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John Galliano attempts fashion comeback after four years

John Galliano returns to London on Monday, after a four-year exile triggered by a drunken antisemitic tirade in a Paris café, for his highly anticipated comeback as the new creative chief for Maison Martin Margiela.

Galliano will present what is described as a “small collection” of haute couture (blindingly expensive made-to-order fashion) during London’s menswear fashion week, at what his longtime friend and milliner Stephen Jones calls “a warehouse space in Westminster” at 4:30 in the afternoon – “Teatime,” explained Margiela spokeswoman Jade Guishard, “which is very English.”

John Galliano show, A/W 2012, Paris Fashion Week
Photograph: Alfred/Sipa /Rex

To say it is a controversial return is an understatement. Since Galliano was fired from Christian Dior and his namesake label following his meltdown at La Perle café in February 2011, each attempt he has made to step back into the limelight has been received with a fierce public backlash. Jewish groups and leaders denounced him; students at schools where he was scheduled to speak protested until the events were cancelled; Jewish retailers have said they would consider not carrying his clothes.

But the reservations have not only been on moral grounds. There has been talk among editors, retailers and critics that 54-year-old Galliano simply may no longer be relevant following four years off the grid. As one editor put it, he may not have anything to “add to the conversation”.

Will Galliano’s return be a triumph, like Coco Chanel’s in 1953 after a 14-year break? The then 70-year-old couturier marked a surprise return with a new silhouette, the boxy tweed suit, that became de rigueur for women of all ages for years to come.

Or will the show be a flop, presented by a designer who has a tendency to live in a hermetically sealed bubble, utterly disengaged from society, and who has been charged for the better part of his career of being out-of-touch with what modern women really want to wear?

It is the first time for 25 years that Galliano will be showing in London. Joan Burstein, Galliano’s original retailer, applauded both the appointment and the locale, saying, “I’m more than happy that he is returning to fashion and especially his choice of showing in London, where his training and career started.”

He will, however, be showing Paris couture during London’s men’s fashion week – a decision one glossy editor described as just “weird”. Some fashion insiders suggested the choice wasn’t simply to give Galliano a home advantage: the London fashion establishment, they argue, will be more forgiving than the international press corps in Paris.

Burstein concurs: “There is a lot of love and respect for his talent here [in London]. I’m sure he’ll feel it and it will give him confidence.” The audience will be stacked in his favour: Guishard says that only 100 guests are invited, rather than the 1,200 that used to attend his Dior shows, and describes them as long-supporting editors, retailers and close friends.

Haute couture collections in Paris 2003.
Photograph: Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty

Galliano was appointed to the job last autumn, to great fanfare. But reaction to the appointment has been mixed. Some, including Galliano’s longtime cheerleader, American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, applauded it, saying that Galliano had paid his penance and it was time for the public to forgive and move on. Even the company’s founder, Martin Margiela, the reclusive designer who avoided press during his tenure at the helm and retired in 2009, reportedly approved of his replacement.

But others, particularly in the Jewish community, weren’t so sure. “As a person, I find John Galliano disgusting. As a Jew, I find him disgusting … I would find him disgusting if he said things like that about anyone,” Nancy Pearlstein, owner of the Washington fashion boutique Relish, which sells Maison Margiela, told the Washington Post last autumn. “But if I’m Jewish, I should also be able to forgive and give someone a second chance.”

During Galliano’s exile, rumours regularly popped up that he would join another house, but each time he issued denials and the jobs never materialised. The closest he came was two years ago, when American designer Oscar de la Renta (who has since died) invited him for a three-week job to help with the collection. But after a year of negotiations, the deal fell apart, and Galliano went underground again, at least professionally.

Galliano at France’s industrial tribunal on February 04, 2013 in Paris.
Photograph: Abaca/Barcroft Media

In Paris, he was out and about in his neighbourhood, the Marais, hitting restaurants, his favourite florist and a nearby nail bar – he has long loved a good manicure and pedicure. He spent a fair amount of time at his country house in Auvergne, in central France – a residence his boyfriend Alexis Roche is said by friends to have pushed him to buy. Galliano preferred the Côte d’Azur, in particular Saint-Tropez, where he and Roche have summered for the past decade. In Auvergne, Galliano has spent much of his time working in his garden, and friends say his talents in horticulture are as gifted as in illustration and fashion.

But he also kept up his quest to return to fashion. First, he landed a consulting gig with a Russian cosmetics and perfume company called L’Etoile. And he started talking to Rosso about Margiela. By October it was a done deal. Since then, Galliano has been busy putting what remains of his core team back together.

In the end, the people who will decide Galliano’s fate are the retailers. They are approaching the new collection with caution – even Browns, where it all began. “Browns currently doesn’t stock Margiela and would be happy to view with the intention of carrying John’s collection providing it brought a freshness and difference to our portfolio of brands,” the store’s CEO, Simon Burstein, told me last week. No doubt Rosso, and Galliano, are banking that it does.

Dana Thomas’s book, Gods and Kings: the rise and fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano (Allen Lane, £25), will be published in February.

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