On the evening of February 24, 2011, thirty-five-year-old Géraldine Bloch, the head of exhibitions at Paris's Institute of the Arab World, and her boyfriend, forty-one-year-old Philippe Virgitti, who worked as a receptionist, were sitting on the terrace of the Paris café La Perle, chatting over a couple of beers, when the man next to them yelled to quiet down. Realizing that he was drunk—his eyes were glassy and his speech was slurred—they brushed him off. But he kept needling them.
"Your voice is annoying me," he snarled. "You're speaking too loudly."
The drunk man's bodyguard, standing a few feet away, saw that the situation was quickly devolving into a fight and Bloch was getting upset. He rang his boss's lawyer on a cell phone and tried to pass the phone to Bloch so the lawyer could calm her down, but she refused to take the call. A security guard suggested she move to another table.
Before she could, the drunk man grabbed her hair and shouted, "Dirty Jew face, you should be dead." She screamed in pain. "Shut your mouth, dirty bitch," he snapped. "I can't stand your dirty whore voice."
He then turned his anger toward Virgitti and yelled: "Fucking Asian bastard, I'll kill you!" As Bloch continued to shriek, the drunk told her: "You're so ugly. I can't bear looking at you. You're wearing cheap boots, cheap thigh boots. You've got no hair, your eyebrows are ugly, you're ugly, you're nothing but a whore."
Then he let her go, stood up, struck a rock star–like pose and proudly declared in a posh English accent: "I am the designer John Galliano!"
• • •
WHEN THE NEWS BROKE the next morning that the creative director of the esteemed French couture house Christian Dior had been arrested for fighting and shouting anti-Semitic slurs—an act that is considered a hate crime in France—no one in fashion knew quite what to think. Dior's owner Bernard Arnault and the company's chief executive Sidney Toledano—a French Jew who is one of the most respected executives in the business—responded cautiously by simply suspending Galliano pending the police investigation.
But a few days later—in the thick of Paris Fashion Week—the British tabloid The Sun published a video on its Web site of Galliano at the same café several months earlier, obviously plastered and spewing decidedly more virulent anti-Semitic insults, including "I love Hitler," at a couple of patrons, neither of whom were Jewish. The video went viral and the international Jewish community was outraged. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Galliano "a serial bigot."
It was more than Arnault and Toledano could accept. Within twenty-four hours, they fired Galliano from both Dior and his namesake brand John Galliano. The news of his sacking played on front pages around the world, right next to the revolt in Libya.
Though personally wounded by Galliano's vicious racist outbursts, Toledano chose to go ahead with the Dior women's wear show as scheduled, in a large tent pitched in the Musée Rodin's gardens. As the lights went down, he came out and told the audience: "What has happened over the last week has been a terrible and wrenching ordeal for us all. It has been deeply painful to see the Dior name associated with the disgraceful statements attributed to its designer, however brilliant he may be." With that came a charming, commercial collection of hippie-inspired clothes, and at the close, in Galliano's absence, Dior's hardworking atelier hands, mostly older women, dressed in white smocklike coats, stepped into the spotlight and humbly took the bow.
Galliano's flameout came almost a year to the day after his competitor and compatriot, the forty-year-old British designer Alexander McQueen, was found dead in his London flat. After years of serious drug abuse and profound depression that his psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Pereira later testified was caused by work pressures and accentuated by the death earlier in the week of his devoted mother Joyce, McQueen hanged himself in his wardrobe.
The coincidence in timing was both disturbing and poignant. Galliano and McQueen had arrived on the international fashion stage almost simultaneously in the mid-1990s, when the dominant style was minimalism, and together they shook the industry out of its boring, bourgeois stupor with their innovative, complicated, and deeply seductive designs.
Galliano and McQueen had similar personal stories. Both grew up in working-class London—Galliano, the son of a plumber; McQueen, the son of a cabdriver—with doting mothers who nourished their love of fashion. Both discovered as boys that they were gay and were bullied by homophobic schoolmates, which pushed them to develop violent tempers and mouthy retorts as retaliation. Both apprenticed in the costume departments of London theaters, where they cultivated a taste and an eye for elaborate stage production. Both became regulars on the London nightclub scene and partook in its vices. And both attended Central Saint Martins, a then-little-known but respected art school in London, where they put on exceptional graduation shows.
Galliano and McQueen weren't simply driven and gifted. They wanted to revolutionize fashion in a way no one had in decades. With little money, volunteer helpers, and sheer will, they turned out landmark collections in mesmerizing, theatrical shows that retailers and critics still gush about and designers continue to reference.
Galliano led the way with his sensual bias-cut gowns and his voluptuous hourglass tailoring, which he presented in romantic storybook-like settings. "Everything John did was touched with artistry and meaning," explained Amanda Harlech, who served as his creative partner and muse for the first decade of his career. "He created whole worlds for every woman—no, for every girl, boy, woman, man to explore."
Galliano's zenith came in March 1994 with his São Schlumberger show—so named because it was staged in the Portuguese socialite's empty eighteenth-century Paris mansion. Out of business for the third time in ten years, Galliano landed at the last minute a deep-pocketed American banker to back him. Working day and night for two weeks, he and his team pulled together eighteen Japonism-inspired mini-kimonos and fluid gowns cut from the same bolt of cheap black satin and topped off with secondhand furs and Harry Winston diamonds on loan. Everyone—the world's top models, the hairdressers and makeup artists, the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, the milliner Stephen Jones—agreed to work for free, because, as Harlech said, "We all believed in John."
Since the space was small the guest list was limited, but those who did attend were agog at the beauty, glamour, and poetry of the clothes, worn so sensually by twenties-like sirens in such a resplendent setting. "What the hell!" howlsVanity Fair fashion and style director Michael Roberts twenty years on. "It was like being on a major drug trip. You were transported completely for twenty-five minutes." More important, with the Schlumberger collection, then–FrenchVogue editor Joan Juliet Buck explained that Galliano launched "a new way of looking, an affirmation of femininity that you could see in the cut."
At the same time, McQueen, though nearly ten years younger than Galliano, was also changing the way the world was dressing, but more profoundly. For his first official collection, in March 1993, at the tender age of twenty-three, McQueen did what few in fashion ever achieve: he invented a new silhouette. Called the Bumster, it was a pair of flat-front pants with a waistline slung so low it revealed the top of the pubis and derriere. "I wanted to elongate the body, not just show the bum," he explained. "To me, that part of the body—not so much the buttocks, but the bottom of the spine—that's the most erotic part of anyone's body, man or woman."
He presented the Bumster in various incarnations—flared, cropped, as part of a suit, or zippered to a bodice as a jumpsuit—in a series of disturbing shows, such as "The Birds," based on Alfred Hitchcock's spooky thriller, with models covered with greasy tire tracks, and "The Highland Rape," which was inspired by England's violent clearing of the Scottish highlands and featured models in torn garments, running down the catwalk as if escaping their oppressors.
Before long, every designer was dropping waistlines and eliminating front pleats, making flat-front hip-huggers the dominant pant silhouette for two decades now and running. Throughout his early shows, such as "Nihilism," which featured fierce models in faux blood-smeared microminidresses worn without underwear, revealing their naked pubes; "The Hunger," with prim dresses slashed violently across the torso; and "Dante," with gowns and suits printed with war photographer Don McCullin's brutal black and white images of combat, McQueen brought confrontation and raw sex into mainstream fashion and made it not only appealing and desirable but also acceptable. It took a while for the fashion writers to pick up on McQueen—his East End ruffian persona frightened them—but when they did, they understood the magnitude of his talent. As Guardian fashion writer Alix Sharkey declared: "Alexander McQueen is unquestionably the most gifted, influential and innovative fashion designer this country has produced since John Galliano."
McQueen and Galliano "were constantly in motion. Constantly creating something, destroying it, turning it around, changing all the time," says the fashion hairdresser Eugene Souleiman, who worked with both men over the years. "They were out there on their own, trailblazing. Their only competition was themselves, getting better and better."
And though their approach to fashion was wildly different—Galliano began as an illustrator, McQueen as a Savile Row tailor—their forthright designs seemed to complement each other, like yin and yang.
As McQueen once explained: "John's a hopeless romantic and I've become a hopeless realist.
"But you need both in the world."
• • •
WHEN GALLIANO AND MCQUEEN STARTED, in the mid-1980s and early 1990s respectively, "fashion wasn't a big industry as it is now," remembers Rifat Özbek, who back then was one of London fashion's shining stars. "We wanted to make beautiful things and have fun along the way. There wasn't the pressure to do handbags, shoes, perfumes. It was about the clothes—the shape, the feel, the colors."
In strode Bernard Arnault, the French tycoon who owned Christian Dior as well as LVMH, a group of more than fifty luxury companies including Louis Vuitton, Moët & Chandon, Guerlain, and Givenchy. Arnault was a former real estate developer from the north of France who had maneuvered his way into the luxury industry in the late 1980s with aggressive business strategies that earned him the press nicknames "the Terminator" and "the Wolf in Cashmere."
He had big plans for his group: following the business model created by the Wertheimer family when they hired Karl Lagerfeld in 1982 to modernize Chanel, Arnault wanted to "renovate" his musty old houses and turn them into multibillion-dollar global brands. But he needed dynamic, young designers to make that happen.
He dared to hire Galliano and McQueen to run two of his best-known maisons de couture, Givenchy and Christian Dior, while allowing both men to keep working for their namesake companies. It seemed like a smart move for all three at the time: Arnault got Galliano and McQueen's superior talent and magnetic personalities to liven up those near-dead brands, and Galliano and McQueen got Arnault's money and the best seamstresses in the business to execute their ideas.
With their appointments to Dior and Givenchy, Galliano and McQueen joined a new generation of fashion designers—which included Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton and Tom Ford at both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent—who made their international reputations by working for established companies rather than solely for themselves. With their street smarts, their wildly theatrical shows, and their hedonistic audacity, these guns-for-hire made fashion youthful, vibrant, and sexy again.
In return, their corporate benefactors swathed them with big-league perks such as chauffeur-driven sedans 24/7, Concorde or private jet travel, decent expense accounts, and fat paychecks. The designers became as famous as rock stars—complete with groupies and, at times, bodyguards—and the press regularly referred to them as "kings." Galliano so embraced the title he had himself photographed sitting on a throne, wearing a crown.
The ceaseless fashion cycle—which required a fresh crop of designs every four to six months—wasn't new: "I've made a rope to hang myself with," Yves Saint Laurent complained back in the 1970s. "I'd love to be able to do fashion when I want, but I'm a prisoner of my own commercial empire."
What was new was the corporatization and democratization of the industry, and the phenomenal expansion on every front. For more than a century, luxury fashion—the world of handcrafted leather goods and made-to-measure couture—had been made up of small businesses run by their founders or the founders' heirs. They were niche businesses catering to a niche clientele. A handful of companies eventually blossomed into international brands—in the 1950s, Dior was known as the General Motors of fashion—but they all remained privately held and were primarily run by executives who specialized in producing and selling clothes, leather goods, and perfume.
In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, many of these companies were acquired—in friendly buyouts or hostile takeovers—by tycoons and financiers such as Bernard Arnault and François Pinault who had little or no experience in fashion but knew how to make serious money in business. The tycoons listed the companies on the international exchanges, which made the businesses more fiscally responsible but also vulnerable to economic cycles and beholden to shareholders who expected continuous increases in profits and dividends.
To spur sales growth, the tycoons decided to target the burgeoning middle market, a sprawling consumer group newly flush from the 1990s economic boom. And to reach these new customers, the tycoons rolled out stores by the score. They hired executives from outside the industry—one Givenchy executive had previously worked for Whirlpool and Nike; a Gucci Group CEO was recruited from Unilever's frozen food and ice cream division—to come up with new marketing strategies. Focus groups and designing by committee replaced intuition and creative integrity. The designers-for-hire were tasked with generating ideas that could be spun off into affordable high-profit items such as perfumes and accessories and drumming up media hype with provocative catwalk shows and splashy red carpet events that would make the brands' names as recognizable and desirable as Nike, Apple, and Coca-Cola. In less than two decades, what had been an informal club of family-owned businesses had grown into a $200-billion-a-year global industry.
The tycoons relished their success and riches: they posed for covers of business magazines, bought grand homes and yachts, and built museums to show off their impressive private art collections. In 2006, Bernard Arnault landed on theForbes list of the world's richest individuals—at number seven, with a net worth of $21.5 billion—and has remained in the top twenty ever since. His employees, including his inner circle of lieutenants, took to referring to him asDieu, or God, as in: "What would God think?"
But from the designers' point of view, luxury fashion under its modern corporate leadership had become "dehumanized," said Nicolas Ghesquière, a French designer who in 2012, after fifteen years on the job, quit his post as creative director of the Pinault-owned brand Balenciaga. "There are people I've worked with who have never . . . actually grasped that [fashion] isn't yogurt or a piece of furniture," he said. "They're transforming it into something much more reproducible and flat."
The compromises the designers were forced to make in the name of commerciality were soul crushing. "You would see McQueen's show, and then you would walk into department stores and see his rack and think, 'What are these clothes? Where did they come from?' Because they had nothing to do with him," says a longtime McQueen supporter and former BritishVogue editor. "I could see why he was having a hard time reconciling it. The product they kept churning out didn't have anything to do with his work."
The go-go pace was unsustainable and the wreckage it caused astounding: Jacobs wound up in rehab, twice; Tom Ford was pushed out of Gucci—in part because board members felt he was running out of ideas—and suffered a bout of depression; French designer Christophe Decarnin reportedly abandoned his post at Balmain after being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown; Galliano's trusted assistant Steven Robinson died of a cocaine-induced heart attack at thirty-eight; Galliano became a severe alcoholic and prescription drug addict who inevitably imploded; and McQueen killed himself.
The designers were also all substantially oversubscribed, workwise. When Galliano first started back in the mid-1980s, he produced two collections annually. At the time of his termination in 2011, he was overseeing—at the Dior and John Galliano brands combined—an astounding thirty-two collections a year. And as he pointed out, "You're only as good as your last collection. . . . [It's] an enormous pressure."
"Fashion is fast forward, frenetic," Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley told me in the days after Galliano's implosion. "There are too many collections, too many seasons. How can designers keep up?"
• • •
ALL CREATIVE BUSINESSES—fashion, music, theater, art, cinema, literature, photography, and others—have at one time or another endured battles between art and commerce. But the conflict of these opposing forces escalated during the era of globalization, particularly in fashion, where the bottom line became more important than the hemline. Innovation gave way to marketing and technology; quality to quantity. As Bernard Arnault's son Antoine Arnault, CEO of LVMH menswear brand Berluti, told me quite frankly, there is no room for art in fashion today. "If designers wanted to be artists, they would paint or sculpt," he said. "But they design clothes or leather goods or products that are made to be sold in large quantity."
"Fashion doesn't want eccentrics anymore," says John McKitterick, the former designer of Red or Dead and one of McQueen's first employers. "It wants bland people. It wants art directors. It wants employees. The companies don't even want a designer really. Everyone is turning out the same old things. You can't tell now who is designing what. It's all the same."
• • •
FASHION PEOPLE LIKE TO TALK about having a "moment." It could be when an utterly delicious dress comes down a runway. It could be when a model in exactly the right outfit, hair, and makeup strikes a perfect pose. It could be when a designer reaches the ne plus ultra of his or her career. Usually it's brief, a flash.
In 1996, a reporter asked Galliano: "How would you define fashion?"
"For me," he responded, "it's a fleeting moment."
Looking back on the last thirty years of fashion, as I have for this book, I would say the business experienced a long, fabulous moment—a magical moment—that began with Galliano's St. Martins graduation show in 1984 and came to a definitive two-step close with McQueen's suicide in February 2010 and Galliano's dismissal one year later.
"With Galliano you got a sense of the flamboyant possibilities of fashion—beautifully absurd, he intoxicated us with excess. And there was always a fusion and a dissonance between the present and the past, as if you were witnessing fashion history through the immediacy of the moment," says Claire Wilcox, senior curator, department of furniture, textiles, and fashion for the Victoria and Albert Museum. "With McQueen, there was a sense of danger—you went to his shows and didn't know what to expect—and you felt you were witnessing the future."
So powerful was McQueen's impact not only on fashion but on society that when the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute mounted a retrospective of his work a year later, in a show titled "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty," it had more than 660,000 visitors in three months, ranking it the eighth most popular show in the history of the Met, and the Costume Institute's most successful fashion exhibition ever.
And the Institute—now known as the Anna Wintour Costume Center after the influentialVogue editor—chose to mount "Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film, and Fashion" as its summer blockbuster for 2015, with several of Galliano's Chinoiserie-style designs from throughout his career as well as a sidebar on the Peking opera, featuring his Christian Dior spring–summer 2003 haute couture collection, inspired by the celebrated performer Mei Lanfang.
Galliano and McQueen had longer staying power than most of their peers—their magical moment carried on—simply because they were two of the strongest and the most determined of fashion's many egoists.
During their twenty-year reign, they poured their creative souls into fashion, helping companies turn into not only megaconglomerates but also names that will stand for decades to come. In return they were sacrificed in the name of capitalism.
They were indeed kings, the sort history later hails as The Great.
But kings come and kings go.
And Gods remain.
Tangier is a city as ancient as the gods, the point where Europe and Africa meet, where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean kiss. It is a labyrinth of narrow streets "thronged with the phantoms of forgotten ages," Mark Twain wrote in 1869, and "a basin that holds you," Truman Capote observed, where "the days slide by less noticed than foam in a waterfall."
In the early 1960s, a young boy from Gibraltar named John Charles Galliano passed through Tangier by ferry with his Spanish mother, Anita, on his way to and from school in Spain—an exotic commute made necessary by a long-standing diplomatic feud between his father's homeland and his mother's. Galliano delighted in their stopovers in this strange, curious place. "The souks, the markets, woven fabrics, the carpets, the smells, the herbs, the Mediterranean color," he reflected years later. This, he mused, was "where my love of textiles comes from."
Galliano was born on November 28, 1960, the middle child of three; sister Rose Marie was five years older, and Maria Inmaculada, three years younger. His father, John Joseph, was a plumber who "came from a long line of rather serious and practical men, such as tailors and carpenters, all of whom traditionally began to earn a living from the age of fourteen," he said.
His mother, Ana Guillén Rueda—known as Anita—hailed from La Línea de la Concepción, the Spanish town across the border from Gibraltar. The Guillén family had long lived in the rural farming region next to the British territory. "They were renowned for their passion for flamenco and a temperament that was utterly fiery and wild," Galliano said. She grew up under Spanish dictator General Franco's totalitarian regime—a pro-nationalist and ultra-Catholic society where anti-Semitism flourished. After she married and moved to Gibraltar, she maintained close ties to her homeland, and made sure her young son was educated in the same culture as she had been.
The Galliano family resided at 13, Serfaty's Passage, a small lane named for the local Jewish population, where the Esnoga Grande, Gibraltar's principal synagogue, has been located since the early eighteenth century. Gibraltar has had an uneasy relationship with the Jewish community for centuries. Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, much of the Spanish Jewish diaspora—known as the Sephardim, after the Hebrew word for Spain—passed through Gibraltar on their way to settlements in North Africa. They were given the right to a permanent settlement in 1749 and the population flourished quietly until World War II, when all its residents were evacuated from the two-and-a-half-square-mile territory.
The Gallianos were devout Catholics who attended mass regularly. Galliano was baptized at the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned, the baroque seat of the Roman Catholic diocese of Gibraltar, before the same altar where his parents wed. He adored growing up in Gibraltar, mesmerized, he said, by the "bright alleyways, sunshine, blue skies and a main street bustling with sailors."
But John Joseph wanted more for his children: in 1967, he moved the family to South London, so six-year-old Galliano and his sisters could receive a better education. Galliano remembered thinking how brave his mother was "to depart with three young children to a completely foreign country where she did not speak a word of the language." They eventually settled in the middle-class neighborhood of Peckham, where they lived in a tan brick Victorian row house at 128, Underhill Road.
London was in the throes of the Swinging Sixties, when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other British Invasion bands were topping the pop music charts; fashion designer Mary Quant was liberating women with the miniskirt and hot pants; film directors Tony Richardson and Richard Lester were turning out cool, ironic comedies like The Knack . . . and How to Get It; and photographers David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Harry Benson were capturing it all forHarper's Bazaar, Vogue, and Life. "In a decade dominated by youth,"Time magazine pronounced in its landmark cover story on the city's cultural renaissance, "London has burst into bloom. It swings; it is the scene."
The Galliano family wanted no part of that London. Instead Anita, a striking redhead with an olive complexion and a good figure, did what she could to keep the scents, the colors, and the music of southern Spain alive in cold, gray, rainy England. She cooked traditional Mediterranean meals and encouraged her young son to sing—he had a lovely, pitch-perfect voice—and to dance the flamenco. "On tabletops," he later explained, because "it makes more noise."
"I knew pretty soon that I had inherited this whole Spanish pride thing from my mother—the way you look and the way you walk and dress," he admitted. "I never knew anyone with more outfits than her. She was the sort of woman who would dress herself and her children up to the nines and scrub us all with baby perfume until we sparkled just to go out down the road for a coffee. I can still remember all the heads turning as she walked by."
John Joseph—a fairly short and stocky, fair-skinned, balding man—ran his own plumbing business, and taught his son some of the basics, like how to use a blowtorch. "I would sometimes go out with him on jobs and I was struck by how he always had to have the most perfect finish and the cleanest joint, and how sad it was that all that craftsmanship would never be appreciated," Galliano said. His father's profession—which was very low on the English class scale—eventually became a sore spot for him: "People are always talking about how I am a plumber's son," he complained. "I am my father's son primarily. What he chose to do as a career was his choice and he did it very, very well." Galliano's mother worked as "dinner lady" in a local school cafeteria. He never made mention of it publicly.
Throughout the home there were souvenirs of their pre-London life, such as a Spanish fan and pictures of Gibraltar. Galliano spoke Spanish with his mother and English with his father. "Other boys' houses always seemed to smell of dogs and musty carpets," he said, "whereas ours smelt of garlic and clean laundry and fresh flowers."
As in Gibraltar, the Galliano family attended mass regularly. On some Sundays, Galliano would serve as an altar boy at the 9:30 service and play guitar for the Latin mass. He was particularly captivated by "all the pomp and ceremony, the clouds of incense, the Holy Communion outfits," he recalled—an infatuation that would later surface in his fashion shows. For his first communion, he said, "I arrived in this dazzling white suit, bedecked with rosary beads and gold chains and ribbons with all the saints on." The other boys were in their conservative school uniforms. "I knew I was different," he admitted, "and I ended up being photographed with all the girls. But it didn't bother me. I always liked being with the girls, and I also liked looking cool."
Galliano readily allows that his parents instilled a strong set of values, "like the need for discipline and honesty, the notion that things were only worth doing if you did them to the best of your ability, and the importance of a deep religious faith," he said.
Later in life, however, Galliano disclosed that underneath the appealing veneer, there lurked unspoken darkness and fear. His father "was pretty strict and I was always afraid of him," he said. "If I went a little bit too off—slap! It was Dad's upbringing and it was Victorian, and that's the way he was." One time, when he found his father's authority too suffocating, he said, "I flew into a rage [and] took the guitar I had been practicing on and smashed it down the stairs, just missing my father's head. Everyone looked utterly horrified, and . . . I can remember the sick feeling I had, until I could finally go to confession and get rid of all the badness that I felt."
• • •
GALLIANO WAS A GOOD STUDENT and passed the entrance exams for Wilson's Grammar School, a state-run boys' middle and high school. Back then, grammar schools were a cross between private school and public school: students wore uniforms and the education was a rigorous, advanced curriculum, but the tuition was state-funded. Students came from all backgrounds, particularly what one Wilson's alum described as "hardcore middle-class families who pushed their kids to do well on the exams." For the less privileged, such as Galliano, attending grammar school was a ticket to a better life.
He quickly discovered "what the whole place was going to be about," he said. "The first-year pupils were bullied by the sixth-formers; they would do it very slyly, like suddenly winding you with a blow to the stomach, which would leave you gasping, on the way to assembly, while the teachers would more or less turn a blind eye." Eventually, he made a small circle of friends and participated in creative school activities, such as theater.
Small and thin with a dark Mediterranean complexion, he had little in common with the other boys in such a heavily Protestant culture—a gypsy-looking imp in the midst of a clan of freckle-faced roughhousers. He wasn't much of an athlete—he only excelled at tennis, a sport he'd keep up in adulthood. He wasn't too masculine either, opting to sass up his conservative uniform with mod shoes and cut his hair in a stylish wedge. "John stood out and was camp," says a former schoolmate. "He definitely got picked on."
"I developed cunning because of it," Galliano later said. "I would work out what earlier trains to get and what carriages to ride in to not be beaten by the boys. Hiding the bruises, hiding the cuts, going home and not being able to talk about it, because if I did I would get another good beating." Instead of complaining he escaped, he said, "into my own world of daydreams."
He also fought back—with words. "Some of the boys, I think, found [Galliano] a bit of a challenge to their gender identity [and] they did make his life difficult," says David Jefferson, Wilson's school chaplain at the time. "He responded with spirit. I thought he was a brave boy, [though] not always particularly wise. . . . It may be that it is sort of his character that when he's provoked, he retaliates."
• • •
DURING THE MID-1970S, Britain was seized by social and economic upheaval: in 1975, inflation reached a record 26.9 percent; the following year, the world's once-greatest empire humbly accepted financial aid from the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment was on a steep rise, reaching 1.6 million in 1977.
Out of this upheaval emerged "punk": a pop-culture movement driven by the rejection of all things bourgeois and establishment. Contemporary historians believe that punk was born in the early 1970s downtown Manhattan music scene—in particular rockers Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, their band Television, and the New York Dolls, most of whom played at the rock club CBGB. But punk hit its stride in Britain, thanks to a relentless, press-savvy English entrepreneur named Malcolm McLaren, who, after a visit to New York, put together and managed a new band in London called the Sex Pistols. Their music was aggressive and, at the time, shocking; twenty minutes into their first concert—at St. Martins School of Art in Soho in November 1975—they were thrown off stage.
London punks were far more raw, primal, and combative than the New York breed. They came from all classes—a social revolution in itself—since everyone, from the East End council-housing kids to the private-school-educated posh set, suffered from the country's economic woes and general malaise. Their look was vulgar and violent: safety pins through cheeks; gothic eye makeup; bleached spiky hair; torn, disheveled clothing often with offensive statements blasted across the front. It was an utter rejection of all that was considered aesthetically beautiful or appealing, of all that was English reserve and gentility.
The epicenter for the movement was SEX, a shop that McLaren and his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood had on King's Road. There they sold Westwood-designed clothes that combined Third Reich style and symbolism with bondage, Dickensian poverty, Surrealism, Dadaism, and downtown New York rock and roll. There were T-shirts with outrageous slogans and rude images; trousers in shiny fabric with zippers on the sides or along the crotch seam; and shirts made of parachute fabric, with straps and rings. "They were powerful, those clothes," said Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, who regularly dressed in Westwood's designs. "You had to have balls to wear them. You'd get confronted in the street and you'd have to stand up for yourself."
At Wilson's Grammar School, this all played out gently. Since it was a school with uniforms, the boys couldn't really rebel in their manner of dress or appearance; they followed the movement by readingMelody Maker and New Musical Express, by listening to the music, by partying on weekends—for them it was more part-time recreation than a life philosophy. As immigrants, the Gallianos cautioned their children not to renounce their new culture and instead taught them to earn respect through hard work. For Galliano, that meant attaining good grades, helping his father on plumbing jobs, and working at a car wash.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister after five years of political and economic crises under leftist Labour Party rule. During her three terms in office, the Iron Lady introduced a series of reforms, such as deregulation of the financial business and privatization of state-owned companies, all of which she deemed necessary to modernize Britain and lift it out of its economic morass. Simultaneously, the policies opened doors for social mobility and created opportunities that encouraged entrepreneurialism.
Galliano, the son of a working-class immigrant, was coming of age in this era. In pre-Thatcher Britain, chances are he would have been stuck in his station for the rest of his life, unable to move up the social or economic ladder. Thatcherism and punk changed all that by boosting the economy and breaking down Britain's entrenched class barriers. Galliano wasn't a Thatcherite and he wasn't a punk. But he benefited from both movements: they provided a way out of Peckham, gave him a sense of possibility, and would allow him to fulfill his potential.
• • •
AT SIXTEEN, Galliano left Wilson's, having passed several of his O-level—or Ordinary Level—exams, the British standardized tests for the basic level of the General Certificate of Education. He thought of studying foreign languages—he was quite gifted in language, so much so that his mother hoped he "would become a great interpreter in a courtroom somewhere," he said. But a quiet passion for art tugged at him, so he enrolled in the design and textile program at City and East London College in Whitechapel. He still lived at home on Underhill Road and he kept up his church and family commitments, including going to confession regularly until he was eighteen. He stopped, he said, because "whatever I had to confess, I need to confess only to myself."
For pocket money, he took on a part-time job as the "Saturday Boy"—or Saturday sales assistant—for the Howie's concession at Topshop on Oxford Circus. Galliano enjoyed the retail side of fashion, though since it was a Saturday morning job, there were times when his supervisor Heather Lambert had to "tell him off for being late because he had been out clubbing the night before," she recalls now. Once he did arrive, fashion PR maven and Howie's co-owner Lynne Franks reports that "he was incredibly professional and worked very, very hard."
At the end of his second year at the college, his teachers advised him to apply to St. Martins School of Art for its year-long foundation course—a survey of the school's various offerings—so he could, as he put it, "sort out in my mind what I would specialize in."
St. Martins was founded in 1854 by the parochial authorities of the St Martin-in-the-Fields church to add art education to the church school curriculum. In the 1980s, the British government "was giving education grants more freely than today," remembers Hamish Bowles, a British-born American Vogue editor who also attended St. Martins then. That allowed for more of a melting pot of students from all social classes. But St. Martins was also quite a competitive school that was reputed for educating rising stars such as restaurateur Michael Chow, designers Paul Smith and Rifat Özbek, the writer A. A. Gill, and Pierce Brosnan, who studied commercial illustration before going into acting. For Galliano to have been accepted to the school was a real achievement.
At last, he had found his sort of people, and he reveled in it. "You could move across the disciplines and keep abreast of what was happening in, say, the film or sculpture department," he said. "Fashion wasn't put into a ghetto. Some of my closest friends were graphic artists. . . . I found it inspiring popping in to see my mates painting or sculpting or whatever. It was a real traditional art school where we could all intermix with style."
As at his previous schools, Galliano was shy and a loner. St. Martins teacher Sheridan Barnett remembers him as "a quiet little mouse, off on his own working quietly, always in the library looking at books." He dressed inconspicuously in jeans, T-shirts, and Doc Martens boots or in vintage 1950s suits, crisp white shirts, and often a tie, and he still wore his thick hair in a gelled wedge—"with a quiff in the front, like Elvis," remembers his classmate John Cahill.
Trailblazing fashion professor Bobby Hillson says that she and her colleagues quickly realized that Galliano was "terribly talented" and he "worked incredibly hard." At first, Galliano studied graphics, filmmaking, fine art, and fashion illustration, and, he said, "I found I really enjoyed drawing." In his third year, he decided to specialize in design, and later confessed, "even then I had my head set on being an illustrator." His drawings were very detailed and precise, often in pen and ink and watercolor, and rather elegant in their style. "Phenomenal," remembers his schoolmate and friend Sara Livermore. "You'd put them on the walls."
One of the design teachers, Hanna Weil—pronounced "vile," which students used to crack was appropriate—gave her class an elaborate fashion project to do in a short time. Just before they were to present their projects, Weil said, "I want to show the portfolio of one of the students to give you the idea of the standard I expect." She opened the dossier and, Hamish Bowles remembers, "it was page after page of the most exquisite drawings you have ever seen. The imagination was so fecund, the concepts were so thoughtfully realized and executed. The penmanship was just exquisite. We were all quaking in our boots." It was Galliano's portfolio. "He was clearly the star," Bowles says, "and rightly so."
• • •
FOR ST. MARTINS STUDENTS, the most important activity outside of class—and maybe the most important activity of all—was nightclubbing. Students would spend all week designing and pulling together their outfits for club nights.
In early 1980s London, there were several different youth fashion movements happening at the same time: the New Wave, a less scary and political descendent of punk; Buffalo, created and shaped by influential stylist Ray Petri, where kids of mixed race or ethnicities wore classic 1950s looks like leather bomber jackets, pressed dungarees, white T-shirts, tailored overcoats, and porkpie hats with what Petri described as "a hard attitude"; and the New Romantics, a group of young outsiders—often homosexual—who rebelled against society through resplendent costumes, outrageous posing, and excessive partying. All the groups intermixed strikingly at the city's popular dance clubs. "Only the coolest got into the clubs, and your rite of passage was the way you dressed," remembers Mitzi Lorenz, who was a club kid and indie magazine stylist at the time.
The New Romantics' favorite stop was Blitz, a once-a-week nightclub in a wine bar in Covent Garden run by a young impresario named Steve Strange and his friend the deejay Rusty Egan. "It was red-and-white gingham tablecloths and all dark wood—like Joe Allen in New York and Paris, a real saloon," remembers Fiona Dealey, a St. Martins student who became a successful designer. An eccentric kid from the Warren Street squat named George O'Dowd—known at the club as Boy George—worked in the cloakroom. Strange was at the door, judging who was worthy enough to enter—the more outrageous the outfit the better. "You'd have Clark Gable coming through the door, and Marilyn Monroe," says Steve Dagger, a London School of Economics student who went on to manage the pop group Spandau Ballet.
The club regulars became known as Blitz Kids and their style influence was far reaching. The fast fashion retailer Topshop sold knockoffs of the look. Princess Di, Cyndi Lauper, and Madonna in her initial Boy Toy phase were New Romantics. So was "everyone in John Hughes's movies," such as Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club, Dagger says. "The Blitz spirit totally entered the culture."
Blitz gave birth to a flurry of other clubs. There was the Cha-Cha club, which was in the back room of another, bigger club called Heaven. "There was a woman named Scarlett Cannon who sat at the door," Bowles recalls. "She had a hatchet face, like a character from Otto Dix—this very narrow face, with peroxide hair that at one point was cut into the shape of the New York skyline. She had marvelous style and was absolutely terrifying, a young Gorgon. She was infamous for having a hand mirror and she would hold up the mirror to someone she deemed inappropriately dressed for admission and say, 'Would you let yourself into this club?' She was all powerful."
And there was Taboo, a private night on Thursdays at a club called Maximus in Leicester Square cofounded by the Australian-born performance artist Leigh Bowery. If Blitz launched the New Romantic poseur movement, Taboo made it de rigueur. "It was important to have your way-out look," explains Boy George, who by then had developed his own eccentric style of dress, with layers of oversized tunics, Cleopatra eye makeup, bits of rags and ribbons in his hair, and big, exotic hats.
Galliano told me that back in the eighties he was a "club demon" and his favorite was Taboo. He'd hang out there with all the regulars, such as the filmmaker John Maybury, the singer Billy Idol, the aspiring actor Tim Roth, the milliner Stephen Jones, and Boy George, who remembered him as "quite introverted" until he'd "have a drink and become Shirley Bassey." Taboo "was the place to be," Galliano later said. "It became harder and harder to get in, and the harder it was the more people would try, and that made it even more exclusive." He described Taboo as "quite notorious," adding, "there was a lot of drug use."
Cocaine, poppers, pills, and heroin were all part of the scene. Fiona Dealey, who worked the door at Le Beat Route, a club on Friday nights on Greek Street in Soho, remembers that many of the clubbers "were speed freaks, coming in pie-eyed. Then they went to heroin, because it was cheaper than speed and drink—a gram for forty to fifty pounds." Most kids who did heroin back then smoked it—a practice called "chasing the dragon"—which had the same nauseous effect as shooting it intravenously. "There were a lot of drugs and chemicals," Boy George confirms. "It was very frenzied and people partied hard. It was a real time of excess."
Galliano concurred: "Any kid in the eighties used drugs," he said. "I am glad I did. And I am glad that, somehow, I got through it. It helped me evolve."
• • •
THE ONLY THING MISSING in Galliano's life was love. Then he met John Flett.
Three years Galliano's junior, Flett grew up in Crawley, Sussex, not far from Brighton. Of Jewish descent, he was five-foot-ten, slim and striking with an aquiline nose. His father, Bill Owen, was a civil engineer and a compulsive gambler from South London; his mother, June Owen, worked at a local Boots pharmacy. When John was seven, his father was killed in a car crash that some family members have long thought was suspicious and perhaps related to the gambling. At eleven, he was diagnosed with epilepsy. About that time, his mother married for a third time to a kind man named Allan Flett, who was a cashier at a garage; he officially adopted the boy. Despite the more stable household, teenage John Flett had run-ins with the police, and was once arrested for soliciting. He briefly ran away from home to London.
Thankfully, he had a keen interest in fashion, which would eventually take him away from Crawley and give him purpose. When he and his childhood friend John Puddephatt were teens, they worked at a taxi stand in Gatwick airport and to while away the day Flett would study the women who walked by and identify the brands they were wearing. Both young men later attended West Sussex College of Art and Design in nearby Worthing—Flett with a full grant. Afterward, they went to St. Martins. Puddephatt was in Galliano's class; Flett was a year behind them.
What most remember about Flett back then was his innate talent, his prickly nature, and his profound arrogance. "He was very preternaturally self-assured, and had a lot of charisma," says Bowles, who eventually became one of Flett's best friends. "He was one of those people who could take a pair of shears, cut into a piece of fabric and create something without a pattern." Another classmate, Deborah Bulleid, says: "John Flett was very self-possessed—rather scarily so—and always falling out with people."
Soon, Galliano was spending much of his free time at Flett's—a second-floor apartment in a mid-nineteenth-century house on Cromwell Road that he shared with fellow St. Martins student Sara Livermore, a fun blonde from Essex. It was a grungy student flat, furnished with street and junk shop finds, and it was located around the corner from Earl's Court, which was then the center of London's gay community, with leather bars and clubs. This, remembers one friend, suited Flett's "naughtiness."
Flett was wildly funny—"He could make you cry with laughter," Livermore says—and he had great style. "He was the first person I saw wearing a tailored Armani jacket with slashed jeans, classic brogues, a cravat, and a cigarette—always a cigarette," she recalls.
Galliano, on the other hand, "was a romantic, a historian, a charming gentleman who had a great love for his mum and dad—his mum still called him 'Juan Carlos,'" she says. "He was shy and grounded and kind, and he had to find an alter ego. John Flett had a spirit, and he pulled Galliano's spirit out, too." Puddephatt agrees: "Flett was Galliano's driving force. He really pushed Galliano out of his timid self, and pushed his creativity."
• • •
TO MAKE SOME EXTRA MONEY, Galliano got a part-time job as a dresser at the National Theatre. He was assigned to Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Zoë Wanamaker when they appeared in such National Theatre productions asThe Importance of Being Earnest and Inner Voices. "I would be in the right place at the right time even if it meant lying under a fucking stage for two hours until the actor made his entrance," he said. The actors "taught me very much about bodies and clothes. And how they commanded their space," he explained. "It helped shape my view of drama, of clothing, of costume—the way people dress."
Fellow dresser Ralph Mills was so charmed by Galliano's enthusiasm that he took Galliano on a tour of the costume atelier. Galliano bombarded the designers with questions about the process of making costumes, the material they used, how they distressed the fabrics to make them look old. "He never missed a trick," Mills says. "Always scribbling and sketching in a notebook, with a fag in his mouth." He loved going out in the front of the house "to see how it looked on the stage, with the lights, to see how it was all put together—the theatrical side of it," Mills remembers. "You could see his hunger and love for theater."
In addition to his duties at the National Theatre, Galliano learned tailoring as an intern for Tommy Nutter on Savile Row, a house known for dressing Mick Jagger and Elton John.
When not at school or work, Galliano immersed himself in fashion history books at libraries and pored through the fashion archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum. During his research he discovered a post–French Revolution royalist movement called les Incroyables, which, like the New Romantics centuries later, used frilly clothing to flaunt social and political disregard. The men sported wide pantaloons, giant neckties, oversized earrings, and monocles; and they wore their hair long, to their shoulders or pulled back with a comb. The women, known as les Merveilleuses—or the Marvelous Women—dressed in gowns and tunics inspired by the Greeks and Romans, often made of transparent linen or gauze, which shocked Paris high society.
Les Incroyables informed Galliano's lifestyle as well as his studies. "I was looking like this down-and-out French tramp," he said. "Living it, breathing it. Drawing by candlelight. Producing parchment paper soaked with bits of bread that are then stained with tea. Drawing with a calligraphy pen and sepia ink in this very kind of curious light. I could just imagine these fantastic creatures marching, running across the wet shiny cobblestones of Paris." Galliano's professor told him he should use all of this for his graduation collection. "My tutor Sheridan Barnett and I had decided there should be a return to something gentler after [Giorgio] Armani's mannish styling of the time," he said.
• • •
IN PARIS, there was a startling new movement from Japan: a group of avant-garde designers including Yohji Yamamoto, Kansai Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, who were blowing apart French bourgeois conventions by showing deconstructed clothes—a first in fashion—in outsized shapes, mostly in black. Hems and seams were unfinished and left to fray; sleeves didn't always match in size or length; shoulders were padded amply and sometimes unevenly; jackets buttoned asymmetrically.
St. Martins assigned its fashion students to go to Paris for the official ready-to-wear shows in the tents at the Cour Carrée of the Louvre, the central courtyard of the museum, and then report back what they saw. And though the students didn't have invitations, they'd manage to sneak in. "We'd go in the back way, backstage where the models were," Livermore says. "We looked fabulous—dressed in an Edwardian twenties feel that we were cutting at school—and we'd walk right in."
They saw collections by Chloé, which Livermore remembers as "a bit cheesy," Jean Paul Gaultier, "which was awesome," and Yohji Yamamoto, which she describes as "seminal. It was harnesses and bare feet and white faces—strong and new. There wasn't anything chichi about it. The clothes were exquisitely cut and challenged balance. It changed our view completely."
Inspiration also came from the new crop of hip British youth culture magazines, such asBlitz, The Face, and i-D, which spotlighted unknown talent in fashion, photography, music, and art, and used models of mixed race—another first in fashion—who were tough looking and unconventionally beautiful and usually photographed in the street.
The most important influence for British fashion students back then, however, was Vivienne Westwood, who had become a full-fledged designer. Mainstream fashion's leaders were Ralph Lauren, who was reinterpreting preppy chic, and Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani, who were modern minimalists known for their gray-beige palette and feminist power dressing to compete in a man's world. Westwood was anti all of that. She took historical clothes and copied them in cheerful colors such as marigold, vermilion, tangerine, and cornflower blue. The trousers were low-slung, loose-fitting hip-huggers—the opposite of the popular high-waist, form-fitting pants. "I wanted that rakish look of clothes which didn't fit," she explained.
Her shows were just as radical; she staged one called "Pirates," during London Fashion Week fall–winter 1981–82, with models dressed as marauders wearing Walkmen and bopping down the runway through clouds of dry ice as cannons fired in the background. It was a fashion happening like no one had seen before.
In March 1984, Galliano and Flett caught Westwood's fall–winter 1984–85 Clint Eastwood show, which spoofed Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. The clothes were a mixed bag of ideas including Day-Glo trenches, a revival of her 1970s punk bondage pants, nylon jackets, and Velcro-closure belts—a long way from the avant-garde intellectualism of Yamamoto and Kawakubo, and even farther away from the bourgeois ladylike clothes that Yves Saint Laurent and Hubert de Givenchy were showing in Paris that week. Canada-born shoe designer Patrick Cox made platform shoes for the collection. Galliano liked them, and Cox, and made a mental note.
• • •
GALLIANO BEGAN TO WORK on his graduation collection, designing eighteenth-century-style clothes—frock coats, waistcoats, romantic blouses, pantaloons—that were exaggerated, tattered, and droopy. "I knew I had to put together an extremely wicked show for my last year at St. Martins," he said, "but because I knew it was so wicked, whenever any of the tutors came round—apart from Sheridan Barnett, who was my only ally—I hid all of my designs under the table. I was doing coats that could be worn inside out or upside down, and although I was quite aware of how you tailored correctly, I wanted all my buttons to look like they were hanging off. But how do you explain that to the sewing teacher? I was sure that what I was doing was strong and right, but at the same time I did not want anyone coming up to stop me or to say: 'Well, that is just a load of old rags, John.'"
Those who did see what Galliano was doing were amazed by what he was up to. "Every detail was phenomenal—the illustrations were all burned on the edges so they looked like old scrolls," Livermore says. "I remember him tea-staining shirts in our bath. We never got the tea stain out afterward."
Eventually, Galliano enlisted a handful of fellow students to help him. Deborah Bulleid sewed on mother-of-pearl buttons. Another student named John McKitterick assisted making jersey tubular skirts. "They had three tubes, and we were wrapping them up around our body," McKitterick says. Flett helped Galliano figure out designs and cut and sew the clothes, which, Livermore says, was an "advantage for Galliano, because Flett cut so beautifully." Galliano's teacher Bobby Hillson says she was impressed by how Galliano "had this talent of getting people to do things for him. He had the capacity to inspire people."
While Galliano was excited about the work he was creating, once he completed his studies, he said, "I had my heart set on being an illustrator." In fact, he had already found an illustration job in New York to begin after he graduated. Not everyone thought this was a good idea. Lydia Kemeny, then the head of St. Martins fashion department, and Sheridan Barnett "advised [me] to change my mind, or at least think seriously about what I wanted to do," he said. "His work was so modern and so wonderful and there was nothing else like it. It was a one-off—really genius," Barnett told me. "And you have to support genius."
The degree shows were scheduled for the end of the school term—July 1984—at Jubilee Hall in Covent Garden. Each graduating fashion student staged a short catwalk presentation of a half dozen or so looks, one after the other, three times during the day, in order of preference by the teachers, the best coming last. The fashion staff chose Galliano for the finale.
For the runway models, Galliano enlisted several club kids and fellow students including Paul Frecker, Camilla Nickerson, Lorraine Piggott, and Lizzie Tear, who was dating club deejay Jeremy Healy. A girl named China did their makeup—white faces, somewhat Kabuki-like, as if an homage to the Japanese designers in Paris. Galliano told the models: "Be fierce!" St. Martins students and London club kids had heard about Galliano's collection and turned out en masse. When St. Martins Bobby Hillson arrived for the show with top London retailer Joan Burstein of Browns and Burstein's women's wear fashion director Robert Forrest, they couldn't find a seat; eventually Hillson asked a couple of students in the front row to move for Burstein. The atmosphere was "so exciting," Burstein says. The crowd watched about two dozen student collections, one after another, to whistles and cheers. "Some were pretty bad," she recalls. "Then, all of a sudden, these wonderful pieces came out."
It was Galliano's collection. There were billowing eighteenth-century blouses with frilly neckerchiefs and jodhpurs with knee-high black riding boots; oversized trenches in pale gray and ivory with shoulders down by the elbows; huge kimono-like coats over soft, ample pajamas; deconstructed black frock coats with waistcoats and fitted white shirts with high collars tied up in a poofy bow.
You could see Galliano's love for all things old and historic. But there were also splashes of Boy George and Culture Club—their studied disheveled look—and what the Japanese were doing in Paris: the large proportions, the deconstruction. Galliano finished off the ensembles with kitschy accessories like silk sashes, red-white-and-blue ribbon medallions, watch chains, and do wraps; some students marched down the catwalk waving sabers in the air. The models vamped it up in a way that was unusual for shows back then—not only playing to the audience but also portraying the role of snooty, rebellious French aristocrats. At first, "there was a quietness," Barnett says. "And then suddenly everyone was screaming and clapping—like a delayed reaction." It was, as fashion folk like to say, a moment.
"The clothes were overblown—just fabulous—and everything was wearable," Burstein remembers. "You just wanted them."
"It was totally different, it was on another planet," Barnett concurs. "It really was."
Directly after the show, several important fashion players went backstage to meet Galliano.
"We'll have it all," Burstein told him. "I would like to give you a window at Browns because I think it's just stunning, just stunning."
It appeared that Galliano's plans of moving to New York following graduation to work as an illustrator would be put on hold.
The day after his triumphant debut, Galliano took his collection to Browns. He was too broke to pay for a taxi, so he loaded everything onto a rolling clothes rack and pushed it across town, from St. Martins in Soho to South Molton Street in Mayfair. "Wheeled it through Oxford Street," he recalled. "[Joan's husband and Browns co-owner] Sidney Burstein liked that, I think."
Scoring Browns was a coup for Galliano. Founded by Joan and Sidney Burstein in 1970, it was known as the "Buckingham Palace of fashion." The Bursteins were the first in Britain to carry major foreign brands such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, and Donna Karan, and were longtime champions of new talent. The singer Diana Ross saw a Galliano coat in the window and went straight in and bought it. "John's collection was so different. Just marvelous," Joan Burstein says. It sold out "just like that."
Unfortunately, once his graduation collection was sold, that was it: no more Galliano. "He couldn't repeat," Burstein says. "There was no backup." Galliano realized he had started something important and he had to follow up fast, so he got to work, sewing clothes in his parents' home. He relied on friends, such as Flett and Bowles, to help sew buttons on jackets and do whatever else was needed. And whenever there were finished pieces, Browns sold them. "Looking back, it was so amateur," he said. "But, God, it was fun."
• • •
SHORTLY AFTER HIS SHOW, a junior fashion editor at Harpers & Queen magazine named Amanda Grieve was looking for a baroque collection to photograph with a then-unknown Peruvian fashion photographer named Mario Testino. A friend who worked for Lynne Franks PR suggested Galliano. Grieve rang him up and invited him to tea at the house where she had a room.
He arrived with his portfolio of designs under his arm. "What was meant to be tea ended at two in the morning," she recalled. The next day, she had a freelance project to do: designing the cover for Malcolm McLaren's new album,Fans. "And suddenly I realized I couldn't do it without [John]," she said. "So he took over and made this fantastic fan out of torn-up pieces of Japanese newspaper. He went to Soho and got the actual thing, then scribbled in gold and blood red ink." She was enchanted.
Grieve, a regal, slim brunette with ethereal green eyes, had a privileged London upbringing—the utter opposite of Galliano's. She grew up on Regent's Park, the oldest of three children of Alan Grieve, a successful solicitor, and his stylish wife, Anne. As a child, she loved dressing up—she once cut up one of her mother's couture gowns to make a witch costume (her mother approved)—and often played dolls with her neighbor Jasper Conran, the son of interior designer Terence Conran. She read English at Oxford and planned to pursue a doctorate. Her proposed thesis: Henry James and moral bankruptcy.
Instead, she fell in love with a dashing aristocrat: Francis Ormsby-Gore, son of David Ormsby-Gore, fifth Baron Harlech (pronounced "Har-leck"), who was a former member of Parliament and had served as British ambassador to the United States during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Grieve divided her time between Ormsby-Gore's farm in Shropshire in the Midlands, his family seat in Wales, and London, where she swirled in the fashion scene.Harpers & Queen hired her as an editorial assistant, and she was soon promoted to junior editor.
Four years on she met Galliano. In him, she found a kindred spirit: someone who was as idealistic, perfectionist, romantic, and daydreaming as she was. He relished everything about her: she was well born, well bred, well educated—a true Lady—and her beauty captivated him. She was enchanted by his boundless creativity, relentless drive, and wild imagination. They fell hopelessly for each other in a platonic relationship that was full of true love. "My feelings were: 'I don't want to let him go, I can't possibly exist without him,'" she said, "because he electrified everything that I had felt."
• • •
ONE AFTERNOON THAT SUMMER, a handsome, twenty-four-year-old Ghanian-Dane named Johann Brun, who ran a clothing boutique in Copenhagen, was shopping on South Molton Street with his sister Brigitte when she spotted a Galliano coat in the window. They went in so she could try it on, and there was Galliano, meeting with customers. They were so impressed with the collection that Brun asked Galliano if he could place an order for his shop. Galliano graciously declined, explaining that he barely produced enough to keep Browns stocked. When they left the shop, Brigitte told her brother, "You should go into business with him."
A few weeks later, Brun met with Galliano at a pub near the Baker Street tube station to discuss what they could do together. "We were clearly on the same wavelength," Galliano later said. Brun proposed to bankroll Galliano—it would be a modest operation, with local production. Galliano was thrilled and immediately accepted. "That was our start," Brun says. "We didn't have a contract. We shook hands and we were in business." The company was officially called John Galliano/Brun Ltd. but the label would readJohn Galliano. They set up shop in an old warehouse on Earl Street in East London: a two thousand square foot, first-floor studio that they shared with fashion photographer Tom Mannion.
Galliano's first goal was to get a collection together—spring–summer 1985—to present during the upcoming London Fashion Week in October. He called Brun in Copenhagen and said that he needed 3,000 pounds—$3,900 at the time—to produce clothes and put on a presentation at the fashion week trade show staged at Olympia, London's imposing Victorian exhibition hall. Brun agreed, and wired the money to Galliano's bank account. As for his degree show, Galliano had a theme and title for the collection: "Afghanistan Repudiates Western Ideals." His inspiration was a 1920s cartoon from Punch magazine that he found of an Afghan in traditional dress poised to stomp on a British bowler hat. It was a commentary on the Afghan king Amanullah Khan, who ruled from 1919 to 1929 and, after visiting London, encouraged his subjects to dress Western-style as part of his social modernization movement. Conservative opposition to his reforms eventually led to his abdication.
Galliano then called Grieve.
"Would you, could you, will you please style my first show?"
"Yes!" she cried.
Grieve quit her job at Harpers & Queen, which allowed St. Martins student Hamish Bowles—who was an intern—to take it over. Grieve didn't have a specific job per se, nor much of a salary; she simply wanted to be there, next to Galliano, helping him. They'd talk every day and see each other when they could.
With his new assistant, Michael Collins, who had worked for Westwood, Galliano scrambled to make the clothes in time—hand-dyeing and bleaching fabrics in the studio bathroom, cutting everything himself, and fitting the clothes on his body. "I'm a perfect size ten," he'd boast—size ten then being the standard British size for women's fashion. He hired a woman part time to break old eyeglasses in half and tape them back together—the idea being that they were a symbol of people's resistance to change. It was, he admitted, "all very ad hoc."
Galliano worked through the night leading up to the presentation. The next morning he, Grieve, and Brun arrived at Olympia to stage the twenty-piece collection on mannequins at their stand, which was next to the fire exit. There were gauzy Eastern-like robes in saffron, curry, and a deep red moiré and georgette mixed with classic pinstripe tailoring, in an East-meets-West silhouette. "I like the idea of the tension and romance of wearing two different cultures," he explained. Grieve accessorized—or "styled"—the outfits with the taped eyeglasses and belts strung with pots and pans and wooden spoons.
"My clothes are a reaction against all the hard Milanese androgyny we've seen in the last year, against simple shapes by Armani and other designers," Galliano toldThe New York Times. "[They are also] a reaction against the way we were taught in school: that colors have to be put together a certain way. That you cut fabric a certain way. That you can't do this or that. I want to mix things up, fabrics, masculine and feminine. It's been drummed into us that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. It's usually the wrong things that are more fun."
Excited by what they had heard about Galliano all summer, editors and retailers descended on Galliano's stand in a flurry. "[New York retailer] Susanne Bartsch had said to me, 'Have you heard of John Galliano? He just did the greatest collection at St. Martins,'" Bloomingdale's then–associate fashion director Roberta Wagner recalls. "So I sought him out." Wagner was overwhelmed by what she saw on the mannequins. "Sweaters in the most amazingly sophisticated colors. Like a sandy brown with a mauve-y lavender. And the construction of the garments was absolutely impeccable."
Despite Galliano's unkempt appearance—he obviously hadn't slept or bathed in days, his fingernails were grimy from dye, and, one visitor remembers, "He smelled. It was horrible. You could smell it throughout Olympia"—retailers were furiously negotiating with him to carry his clothes. "I can't articulate the frenzy surrounding him at the Olympia," one retailer recalls. "Everybody was in a lather, offering him things that were just incredible to have the collection at their store." Among those who placed orders were Browns; Bazaar, which was also on South Molton Street; Alan Bilzerian in Boston and Chicago; Susanne Bartsch; and Bloomingdale's, which ordered pieces for the New York flagship.
Respected British fashion writer Colin McDowell reflected on what Galliano was trying to achieve, later writing that the collection not only triggered "fundamental re-thinking of the nature of dress" but also contained "layers of social and sartorial subversion." He applauded Galliano for creating something of such "remarkable originality and maturity of vision" a mere four months out of school.
• • •
FOLLOWING THE PRESENTATION, Galliano told Brun, "We need a PR"—a public relations person who would organize interviews and send clothes out to fashion shoots. Brun scratched his head. "I had never heard of a PR to tell you the truth," he says now. "I thought you just got press because you were good. John said, 'No, no. We have to organize this.'"
They hired Jean Bennett, a public relations leader in London fashion, and with her help, Galliano's clothes appeared in several fashion magazines, including BritishVogue. Retail prices were about 100 pounds ($130) for a pair of trousers, 400 pounds ($520) for an unlined cotton coat, which Brun points out "was a huge amount of money" at the time. Nevertheless, they sold surprisingly well. The sales turnover was about 45,000 pounds ($66,150) and the company made a profit—almost unheard of for a first season in fashion.
Galliano wanted more than good sales. He wanted prestige. He was pleased to sell to Bloomingdale's, which was one of the world's most influential stores at the time. But it wasn't enough. Despite his quiet, shy demeanor, Galliano was an extremely ambitious young man, and he was willing to take risks to achieve his goals. His most immediate was to sell his clothes at the esteemed New York retailer Bergdorf Goodman, even if that meant alienating Bloomingdale's.
Bergdorf's was in the midst of a dazzling renaissance. Founded in 1901, and located in its stately edifice on the corner of Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue since 1928, it had for most of its history been synonymous with upscale luxury shopping. But in the mid-1970s, Bergdorf's had fallen behind the times. In response, the store's new head, Ira Neimark, and new fashion director, Dawn Mello, launched a $15 million renovation that included putting down plush carpeting, installing escalators, adding a new entrance on Fifth Avenue and bringing in sophisticated fashion. Neimark and Mello targeted unknown, rising companies in Italy, Paris, and London, such as Fendi and Jean Paul Gaultier—brands that wanted a retail outlet in New York but were too new or small to be picked up by major department stores. Bergdorf's made this its mission. "It took years to develop and get going," Mello says. But once it did, Bergdorf's became a real competitor with Bloomingdale's.
"Behind the scenes on a retail level, there was a heated battle going on between Bergdorf's and Bloomingdale's," explains Andrew Basile, who worked as fashion director for both during his retail career. "Bloomingdale's was known for being trendy and discovering new talent, but Bergdorf's had discovered its voice and pulled itself out of the gray-haired ladies demographic and become more on trend. They were willing to throw big money [to create in-store] shops and corners and spaces, and they had a great location."
Galliano became so obsessed with selling to Bergdorf's that he didn't deliver that first season's order to Bloomingdale's. He lost Bloomingdale's but the gamble paid off: he got Bergdorf's.
• • •
TO KEEP UP WITH the increased workload, Galliano brought on several more assistants, including Deborah Bulleid, an intern from St. Martins who was a friend of Flett's; Gail Downey, a former model who specialized in knitwear; Bill Gaytten, a Manchester-born pattern cutter who had studied architecture before moving into fashion; and Paul Frecker, another St. Martins pal who knew Flett from Brighton.
Most important, Galliano found a muse: Sibylle de Saint Phalle, a Paris-raised French aristocrat and London It Girl who was the niece of French pop art sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle. Sibylle grew up in the posh sixteenth arrondissement, attended all the right schools, and as a teen became a regular at the famed Le Palace nightclub—Paris's version of Studio 54. Once she finished her studies, she ran off to London, where she modeled, worked for the milliner Stephen Jones, and went to nightclubs a lot. Galliano met her at one and he fell for her on the spot. She was fair and petite with a moon face, rosebud lips, and the long white blond hair of a fairy princess. If Grieve was Galliano's creative soul mate, Saint Phalle embodied all that he and Grieve dreamed up together.
Saint Phalle's role at the Galliano studio was a bit blurry. As one assistant explained, "She'd come around and exist"—often in a post-nightclub haze. She could be "slightly patronizing," the assistant says, but it was easy to understand why Galliano adored her: "She was like a cute little doll you could dress up. And John did."
Though there were more hands to help, Galliano's company was still a fledgling operation. "One gas burner. Bacon sandwiches," Gaytten recalls. "It was all on a shoestring." The team was paid a pittance, or nothing. Everyone was young, fun, idealistic, optimistic, and did whatever it took to make it work—from tea-staining fabric to packing up orders. "This was pre-computers and I had a friend who worked in an office nearby who typed up the invoices for us, and then we'd photocopy them and pack the boxes and send them to Bergdorf's," Bulleid remembers. "We'd have to fill in the customs declarations—stuff we didn't learn at St. Martins—while the shipping guy waited downstairs."
Brun, whom Galliano affectionately referred to as "Yo-Yo," short for Johann (pronounced "Yo-hahn"), was hands-off as a backer; he traveled from Copenhagen to London once every four to six weeks to see what was going on. Otherwise, he received updates from Galliano by phone. The relationship worked for Galliano: he had financial stability with Brun's backing, yet he also had the freedom to run the company as he wished.
• • •
JAZZED BY HIS IMMEDIATE SUCCESS, Galliano decided to go bigger and bolder: For the fall–winter 1985–86 collection, he wanted to put on a full-fledged fashion show during London Fashion Week in mid-March 1985. Like his two previous collections, it had a title: "The Ludic Game," an allusion to the public games of ancient Rome, which were known as ludi. The show's narrative was based on Angela Carter's 1984 book,Nights at the Circus, about a nineteenth-century winged aerialist named Sophie Fevvers, mixed with Celtic, pre-Raphaelite, and Victorian references. "A Brueghel painting cavorts around the maypole of a village green in Dorset" was how the press handout described it.
For the silhouette, Galliano continued down the path he began at St. Martins, making deconstructed clothes that could be worn upside down or interchangeably as skirts or jackets. "Imagine a roomful of kids and a box of clothes," he said. "Put a shoe on your head. It's a wonderful, naïve approach to dressing."
Ideas came from everywhere. One night, while out with Brun at the club Heaven, he saw Paul Frecker wearing a 1930s double-breasted evening jacket with a cool back that Frecker had reworked into a pleated, 1880s-style bustle. Galliano was so dazzled by it, he turned to Brun and declared: "That's my new shape."
He also reinterpreted a theme that had been introduced by French designer Jean Paul Gaultier a year earlier: skirts for men. But it wasn't simply any old skirt. Galliano saw Frecker wearing a pair of Yohji Yamamoto pants that were a skirt-pants hybrid. "He got me to put it on, putting my legs through the middle instead of the trouser part, and had me walk back and forth, and from that came the trousers of 'The Ludic Game,'" Frecker says. "They were made of green and black stripe fabric, dark and tight, and with big windowpane checks in white that were slightly fleecy. The green and black stripes were supposed to evoke plowed fields as seen from above and the windowpane check with white fluff was meant to be sheep's wool on barbed wire. They were inspired by countrywomen who throw a coat on over their pajamas to drive their kids to school. It was all crazy creative. Just fabulous."
The day before the show, the makeup artist William Casey worked out the models' look: Japanese-like with shadowing in deep green—"green like a Tanqueray gin bottle," he says—on snow-white faces and kohl eyes.
For the soundtrack, a friend of Casey's told Galliano about an Italian horror movie she had recently seen. "You have to use the music from that for the opening sequence," she said. "You have to!" He listened and agreed. Casey, the son of an Irish couple, suggested some Irish rebel songs too. Neil Mersh, a photographer's assistant from the studio upstairs, mixed the soundtrack with a few additions of his own. Galliano loved it. "John wasn't as dictatorial as people think," Casey says. "Everybody put out ideas, and he was quite willing to listen, and say, 'All right, let's give it a go.' He would just do it."
The show was held on Monday, March 15, at 6:30 P.M. in Pillar Hall at Olympia, and there was such a demand for invitations that Galliano and Brun decided to stage it twice. Galliano wanted to change the way clothes were shown—to put on an artfully acted production, like what Vivienne Westwood had done with "Pirates." He told the models to think of themselves as storybook characters and to dance a jig down the runway. For a last-minute flourish, he decorated their hair with ivy that Bulleid had pulled off trees in a nearby park.
There were more than one hundred outfits and it went on for a good half an hour—the crowd, which included Vivienne Westwood, cheering the entire time. The look was sort of Yohji Yamamoto–meets-hobo, with oversized clothes layered and askew. For the finale, there was an accordion player dressed like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp and a frizzy blond model flinging real mackerels into the audience. One came close to hitting Westwood. Another landed in Joan Burstein's lap.
The reviews were uneven. Richard Buckley of the menswear trade paper Daily News Record declared Galliano "London's hottest fashion ticket" and the "stylistic successor to Vivienne Westwood," adding, "Galliano aggressively pushes the limits of shape and construction, actively questions the social implications of fashion and bends genders into complicated knots."
But Bill Cunningham, who covered the shows for Details, then a hip downtown Manhattan monthly, wrote: "Galliano never convinced us that he was designing clothes for any other purpose than youthful eccentric display [and] the echoes of the Westwood vocabulary embittered her followers and disappointed those who hoped to discover in the Galliano collection a new London direction. What they discovered was an extraordinary imagination creating costumes that might be better placed on the stage of the ballet or theater."
Cunningham asked Westwood for her reaction.
"I never thought of my ideas being carried this far," she responded.
Despite the negative reviews, the sales stand at Olympia "was a mob," Gail Downey recalls. She and Galliano simultaneously modeled the clothes and took orders. Brun says the company eventually sold 66,000 pounds, or roughly $70,000 worth, wholesale, thereby turning a profit.
Galliano was utterly overwhelmed by the response. "I didn't know if I was teetering on the brink of huge success or a nervous breakdown," he said. "There was quite a high chance that I'd crash and burn."
• • •
WHEN BRUN WAS IN TOWN, he would spend time at the studio, meeting with retailers and helping with shipping and deliveries. "John was very normal," he says. "He would stay until eleven at night. And after everyone left, we'd sit there in the studio and drink Coca-Cola and he'd sweep up."
What Brun and others didn't realize was how compartmentalized Galliano kept his life. Brun, for example, didn't learn that Flett was Galliano's boyfriend until a mutual friend mentioned it. "I thought they were just best friends," he recalls.
And then there were Galliano's partying ways—about which Brun had barely a clue. "I don't drink [alcohol], so he didn't drink around me. I don't do drugs, and he wouldn't do drugs, at least not in front of me," Brun says. "He would talk about it from time to time—'Oh, we did this and this and this'—and I said, 'I bet you make this up to shock me.'"
What Brun did notice was a manic-depressive-like pattern in Galliano's day-to-day life. "John would run on highs and lows," he says. "After every show he would crash for a minimum three days. It was so sad. Physically and emotionally drained, almost like a death. Crumpled up in the studio. He'd lock the door and wouldn't come out."
The company's PR rep Jean Bennett told him one day, "Have you heard the rumor that John is on drugs?"
"No, I didn't know," Brun responded.
"I just thought you should know," she said.
"I didn't take what Jean said seriously," Brun says now. "Because John worked so hard. If someone is working until eleven or twelve every night, you don't think something's wrong. I thought, 'People are making up nasty stories' and because he is so sensitive, I didn't want to upset him so I didn't bring it up."
• • •
THAT SUMMER, John Flett concluded his studies with a degree collection of loose-fitting, hobo-chic clothes in muddy colors that was so lauded it was picked up by several retailers, including Bloomingdale's. He decided that he too wanted to have his own label and through Paul Frecker he found a backer: Miles Gill, a Bristol-based businessman who owned a furniture company called Elephant, with five shops around England.
Soon Gill was sucked into the Galliano-Flett vortex and he was appalled by their behavior—as if they were "demigods, not to be questioned," an observer recalls.
One night, at a fancy-dress dinner party to celebrate Frecker's birthday, several guests including Flett were smoking heroin at the table and taking turns to go to the loo to vomit.
They were at their worst, however, when they'd critique people they saw. "Though Flett and Galliano weren't terribly good-looking, they regarded themselves as the paradigm of beauty and everyone else as being ugly," a friend of theirs says. "'Ugly' was really the worst put-down they could use and they used it regularly against a lot of people."
• • •
FOR HIS NEXT COLLECTION—spring–summer 1986, to be presented during London Fashion Week in mid-October 1985—Galliano chose, once again, to riff on post-Revolution France. "I am quite obsessed with the eighteenth century," he admitted. "I have some kind of an affinity for that century. . . . The different quirks of fashion, how people wore clothes and why they wore them that way." He decided to call the collection "Fallen Angels."
The women's wear was ethereal and romantic: sheer and draped, in soft colors, with Empire waists. The menswear was tailored and deconstructed and featured sleeves that were cut in big circles and buttoned closed around the arm—an interesting new design technique that many of Galliano's friends and staff attribute to Flett. Since Galliano and Flett lived together, there was an obvious cross-pollination between the two creatively.
Galliano's genius was that he could take raw ideas from eighteenth-century France, Westwood, Kawakubo, Yamamoto, and Flett, and, as with the French modern artist Marcel Duchamp's "readymades," he could fiddle with them—by using a new cut, a new color, an interesting twist or turn—and make them his own. The designs might not always have been new, or practical, or even wearable, but they were, for the most part, decidedly Galliano.
It was Amanda Grieve, however, who made Galliano's work sing. It might have been a historic reference that she'd brought to his attention, or a story that they'd make up together, or something from a book she'd read or a film she'd seen. Like Flett before her, she would push Galliano's creativity further, open wide his mind. "John would say, 'I've got this idea for little pinstripe suits,' and I'd say, 'Well, they're little honcho girls and they're there in the bar, and they've rubbed up against the brick of the wall—and the brickwork made a mark at the back of their jacket,'" she once explained. "That's how we worked together."
"Galliano was very strong about his vision," says jewelry designer Vicki Sarge, who worked with Galliano in the 1980s and 1990s. "But Amanda was really genius too, and they both shared the same fantasy, a sort of fairy tale, and they created that fairy tale together."
• • •
AS "FALLEN ANGELS" STARTED to take form, Galliano reached out to Patrick Cox for shoes. Cox designed a round-toed boot with a square extended sole and white mattress ticking hanging out the back like that of a hobo, and a round-toed shoe with the big toe cut out and a piece cut out of the back.
As usual, Galliano and his team stayed up until all hours finishing the collection. But when it was time for the show, in a tent on the lawn of the Duke of York's Barracks on King's Road, he was focused and oversaw everything. Casey applied white clay on the models' faces and their hair, which he slicked back to create the shaved-head look of the Elizabethan era—a Grieve idea. Galliano said he wanted the models to bear his name on their foreheads—as if they had been branded—so Casey had a rubber stamp made of the Galliano logo and stamped it on their brows in water-soluble ink.
Galliano decided minutes before the show that the shoes were too clean and instructed the models to go outside to the running track in the rain and drag the shoes through the mud. When Cox confronted Galliano about it, Galliano shrugged: "Don't worry," he told Cox. "They are worth more money now because it's designer mud, darling." Boy George later recalled the scene and said, "Patrick was in tears."
Galliano had Saint Phalle open the show looking like a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, dressed in a putty-colored loose-fitting gown hitched up at the hem and an oversized black bolero worn askew, walking hand-in-hand with a male model in a long black military-style coat, to Henry Purcell's march Lillibullero. The models were a real mix—black, Asian, and Caucasian; short and tall; men and women—dressed in baggy coats, waistcoats, ample white blouses with billowing sleeves, gray jersey jumpsuits reminiscent of old-fashioned men's underwear, and sexy, tight ivory knit dresses. For the finale, Galliano doused the models with water to make the draped muslin gowns cling to their naked bodies seductively; the ink on their foreheads ran down their faces. Galliano had come up with the idea from reading about muslin disease, an early-nineteenth-century epidemic triggered by French women's wearing sheer, wet dresses to look like Greek goddesses and contracting pneumonia. "People thought [dousing the sheer dresses] was meant to be attention-grabbing," Galliano later said. "I thought it was very beautiful."
The critics hated it. Suzy Menkes of The Times of London declared that it "looked like the cast ofLes Miserables photographed by Bruce Weber." The New York Times's Bernadine Morris jabbed: "This presentation looks as tired as the handful of punks of King's Road with their spiky hairdos and studded leather clothes."The Guardian's Sarah Mower called it "a ghostly tribe of mentally disturbed eighteenth-century refugees."
Most troubling, however, were charges that Galliano had plagiarized Vivienne Westwood—most notably byDetails' Bill Cunningham.
"John cried for days," Cox said. "But it was true."
"There were times Galliano sent things down the runway and I'd cringe: 'Oh my God, it was such a direct copy,'" Paul Frecker remembers. "And John would say he was 'inspired' by Westwood, that it was an 'homage' to Westwood. 'No, John, that's called copying.' He admired her enormously but he needed to find his voice and his confidence, and he let other people influence him too much."
• • •
RETAILERS WERE HESITANT to place large orders, because, as Jim Griebenow, then-vice president and fashion merchandising director for Marshall Field's in Chicago, explained, "When fashion becomes advanced contemporary (such as Galliano) at designer prices, it's a tough sell." Those who did order reported to Brun that they were experiencing "fit problems"—meaning the clothes didn't fit customers' bodies and either needed alterations or didn't sell. Galliano was still fitting clothes on his own body; he wasn't terribly keen on the shape of a woman's body—at least a curvaceous woman's body. Around that time, a British fashion writer named Louisa Young sat next to Galliano at a dinner. "We got talking about tits, as you do," she recalled. "'You don't like them much, do you?' I suggested. He looked a little sheepish, and then whispered: 'No. They spoil the line.'"
"Retailers were telling us: 'You have to address this,'" Brun says.
He brought the issue up with Galliano, and Galliano turned dark and argumentative. "If we get the press, we can sort out these issues, and the orders will follow," Galliano insisted.
"But," Brun says, "the orders didn't follow because the clothes didn't fit. I heard from retailers who said, 'I bought several pieces and only twenty percent sold at full price and the rest went on sale because they didn't fit.'"
Galliano was spending recklessly as well, and Brun's budgets were getting blown to bits. "John was not a mathematician. He didn't know anything about costing," Brun says. "He would give an estimate of, say, three thousand pounds and it would turn out to be eight thousand. And then you'd see a roll of fabric, and if it was the wrong roll, it would be kept, instead of sent back, and we'd have to pay for it. He'd eventually use it—he used everything—but still, we'd have to pay for it when we didn't budget it." As Brun tightened budgets and shot down Galliano's expensive ideas, Galliano and his staff began to consider him the enemy.
To complicate matters, Galliano was getting fussy with editors. "One time an American fashion editor wanted to put a Galliano outfit in the magazine, and she had one idea, and John had another," Brun says. "And she said, 'That might be your version, but this is America and the girl is going to look beautiful and sexy because we're trying to sell the collection.' And then she called back and said, 'I can't give you the cover because I checked with Bergdorf's and you don't have a high enough sell-through.' That's the first time we realized there is a link—the way [editors and retailers] would talk together. And John got very upset and angry about that—very upset and angry." Brun was beside himself: he saw sales, and profits, slipping away.
"I don't want to be commercial now," Galliano told Brun. "I can be commercial twenty years from now."
• • •
GALLIANO WASN'T SIMPLY out of touch with how business worked. He was starting to live in a self-created bubble—distancing himself from the hoi polloi—in part because of his shyness, in part because of his passionate, blinding focus on his work, and in part because of an increasing sense of self-entitlement. He had started to believe the hype. Brun hosted a Christmas party for the company at a bar in Long Acre that was a bit spartan because of budget constraints. Galliano was so bored that he left for an hour and a half and went to a gay club around the corner—evidence to at least one assistant of how dismissive Galliano could be toward Brun as well as his team. "John didn't want to party with the people he worked with," the assistant said. "We were just staff."
After all those years of commuting to school on buses and trains, Galliano had grown to loathe public transportation, and though he was scraping for money, he could almost always find a way to pay for a cab. "One day he had to go for a meeting in Covent Garden, which was five stops on the tube from Liverpool Street station," Casey remembers. "[Seeing Galliano's reluctance,] I said, 'It's all right, John, I'll go with you.' When we got in the station, John stood up against the wall, hoping no one would notice him. He was shocked that there were people wearing trainers [sneakers].
"'God, everyone wears trainers!'
"'Yes, John, people wear them when they walk around during the day,' I told him. This was a revelation to him because he never went out during the day. He only went out to clubs, to home, and to work. There was his inner sanctum, and then there were the other people."
Galliano worked through the holidays—he spent Christmas Day at the studio. Once the team was back to work in the New Year, he focused intently on his next collection, the fall–winter 1986–87 season, to be presented in March 1986. It was called "Forgotten Innocents" and, as with "Fallen Angels" the season before, women were depicted as fragile victims of society's whims, in particular, man's twisted, contrived image of perfection. The idea, Galliano said, was to evoke feral children, like those inLord of the Flies, playing dress-up in the attic. The use of children as a central theme was appropriate given that Grieve was in her second trimester of pregnancy with her first child.
While working on the collection, Galliano sat for an interview with TheGuardian's fashion writer Sarah Mower, one of the industry's most powerful writers. British journalists often interject first-person opinions into features—and it is not always kind. This practice is particularly prevalant in fashion coverage. Forever in search of the new, fashion writers will embrace and champion a rising talent in hopes that they have found—or created—a new king. But then, a few seasons later—out of disappointment, frustration, or enmity—they will turn on the designer and take him or her down publicly.
Now it was Galliano's turn to be hazed by the press. In her report, Mower echoed the press's hard turn against him. "He is a volatile mix of the best and some of the worst tendencies in British fashion," she wrote. "His shows are confrontational fantasies on historical themes, deliberately freakish, self-consciously theatrical. . . . Some [believe], at twenty-five, he has already had too much publicity and is suffering from it. . . . [He gets] defensive when chided about his outlandish presentation and often confounding garments."
To show what she meant, Mower explained that it took half an hour to figure out how to put one of his "octopoid" limbed outfits on a model for the accompanying fashion shoot. "[Galliano] says he is a designer of clothes, not fashion," she continued. "It smacks, I am afraid, of that arty, Dada-ist stage of postgraduate development best explored behind closed doors rather than trumpeted abroad as a major, mold-breaking insight. It will pass, and Galliano will find out that if he is not a fashion designer, he is nothing."
• • •
THOUGH THE CRITICISM STUNG, Galliano did his best to remain focused on his work. To convey the youthful spirit of "Forgotten Innocents," he cast several teenage models, some as young as fourteen. For the press handout, he had photographer Robert Erdmann shoot a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old aspiring actress named Helena Bonham Carter, her hair wet and stringy, her face as sweet as a cherub's. Like Grieve, Bonham Carter was a British blue blood with a smart upper-class accent—in other words, everything that Galliano idolized and adored.
Galliano and Grieve styled the looks joyfully, putting small naïf crowns that Grieve made with tarot cards and other found objects on the models' long, wavy pre-Raphaelite-like hair. The clothes were wispy Empire-waist frocks, like Victorian nightgowns, mostly in white and brown, wrapped around the body in disheveled ways, as if they were all too big and belted to fit. The makeup was light and simple, with rosebud lips, "to make the models look like children, like china dolls," Casey says.
"It was very erotic," Galliano admitted. "But there was a point." Namely, he said, "breaking down preconceived ideas of how things could be worn."Details' Bill Cunningham found genius elements amid the madness. "If John Galliano had shown only his balloon-shaped coats it would have been enough to secure his position in the design hierarchy of London," he wrote. "Etched into the memory was style number 05-603 of grey fleece. Built with a balloon shaping Charles James would have admired, it broke at the center back with a cross-grain swooping fishtail . . . I later saw the coat being worn in Paris by one of Galliano's models. It looked even better off the runway."
Brun was still tearing his hair out about fit problems. He was so concerned that he went to New York and met with buyers. "Show me the sales figures," he told them. "There must be an error." But there wasn't. "They explained to me that sixty, seventy percent of the collection wasn't selling," Brun recalls. "I saw that knitwear was selling, so I said, 'Order knitwear.' They did. For ["Forgotten Innocents"], that's all they ordered. And John got so angry. But I said, 'You know what, John? Otherwise they wouldn't have ordered a thing.'" Galliano believed that all the glossy magazine coverage was going to pull them out of the financial abyss. "I understood John's point of view," Brun says. "But I also got the buyer. It's business. And John didn't know about business."
It became apparent to Brun that the only solution was to shut down the company. He called an attorney he knew who advised him to hold on to everything—the patterns, the samples, the unused bolts of fabrics, sewing machines—because they were the company's assets and would be needed to pay off creditors in liquidation. Brun went to the studio to look at the archives and realized that they had already been somewhat plundered. He called a locksmith, had the locks changed, and went home.
In June 1986, they made a joint announcement in the Daily News Record declaring the dissolution of their partnership. Galliano's spokeswoman said that the split was by mutual agreement, adding, "The arrangement did not suit either of them." Galliano reportedly informed some of the company's customers that nothing from "Forgotten Innocents" would be delivered in the fall. "We wanted to do it as quickly as possible so retailers would not be inconvenienced," the spokesman said.
Galliano went to the studio and found the locks had been changed. He wanted what he felt werehis archives, so he talked assistants Gail Downey and Nick Michaels into climbing along onto the eighteen-inch-wide ledge and entering the studio through an unlocked window to take as much as they could.
Later, at night, after partying at Taboo, Galliano and a crew of pals that included Flett and Frecker went back, shimmied along the ledge to the open window again, and finished cleaning out the place. "We ran up and down the ledge, so high up, off our faces, and got bags and bags of clothes out," Frecker says. "John said, 'It's my collection.' He believed, 'I designed it, therefore it belongs to me.' He had no idea how a company works"—that the clothes were actually a business asset.
Galliano was later asked by a friend if there was anything he wished he'd learned at St. Martins that would have helped him in his career up to that point. "I wish I'd been more equipped on the business side of things," he answered. "I was thrown in the deep end and had to learn fast."
Galliano was so broke he was sleeping on the floor of Saint Phalle's London flat. But he didn't let that squash his spirit. He was determined to find a new backer and get his business running again. He was briefly in talks with the Giorgio Armani company in Milan and had even sewed up some sample garments at his friend Sara Livermore's studio to show the Armani team, but the deal never came together. Then he heard that a Danish-born, British-raised oilman named Peder Bertelsen, who had a fashion company called Aguecheek—named for a character in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night—was actively looking for young British designers to finance. Galliano understood the potential: "[Bertelsen] was the only man I knew who had money," he said.
He drew a collection and went to see Bertelsen to present the sketches as well as a business plan. "I wanted a big studio and machinists," Galliano said, referring to employees who work on machines. "I wanted to get the best finish I could. I wanted to work with people who understood my things, to deliver on time. I wanted to do it properly."
As Bertelsen reviewed Galliano's sketches he asked himself, "Would my wife wear them? No. Would my friend's wife wear them? No."
Bertelsen told Galliano: "We can't see its commercial value. Can you draw something commercial?"
A few days later, Galliano came back with a new set of sketches.
"I didn't alter what I'd designed," Galliano later admitted. "I drew differently. I drew really straight women, with bobs, with earrings . . . for him. They were the sort of drawings you'd do for your bank manager."
Bertelsen and his staff liked them, and decided to draft an agreement. Galliano was pleased with it: "I keep my own identity and we really have to look after our own affairs," Galliano said. "But . . . there are certain ways of doing things and before I didn't see that. It's no good fighting from the outside. If you become part of the establishment, a lot more people sit up and take notice. You have to work how they expect you to work, as long as you get what you want by the end of it. One day I'll be able to do—" He paused, and exhaled. "Pure Galliano."
"John Galliano was not a sensible choice," Bertelsen admitted. "What he has is talent and a certain insouciance."
Galliano's deal with Aguecheek Ltd. was announced in the fashion trade papers in July 1986. An Aguecheek spokeswoman emphasized that the agreement was only for one season—spring–summer 1987—to be shown during London Fashion Week in October 1986. In return, Galliano promised he would rein in his wild imagination. "My next collection will be much more disciplined—it has to be," he declared. "I finally have gotten to where I want to be in the design sense and I now have disciplined and harnessed my creativity. I am making my designs much more accessible and commercial."
• • •
FOR GALLIANO, the Aguecheek deal was the fresh start he needed, and he took it seriously. He cleaned up his appearance, trading in his dungarees and T-shirts for tailored suits and polished shoes and cutting his now-shoulder-length hair short and conservatively. "John wanted to be luxury, he wanted to be more real, more commercial," Patrick Cox says. "He wasn't trying to impress twenty students he went to St. Martins with anymore. He was looking at a wider public [and] bought into the fame and all the rest of it."
But he was under the gun, time-wise: he had six—maybe eight—weeks to get the collection designed, sourced, and produced; to hire the models; and to stage the show. To find fabric at such short notice was not easy and he needed more help. He rang up knitwear designer Gail Downey—whom he fondly called "Dolly"—and asked her to return. He told her that since he had bigger backing he could pay her more than the 60 pounds ($80) a week she earned during the Brun era. The studio was temporarily in the basement stockroom of Aguecheek's warehouse space on Berkeley Square.
From Gods and Kings, by Dana Thomas. Copyright 2015 by Dana Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press.