Radom, Poland. A grey, freezing winter’s evening. A 16-year-old boy is staring – dumbfounded – at the laptop screen, not believing his own eyes.
It was another world I saw while I was there – one full of colour; unconstrained, theatrical, full-impact glamour.
It was a world of beauty – the women looked like romanticised fantasy creatures from another dimension, the prodigious gowns seemed to be shedding petals as they strode across the catwalk, their head pieces resembling a florist’s plastic wrap.
The house of Dior’s haute couture collection for Autumn/Winter 2011 was centred around flowers – it was the brand’s creative director himself who spent weeks studying the most inconspicuous details of their nature – how they live, move, breath and, eventually, wilt.
John Galliano’s shows were like a splash of radiance right across the greyest, dullest, most stagnant fashion.
If Lagerfeld was orthodox, McQueen eccentric, Kawakubo offbeat and Versace opulent, it was pure flamboyance that made Galliano stand out of the crowd, and no doubt let him define the whole of the ’90s in style.
His Dior was true to the original designer’s aesthetics – but to it, he added his own exuberance, impertinence and an unbelievable dose of grace.
Because that’s what Galliano himself – and the prestigious label under his reign – were like.
He would start each collection with a clear concept, inspired by something the designer found fascinating – be it a stroll around Beijing’s Panjiayuan Market or a balloon flight over the Nile – and turn that snippet of a man’s memory into a fairytale by the medium of clothing. Drunken tea party at Miss Havisham’s, anyone?
The story of the man himself, though, is no fairy tale – but one of turmoil, downfall, abdication and redemption.
It seems unbelievable, but it’s already been almost four years since The Sun ran the footage of the designer shouting anti-semitic remarks at a nearby couple at a Parisian café.
No one had seen it coming and – in the world of convenance and propriety – no one knew how to react.
Mercy, however, was nowhere to be found – the sentence came faster than Fashion Week tweets: Galliano to be sacked.
Charles, who works at Red magazine, was just as astonished as I was when he’d heard the news: “I just couldn’t believe it. Even now that he’s gone, Galliano is somehow always present in his absence.” What hasn’t changed, he adds over a flute of Prosecco at an Islington café, “is the interest in Galliano as the designer, in what he does best. He’s fashion’s best storyteller.”
And that’s hard not to agree with. There’s no reason for anyone to complain about the state of fashion today. While the world is still stuck in the mindset of the recession, the industry isn’t at all short of strong personalities or great artists.
The icons of fashion brands like Dior, Saint Laurent, Givenchy or Chanel are lead by major world-acclaimed stars of design, and Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane, Ricardo Tisci or Karl Lagerfeld are just as creative.
However, they are different. “Neither the intellectual Simons, the rebellious Slimane nor the dyed-in-the-wool Lagerfeld tell these marvelous fairy tales,” explains Janusz Koniewicz, who is head of the School of Fashion at the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw.
We meet well after the case of Galliano is all said and done – yet even the academic expert seems nostalgic for his Dior collections. “I couldn’t say if the industry needs the fairy tales, though. It’s a safe bet that it needs more charts and figures. To us, the spectators, the fairy tales gave escapism, they helped us live.”
The key to deciphering Galliano’s art, the seasoned fashion historian says, is to understand his modus operandi of references.
When I hear a snippet of the various arts and crafts of different cultures and countries Galliano alluded to, I can’t help but think the world was his oyster: the art and characters of the Russian ballet and circus, the Mongolian folk culture, gypsy bands and camps, to the people pictured in Van Dyck paintings and the French Revolution of 1789.
His collections would personify various dances: flamenco, cha-cha, tango, charlestone and cancan; or flowers: tulips, roses, orchids, dahlias.
Finally, he would bring to life the characters from René Gruau’s drawings or the pictures of horsewomen from the 20th century on the catwalk.
Without a doubt, the couturier would suspend the realness of our world to let us see things differently. But he never stripped it of its reality. “He gave it a wonderful, fantastic shape. Enclosed it in a mythical, apocryphal picture. He would make it incredible, exotic, beautiful, alluring,” said Koniewicz.
He presented to us the possibility of our metamorphosis – fashion being just a figure of the process. Koniewicz can see this even in the role of the designer in his own shows: “He would never take his final bow ‘out of context’ of the tale. In his triumphant walk he would also take roles – like in the theatre – of a pirate, king or knight. He was an emanation of that power that we get from fashion – the power of metamorphosis.”
So can Galliano’s daring theatricality ever be in tune with quiet deconstruction of the original Margiela?
The post at the French label whose signature was once idiosyncracy, contrast and deconstruction (not to mention strict no-brand brand philosophy) will leave Galliano in charge of ‘artisanal’ (that’s Margielan for couture) and both womens’ and mens’ ready to wear.
Needless to say, his first collection, which is to be revealed at Paris Haute Couture week come January, is already hyped beyond belief – one massive load of expectations on Galliano, who has been quite a tease and is promising ‘bigger and better’.
Koniewicz remains an enthusiast: “Although it may seem the two have little in common, the truth is temptingly promising: both have nothing to lose.”
Back to Islington, I try and provoke Charles: “So this whole Margiela thing, isn’t it a bit naff?”, I ask upon his departure, a gorgeous piece of Lanvin leather clutched in his hand. “It’s bullshit. Fuck Margiela, and fuck Galliano. It won’t be the same.” But he bursts into a snigger. “Who am I kidding? I’m gonna love it whatever he shows. It’s Galliano after all.”
It’s been four years off for Galliano – a lifetime in the world of quick fashion and short-lived trends, spent in anti-alcohol therapy and rehab.
But we’ve missed Galliano because we like to believe that the truth of life is written in fairy tales, not tragedies.
Illustrations by Weronika Kuc