Bookended with controversy, the designer’s madcap tenure at the French fashion house is the subject of a 448-page tome
Today, designers would be crucified for putting models in newspaper dresses and calling it a Hobo collection, but Galliano came under little scrutiny for his SS00 show, which had been inspired by the displaced Parisians he’d encounter on his daily jogs. While threadbare outfits were accessorised with (empty) bottles of liquor and dangling trash, six months later Galliano had turned his attention towards the ruling class and AW00 exorcised the subconscious minds of an imagined society wedding. The show opened with the outline of a bishop’s gown – the look Rihanna later wore to the Met Gala – and ran the gamut of bourgeois fantasy from thereon in. As such, BDSM brides, sex doll naval officers, and raunchy french maids stalked the catwalk to the sound of whip-cracks and moans. Galliano’s collections comprise complex storylines and here, the designer cast just about everyone in the process, making a marriage of costume and haute couture.
We’ll never get another John Galliano, the tides of culture have simply receded too far. Not to mention that, today, his designs would be surely swept up in debates surrounding cultural appropriation, as he pilfered, plundered, and cross-pollinated his collections with traditional robes and twisted historical references. Returning from a three-week trip to China and Japan, Galliano staged an “Asian” collection for SS03, complete with circus performers and death-defying acrobats. Models were painted in the image of Geishas as huge volumes of fabric swallowed them almost entirely – their heads poking out beneath floppy marabou-trimmed hats, and through layers upon layers of taffeta and willow-patterned chiffon. The New York Times called it “the most staggering example of self-indulgent luxury since Louis XIV held court at Versailles”, noting how distasteful it was to make such an operatic display of Haute Couture at a time when “global political nerves are stretched”. The proof, however, was in the bulbous coats, sculpted birds, roaring tiger prints, and S&M buckled platform sandals, as Dior posted a 41 per cent rise in annual revenue for its couture division.
Galliano is both a creative madman and one of the last great couturiers – though perhaps those are not mutually exclusive terms. At Dior and Givenchy, he made ridiculous clothes because fashion had the economic freedom (million dollar runways) to indulge his brand of mental largesse. Whether that’s the same for designers today is unlikely. During his AW03 show, Galliano made alien showgirls, gypsies, and cabaret floozies terrestrial. If they weren’t painted in blue and yellow gradients by Pat McGrath, they were swarthy, muddied, and sweat-slicked. The collection was an apocalyptic travelogue through dance culture, as feisty bailarinas de flamenco stomped the runway in flounced skirts, corsetry, and form-fitting jackets, as he transformed leggings and leg warmers into ballroom ruffles. The whole thing was in homage to his Gibraltan father, who passed away a week before. “We danced flamenco at his funeral,” Galliano said. “It’s important to remember where we came from.”
Galliano’s historicism, rich yet chaotically referenced, reared its head once more for AW04 as Erin O’Connor opened to the sound of Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy” dressed as Nefertiti. An arched back, feline eyes, overblown cuffs, and an empress crown, Galliano presented what he called the sphinx line, “elongated, tight, accentuated, but crossed with the elegance of Avedon and Penn.” Models were sent out at a glacial pace, encased in silver lamé and golden snake skin, like walking sarcophagi balancing metallic orbs and hefty Jackal headdresses with crystal-encrusted scarab earrings. While Galliano did relax the stiff-necked procession, making way for contemporary Cleopatras in undulating tulle and peplum silhouettes, the show sparked conversation surrounding its wearability. “Is Galliano the most amazing, evocative, and extraordinary designer couture has ever had? Or is he a costumier,” Suzy Menkes asked at the time, “building upsalable products behind a superbly decorated couture façade?”
Fashion’s arch romanticist whipped up fantasies of jewel-encrusted moiré and fur-trimmed silk that took beauty to its most buxom and bawdy extreme. Galliano’s AW04 cohort looked as though they had stepped off a film set, perhaps Elizabeth or Marie Antoinette, in alabaster-powdered faces and wonky tiaras, as they teetered down a runway in squared-off panniers and enough fabric to upholster four sofas. In fact, the dresses were so big that, at one point, Karolina Kurkova got stuck in the exit and had to be physically removed. Inspired by the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (Sissie) the collection was completely removed from contemporary life – so much so that critics felt as though they “may as well have been looking at a museum piece,” as Cathy Horan says. Made up of 28 queenly effigies, the collection certainly lacked Galliano’s usual cacophony of characters (it could’ve done with some scullery maids or ladies-in-waiting) yet all the blown up hourglass silhouettes and gilded upholstery casts a deep shadow over today’s fashion. Perhaps Horan et al didn’t know how well they had it.
Rumour has it Drew Barrymore fainted from the sheer beauty of Dior’s AW06 couture show, which took place in a renaissance maze and featured a procession of medieval warrior-women in gilded chain mail, 3D-folded latex gowns, and vertiginous glass coronets, each with an armoured sleeve. Draped gowns were spliced, sometimes quite literally, with hard-shelled breastplates à la Joan of Arc, while goth-punk Siouxsie Sioux-types skulked out in dark shaggy layers of fox and yak hair, combining the glamour of Hollywood and the raw energy of punk. At the end of the 20-minute outing, Galliano took his bow in a spacesuit, which seemed fitting for someone so intent on traversing time and space.