dior’s figurehead became too much.

In February of this year, Galliano broke the collective heart of the fashion industry (if it has one), when rumors started to surface that he had been caught making vile, offensive, alcohol-fuelled comments to people peacefully enjoying their evening in a Parisian bar. The fashion world was quick to jump to the defense of its superstar, but then a video emerged online of the unmistakable man slurring his way through a barrage of hate, which included the line: “I love Hitler. People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed.”

The fashion world reeled. It is extremely unlikely that Galliano does indeed love Hitler, especially as an openly gay man of Spanish decent. With several glasses of wine impairing his judgment, was it his need to shock, to provoke a reaction, his need for theatre that compelled him to say such things? Or was it some sort of cry for help? He later blamed his outburst on drink and drug addictions, things that he only admitted to about three months after the incident. Whatever was going through his head, he was dropped by Dior on March 1 of this year, after a controversial five-day suspension in which the company seemed to wait to see how things played out in the media. Galliano subsequently checked into rehab, and face criminal proceedings in France over the remarks in June (making such anti-semitic statements is outlawed there). He is due to be sentenced in September.

In the meantime, the high throne of fashion remains empty, and there is much speculation as to who will fill it. Sidney Toledano, Dior’s chief executive was coy when asked who might replace Galliano, saying, “You know when you ask young girls all the time when they are going to get married, they reply, ‘When I find the right man.’” He then said that the company was willing to take its time finding the right person for the job. In the meantime, a few names have persistently been linked to the coveted gig.

Sarah Burton, head designer at Alexander McQueen and designer of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress was a favorite of the papers, but it seems unlikely that she’ll want to leave the brand she has worked for over the past sixteen years – her loyalty to its’ late namesake is incredibly strong. The smart money had been on Riccardo Tisci, current head designer at Givenchy (just as Galliano was), but as more time passes it seems more unlikely – this particular appointment would practically be in-house, so why wait?

It seems LVMH might be looking outside their box, which is an unusual move for the company. A surprise announcement from designer Azzedine Alaïa (who has a long-standing feud with Anna Wintour, the woman who advised Galliano’s appointment) that he had been approached about the position (he claims to have turned it down) has thrown the game wide open. Alaia is most famous for his fashion independence; In 2007 he bought back his own-name label from the Prada group. Michelle Obama is a big fan of the designer, who rather than being strictly seasonal like most fashion houses, only produces a collection of clothes when he feels that he has something he is happy to share. If it is indeed true (Dior have not denied it) then it could say a lot about the future direction of the brand; they would have known from the outset that Alaia would have them working on a compromise of his terms and not the other way around. 

It’s an interesting time, as dedicated followers of fashion speculate about what Dior will do next…

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