John Galliano's fall from grace was one of the most dramatic declines the fashion industry has seen since Coco Chanel's outing as a Nazi collaborator at the end of World War II. Galliano's trouble began with an accusation made in 2011 that the designer verbally and physically accosted a couple at a bar in Paris, making anti-Semitic and racist remarks as well as general derogatory comments about their physical appearance. Then a video was released not long after that showing the designer in a drunken stupor, possibly drug-addled, proclaiming that he loved Hitler and that his verbal combatant "would be dead," and her "mothers, forefathers would be fucking gassed." In turn, Galliano was promptly dismissed from his job as creative director of Christian Dior and from his eponymous label, which are both owned by luxury giant LVMH.
A full comeback for Galliano isn't too far-fetched, considering they've happened in fashion after far more egregious offenses. Chanel allegedly tried to turn her Jewish business partners, the Wertheimer family, over to the Nazis during their occupation of France in an attempt to gain complete control of her business. After the war, branded as a Nazi lover and collaborator, she spent eight years in exile before returning to France in 1954. Her comeback, paid for by the Wertheimers, was rocky at first. However, she eventually resumed her place as one of the top fashion designers in Paris while creating many of the house's signatures like the tweed suit, the quilted bag, and the cap-toed shoe. Now Galliano is set to make his return. It was announced in October that he'll be taking over all design duties as the new creative director of Maison Martin Margiela.
At first glance, Galliano and Margiela couldn't be more contrary in both demeanor and design. Galliano is a designer who promenaded down the catwalk after every show, gussied up and costumed as lavishly as his models. At what was perhaps his peak in acclaim and influence in the early noughties, he was a rock star who indulged in the attention and hype that his outrageous, perhaps campy, but always stunning collections earned him.
In contrast, Margiela is a designer who never allowed himself to be photographed. The customary appearance at the end of a show was out of the question. Interviews, which were rarely given, were always answered in the plural of "we," not "I." He rejected the cult of identity and celebrity that most designers have embraced in the internet age, a time when mass-marketing has redirected high-end fashion.
In terms of design, both Galliano and Margiela hail from the avant-garde. However, Galliano's subversive knack has been reduced over the years to drag-queen theatrics and an asymmetrical ruffle placed here or there. On the flipside, when Margiela was hired to design Hermes's women's ready-to-wear in 1997 (the same year Galliano took the helm of Dior), his presentations and collections were a quiet affair. The clothes were infinitely classic. Margiela was discreet, while Galliano was an anything but.
But this new appointment may turn out to be an incredible stroke of genius on the part of Renzo Rosso, president of the Only the Brave, the parent company of Maison Martin Margiela. Because, if you look back far enough, the two designers have more in common than one might think.
Galliano was a student in London at Central St. Martins in the early 80s, a time when Vivienne Westwood, having invented the punk look the decade before, was pioneering the new romantic style. Galliano was enamored with Westwood's deconstructed historical and period costumes, which would later become his trademark. His 1984 graduation collection titled "Les Incroyables" was a critical success and was bought in its entirety by Browns, the prestigious London fashion emporium.
It was around this time that Martin Margiela was working as an assistant to Jean Paul Gaultier, the enfant terrible of Paris, who was known for his own rebellious designs and shock tactics. And While Westwood was inspiring young minds in London, it was Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto who had a profound influence on Paris. Their deconstructed look of voluminous, purposely tattered and intellectually challenging clothes set a new direction for fashion, particularly influencing a group of young Belgian designers, altering their attitudes on what fashion could be. Founding his own house in 1989, Margiela piggybacked off of the experiments of Kawakubo and as the 90s emerged both he and Galliano were at the forefront of avant-garde fashion, championing a more urbane and street-influenced aesthetic that would help to define the decade. In many ways the designers are a bit like estranged cousins, sharing much of the same DNA but nurtured to a drastically different effect.
By the late 90s and early noughties, fashion began to shift. No longer a guarded and esoteric industry, it began to sway to the commercial promise of mass appeal. Galliano was a heavyweight talent, leader of a luxury powerhouse and one of the most beloved designers of the day. His shows, massive productions not seen since the 1980s, drove a booming business of bags, cosmetics, and other merchandise branded with the Christian Dior name. Though Margiela remained elusive, he sold his business to OTB in 2002, the beginning of the end of the label's insider appeal. He eventually retired from fashion in 2008 (this is a rough estimate; his departure was kept a secret until 2009). The house carried on, though editors seemed less enthused and the collections less focused. Once branded to be invisible, it began to feel empty. Though it was always maintained, even when Martin Margiela was present, that the collections were designed by a team, it became clear that without his strong leadership, the label risked falling into the fashion abyss of irrelevance. It was rumored that Renzo Rosso approached many talents to take over design duties with all declining, because they did not want to incur the wrath of the fashion cabal for their efforts failing to live up to Margiela's legacy. Design direction was eventually and quietly taken up by Ivana Omazic (predecessor to Phoebe Philo at Celine) and the line was more recently ghost designed by Marios Schwab.
At Dior, Galliano was facing problems of his own. His collections, once powerful and provocative, became repetitive and trite. He lost influence to designers like Phoebe Philo and Raf Simons (who would ultimately replace him at Dior). It would appear that alcohol abuse and drug addiction got the better of him until his dramatic demise in 2011. Last year, at the concern of Anna Wintour, Galliano was given a job in the design studio of Oscar De La Renta, possibly a trial to see if he might take over for the aging and ailing founder. But he wasn't kept on. Then he had a job as a lecturer at Parsons. However, the students complained and his seminars were canceled. Galliano had become an untouchable pariah, resigned to live out the rest of his life with fashion's back turned on him.
As an outcast, Galliano is perhaps the best candidate to oversee Maison Martin Margiela. We are in an era when fashion's appeal has been diffused through fast-fashion retailers and an identity-flattening reach for a mass global market. Today's designers shift from house to house with no sense of permanence or loyalty. And the luxury industry has faltered in trying to validate itself while the market has grown saturated with sameness. In a moment like this, there is no better way for a brand like Maison Martin Margiela, which was once a beacon of rebellion and anti-authority, to make itself relevant and return to the nearly holy status it once held than through John Galliano's redemption.
Of course there is the risk that Galliano will distort the Margiela codes, that his penchant for camp and theatrics will be garish rather than graceful. But that's where Galliano's brief stint at Oscar De La Renta provides a useful key. What Galliano did for Oscar De La Renta was perhaps some of his most subtle and sophisticated work in years. The magic of the clothes was in the expert cut and the impeccable and imaginative, though totally discreet, details. It's been a long while since Galliano's clothes spoke louder than the presentation itself. They were probably not the De La Renta woman's cup of tea, but if you replaced their labels with Maison Martin Margiela's, you could very well have a hit on your hands and a rather healthy way forward for both parties. It's been suggested in recent news that Martin Margiela, the man, has approved of Galliano's hiring—it could have very well have been Margiela's idea to begin with.
Galliano makes his debut for Margiela in January when he presents the house's haute couture collection. Perhaps Galliano's strongest medium, it will be a test of restraint, to see if he can stay true to the house and not fall back into the same traps of redundancy and indulgence that plagued his last years at Dior. The success of Galliano at Margiela will depend on whether he can turn out the same kind of nuance and the brilliant clothes that he began his career with and that he hinted at while at Oscar De La Renta. And it also depends on whether or not the public will be able forgive him. Can Galliano sway public opinion as Chanel did decades ago? We'll have to wait and see, but one thing can be sure, be it triumph or failure—everyone will be watching.
Read more by Jeremy on GarmentoZine.com.