John Galliano : The ring master of couture

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  • John Galliano by Patrick Demarchelier

  • John Galliano is applauded by his models on 20 January 1997 in Paris after the presentation of Christian Dior’s Spring-Summer Haute Couture collections

  • John Galliano acknowledges the public at the end of Christian Dior’s Spring-Summer 2007 Haute Couture collection in Paris on 22 January 2007

  • John Galliano’s F/ W15 creations as Creative Director of Maison Margiela

In a rare public appearance at London’s Royal Geographical Society in Knightsbridge, John Galliano spoke to an intimate audience about his remarkable career comeback, couture and designing Kate Moss’ wedding gown. Observing from the talk, Priya Kumar discovers exactly what makes the creative virtuoso tick.

To call John Galliano simply a designer leaves so much to be desired. Now the Creative Director at Paris-based fashion house Maison Martin Margiela, Galliano is known as an eccentric showman, a couturier of infinite talent and a figure so controversial, his career virtually crumbled at its peak in 2011. During Galliano’s reign at the helm of Dior as their irrepressible creative head, an incident in the Marais district of Paris involving anti-Semitic slurs and a cell phone video proved Galliano’s undoing.

“We unequivocally condemn the statements made by John Galliano, which are a total contradiction to the longstanding values of Christian Dior,” Sidney Toledano, CEO of Christian Dior Couture was quoted as saying. Regardless of his brilliance as a couturier, Galliano was dethroned. His actions were reprehensible and he paid dearly for them. After a series of charges and fines, Galliano spent the months that followed rehabilitating in body and mind.

Although banished from the kingdom of Dior, Galliano’s supporters continued to rally behind him. In early 2013 Oscar de la Renta took Galliano on as a resident creative for his Fall/Winter 2013 collection.

In October 2014, John Galliano reclaimed his role as Creative Director, only this time at the irreverent Maison Martin Margiela. “The appointment marks a new era for the history of the Maison. A visionary, non-conformist, creative talent to give new significance to the iconoclastic heritage of Margiela, and new impulse to its exciting future,” a press release put out by the house stated. Just like a phoenix, Galliano had risen from the ashes of his career that was all but over.

In his own words, John Galliano candidly discussed the creative process behind couture and how he regained the momentum of his prolific career since 2011.

When did you first realise you were interested in fashion, or was there never that moment?

John Galliano: I showed a natural talent for drawing, but really I didn’t discover fashion until much later on. I discovered my love of design through illustration. I was already well into the course at Saint Martins—around about 1983, and I graduated in ‘84. That’s really when I discovered that I loved creating…I did have artistic merit, but I didn’t know what to specialise in, I didn’t know much about it either. So I went to Wilson’s Grammar School for Boys first, did all the boys things, and then I went on to further educational college in East London to study Spanish and French, and there as a subsidiary was an art class; it was there that I started to draw life studies. And my tutors there encouraged me to prepare a folio to apply to Saint Martins, the foundation course.

When you went to Saint Martins, what did you expect and hope of that experience having moved there from where you’d been?

JG: I mean it met all my expectations and more. Suddenly I was surrounded by like-minded people and so creative. And I’d come from an all boys’ school, so there was girls, boys, some really cool people; I started to let my hair down.

History has always played such a fundamental part in your couture collections, not only at Dior, but also now at Margiela, if you could travel back to one moment in history when would that be and why?

JG: I guess the French Revolution, not for the gory bits, but for the coats! The swag, and the buttons, and the bows, and racing across cobblestones and the colours, and the Phrygian caps and the—just the style.

The last set of collections were really designed around the idea that everyone was going to be taking photographs, so it wasn’t just about the clothes, it was about a backdrop, or something with that visual. How are you going to deal with that social media interpretation of the shows?

JG: From a point of view of a show, it was quite amusing because when I saw the video I couldn’t see the clothes! I’d been out for four years, and then I saw the playback of the show andeveryone’s holding up an iPad or a phone. And that wasn’t there the last time I was doing shows! I embrace it, when I can. I think it’s important to have a balance—as with everything.

What have you identified as some key qualities that you feel that your Margiela will be?

JG: I love the place that I’m working; I think it has an amazing soul. It used to be a convent, and then an industrial design school, and now we’re there, it has an amazing soul. And I love exploring the original DNA that Martin laid down. I also had the amazing good fortune to meet Martin. Which was an amazing experience, I’ll just say that much. It really energized me, and I felt really good there.

How much time are you actually spending there? Do you go there every day?

JG: I do, because it’s early days, but I love being there, I do get some phone calls to remind me to leave. I’m trying to establish certain things with the artisanal, you could say it’s the parfum of the industry, which then informs and inspires the ready-to-wear, which would be the eaude toilette, and the accessories, the shoes, the bags, etcetera. But it’s there where I am, have the time and resources to establish a line and a fashion direction. But then the whole house can be inspired by it.

When you’re doing couture, when you’re doing a dress for a client, do
you enjoy the process of actually working with them?

JG: Absolutely. I love a wedding dress. Working with actresses is amazing as well, because they bring so much creativity to the session. And sometimes it’s very amusing.

Martin Margiela has made sort of part of his identity on being invisible in a way, and over the years you have been one of the most visible designers. How visible do you think you’re going to be in this role? Are you going to take on any of his invisible man, element?

JG: It’s very interesting, his invisible man element. You know, I’m just going to take it day by day; I did make an appearance in London, when we presented my Intentions collection [AW15] but really I just wanted to thank everyone for their support, everyone who had come to see the show.

What do you feel is the future of haute couture?

JG: I tried to explain earlier the importance of haute couture artisanal, in that it inspires and informs all the other lines. We need creativity to move forward, because without creativity, we’d just go nowhere. And that turns into a business, a big business, which I have proved.

Tell us more about the creative process in designing Kate Moss’s wedding dress, which was recently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum [in South Kensington], and is absolutely breathtaking. Was Kate involved in that? She’s got very strong opinions?

JG: It was just the most magical, magical experience to work with Kate on this dress. And it was all done very undercover and very in secret. We’d do it at friend’s houses, or she’d come over to Paris, and I’d come over to the country[side]. And we did keep it secret for ages; it was just the most magical… There was about 20 dresses, because we just didn’t stop! We were in front of the mirror, and draping fabric, and she’d pull one away. And at the time that I was doing it, I was just reconnecting. I didn’t know all of those emotions, they’d kind of been put on the side for a while. So Kate is amazing. She’s an amazing person, and an amazing friend who has stuck by me. I can’t imagine any other bride that would ask someone who’d just come out of rehab to do their dress and be patient!

What do you think is the most necessary quality for an aspiring fashion designer?

JG: Passion. I think you have to be passionate about this trade, and have a strong belief in yourself, and  surround yourself with really strong people at the beginning. That’s really important I think. I’ve also learned to say no. It’s such a little word. N-O. I was so afraid to say it before, because I thought I would appear weak, but now I realise it’s actually a sign of strength. So please, just say no. Only take on what you feel you can do really well. And do it to your maximum.