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John Galliano: penitent return of an enfant terrible

To most of us, tomorrow is another Monday in January, one to get through rather than savour. If you follow fashion closely, however, Monday 12 January 2015 is one for the history books. It is the day John Galliano makes his comeback to women’s fashion with an event in London to showcase the “Artisanal” range from fashion house Maison Martin Margiela.

What makes this event poignant, and the subject of some rather overblown publicity, is its status as Galliano’s first solo show following his humiliating fall from grace in 2011, when an alcohol- and Valium-fuelled antisemitic rant in a Paris bar got him fired first from Christian Dior and later from the John Galliano label he founded in 1984.

Search for the hashtag #MargielaMonday and you can gorge on hyperbole that reads as if we are about to witness the second coming. And it is not limited to young fans of his work, whose enthusiasm is perfectly understandable: some seasoned fashion commentators are also in a frenzy of expectation. “Two more sleeps until #MargielaMonday” “The King is Back!” “A new era begins!”

One of his young admirers, 25-year-old designer Ed Marler, who like Galliano graduated from Central Saint Martins, says: “I must have been about 12 when I discovered Galliano on Style.com. His aesthetic shaped my taste. I wasn’t just interested in his clothes: it was him, his reference points. I learned so much about history and art because of him. When I heard he had a job at Margiela, it seemed so strange. To me, Galliano is drama, and Margiela is introverted. I’m excited about the show but also feel a bit dubious. It’s like Michael Jackson or Princess Diana suddenly coming back.”

Rebecca Lowthorpe, assistant editor of Elle, who has followed Galliano’s work for 20 years, says: “Yes, I’m looking forward to the show. From a fashion point of view, I’m excited to see what he will do. It will be the show of the year. In his heyday, for me, John was an absolute genius.”

Will the expectation place too much pressure on the 54-year-old Gibraltar-born Londoner who has been called fashion’s “fragile poet”? “I sincerely hope it’s not too much for him,” says one wellwisher who has known him for 25 years. “He has to stay healthy and creative and not drown in the overwhelming pressure that brought him down in the first place.” 

The show will take place at 4.30pm in a brand-new office building near Victoria station – a gleaming metaphor for a new beginning if ever there was one. The slot has been retrospectively inserted into the last day of London’s twice-yearly fashion week … for men.

Confused? It’s not surprising. The fashion business is nothing if not labyrinthine. Flamboyant Galliano, one of the greatest creators of the last century, is now creative director at Maison Martin Margiela. Margiela himself, an equally lauded designer from Antwerp who is so reclusive few people know what he looks like, left his brand in 2009 and retired to a life of anonymity. The avant-garde Margiela brand (its signature pieces include cloven-toed boots) was purchased in 2002 by Diesel founder Renzo Rosso and is now part of his company OTB (Only The Brave).

Meanwhile, the John Galliano label continues to produce collections in Paris without its founder. The Paris shows, where the “Artisanal” range of upcycled handcrafted pieces is usually shown, take place in two weeks.

A typical Margiela “Artisanal” piece looks nothing like traditional haute couture. Rather than recreate the past by whipping up gowns that take 2,000 man- or woman- hours to make, this resolutely 21st-century range is closer to artefact curation. Old items and precious fabrics are reappropriated into new garments by skilled artisans. There is, however, common ground between the DNA of the designers involved, and so huge potential for Galliano’s role.

But there’s the rub: why would Galliano piggyback on to this week’s London Men’s Collections with a handcrafted women’s range, when he is one of the most accomplished haute-couture designers alive and perfectly capable of holding his own in Paris?

Perhaps the fashion powers in Paris still haven’t forgiven him. Or maybe he simply wants a home crowd in his welcoming native city at a time that allows all his supporters to be on the front row. Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, is flying in from China, and many more A-list friends, including Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, are expected to attend.

“To me, the idea of putting on the Artisanal show in Galliano’s home town of London and making sure it is full of John Galliano supporters is chickening out,” says fashion historian Tony Glenville of the London College of Fashion. “All of his friends will be cheering him on in London. If you put it back where it should be, in Paris, it would be a more confident statement.”

While this is true, the Galliano of 2015 is a humbler creature than the preening peacock of yesteryear who took his bows at Christian Dior shows dressed like a cross between Errol Flynn and Keith Richards.

The day after he was fired from Dior, on 2 March 2011, he made the first of many apologies. “I must take responsibility for the circumstances in which I found myself and for allowing myself to be seen to be behaving in the worst possible light. I only have myself to blame,” he said.

Galliano in his heyday with Christian Dior, at the finale of his Paris fashion week show in 2009.
Photograph: Michel Dufour/WireImage

“I am seeking help, and all I can hope for in time is to address the personal failure which led to these circumstances and try and earn people’s forgiveness.”

He went into rehab in the Meadows clinic in Arizona, an experience he says made him realise he was “emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally bankrupt”. Following sessions with the Anti-Defamation League, he has been vociferous about his recovery, admitting in an interview on American television: “When you see that video, I am in the throes of my disease. At that moment I was producing 32 collections a year, between the house of Galliano and the house of Dior, and each collection would comprise up to 1,000 pieces. I was mixing alcohol with benzos, which is a lethal combination. I would take Valium to stop the shaking so I could do fittings, and then sleeping pills so that I could sleep… My life became unbearable.”

Given the events of the past four years, it is clear that Monday’s show is the grand finale of a carefully plotted return to fashion that has been lovingly masterminded by Wintour. It was she who saved him back in 1994 when his business failed, introducing him to the Portuguese socialite São Schlumberger and backers John Bult and Mark Rice. The outcome was his most famous own-label show, which a year later resulted in the designer – thanks again to Wintour – being hired by luxury-goods house LVMH to design for Givenchy. In October 1996, he was appointed to Dior.

At the British Fashion Awards in London last December, Galliano presented Wintour (who was pointedly wearing an outfit designed by Galliano for Margiela) with a lifetime achievement award but eschewed the red carpet and his trademark extravagant garb in favour of a black suit and slicked-back hair, his pre-Dior look. “Anna’s been so supportive all through my highs – and my lows,” he said in a quiet voice on stage at the BFAs. “She reached out to me when I had become an outcast – with almost daily phone calls, inspiration, encouragement and really practical help. This made all the difference. I wouldn’t be here today – healthy, happy, and embarking on my own new design adventure – if it wasn’t for her.”

There are some who think Galliano should continue to atone, and keep to himself. But forgiveness is coming from powerful places. “Must he pay his entire life for this mistake?” asks Jonathan Newhouse, chairman and chief executive of Condé Nast International. “I asked the chief rabbi in Britain what to do about John. He said if someone who does wrong sincerely wants to atone, we have to welcome this. My focus is not on his moral behaviour but on my own. A person I care about was lost, sick, and in trouble. What kind of friend would I be if I turned my back on him?”

However, as this story develops, there is bound to be a huge renewal of interest in Maison Margiela as a brand, and an audience on the edge of its seat tomorrow afternoon waiting to see if its designer still has the magic touch. Monday’s show is the beginning of John Galliano’s third act.

REHAB DIARY

2011

24 February John Galliano arrested on suspicion of assault and making antisemitic remarks

1 March Fired from Christian Dior

15 April Fired from own label

1 July Kate Moss gets married in a Galliano dress; he describes the process as “my creative rehab”

6 July Anna Wintour spotted meeting Galliano at the Ritz in Paris

2013

January Takes three-week residency at Oscar de la Renta’s design studio, following advice from Wintour

December Guest-edits shoot in British Vogue with Moss

2014

15 September Gives interview to Canal Plus show Le Supplément in France

5 October Appointed creative director of Maison Martin Margiela

4 November Loses unfair dismissal case against former employer and ordered to pay symbolic €1 each to Christian Dior and John Galliano labels

1 December Makes professional return to fashion at the British Fashion Awards, presents outstanding achievement award to Anna Wintour, who is wearing a Galliano for Margiela dress

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