John Galliano Returns House of Maison Martin Margiela...
John Galliano makes his thoughtful return to the runway at the helm of the house of Margiela. The designer talks to Hamish Bowles about his inspirations, his newfound sobriety—and happiness.
I’m coming home!” says John Galliano, laughing, on the eve of his first Artisanal collection for Maison Margiela in London in January. “There’s just so much love and support here,” he explains of his decision to debut in his hometown, “and I kind of need to go step by step and get my confidence back.”
The following day, as we wait expectantly for the first girl to appear, the atmosphere is no longer playful but reverent. Hans Zimmer’s serene “Flying Drone” plays, and the guests are collectively “holding their breath for the first day of the rest of Mr. Galliano’s fashion life,” as The New York Times put it.
Galliano had been looking for “a very sparse, modern, white space—instead of doing it like divine decadence,” and the spaceship show venue, in a newly built office close to Buckingham Palace, suggests a radical palate-cleanse after decades of high-voltage spectacle. A hundred and fifty whitewashed ballroom chairs are democratically ranged in single files flanking the long runway, which is set in a pale tunnel with square aluminum floor tiles underfoot.
“Every single dress has a story to tell,” says Renzo Rosso proudly. Rosso, whose aptly named company Only the Brave owns Maison Margiela, boldly appointed Galliano as the house’s creative director in late 2014. “It’s a new beginning for him, a new beginning for Margiela.”
Alber Elbaz has come from Paris to show his support, and Christopher Bailey is here attending his “first-ever fashion show, if you can believe it.” But beyond key press and buyers, the guest list is essentially biographical: Galliano’s St. Martin’s School of Art tutors; his eighties collaborators and fellow club kids, including the innovative jeweler Judy Blame, and photographers Nick Knight and Paolo Roversi; the socialite muses Annabelle Neilson and Trish Simonon; and Michael Howells, designer of so many of Galliano’s legendary show environments. Manolo Blahnikis here in lilac tweed, and so, too, is Rabbi Barry Marcus from London’s Central Synagogue. The rabbi coached Galliano on the tenets of Judaism as an element of his rehabilitation after the designer’s meteoric glory burned out ignominiously in an alcoholic blur in a smoky café in the Marais where, in 2011, he was filmed hurling anti-Semitic abuse at fellow patrons. He was suspended and then fired from Dior, and became, in his words, “an outcast.”
A fashion audience is a notoriously tardy one, but at the appointed hour, all but two seats are filled. Ten minutes later, however, just as the lights dim, Mr. and Mrs. Jamie Hince appear. A giggling Kate Moss—wearing a battered black biker’s jacket over a vintage black satin Galliano slip—mouths, “John’s gonna kill me . . . we got caught in school-run mum traffic!” Zimmer’s soothing music segues into the startling trumpet blast of “Big Spender” (“So naughty, isn’t it? So rude! A little bit of humor,” Galliano explains), and the show begins.
The collection is autobiography too, really, from the Incroyables coats, inspired by the extravagantly dressed dandies of Revolutionary-era France that Galliano first showcased in his 1984 St. Martin’s graduation collection; to the bias-cut tailoring he presented a decade later in a memorable show at socialite São Schlumberger’s ravishing, deserted Parisian town house; to a version of a deconstructed 1954 Dior skirt; all merged with Margiela-isms as seamlessly as a bold scarlet coat that deftly fades from wool to chiffon. Galliano’s spin on the iconic Margiela Stockman jacket—a tailor’s dress form—opens the show. In this iteration the bodice may look battered and stained, parts of its stuffing spilling out, but these effects are mimicked in sophisticated and painstaking embroidery techniques. The tautly edited 24-piece collection is whimsical, thoughtful, and inventive, and blends Galliano’s soaring, hectic imagination with Margiela’s own powerful legacy.
The headquarters of the fashion house that the maverick Belgian designer Martin Margiela founded in 1988 has been based lately in a rambling Gothic structure in Paris’s coolly edgy Eleventh Arrondissement. Built as a convent in the eighteenth century, it was repurposed in the 1920s as a boys’ industrial-design school. In the spirit of Margiela himself, who saw beauty in patina, it has been left seemingly as it was found, save for a coating of the designer’s signature whitewash. These white surfaces have in turn been scuffed, so that they tell their own mysterious stories, revealed in the unforgiving light of naked bulbs and fluorescent strip lights.
I visited John Galliano’s airy studio in early December, as he was putting the collection together. Here, in a room on the second floor, the building’s harsh lights have been replaced with the soothing flickering of candles. Galliano, of course, sees beauty in patina, too, but of the romantic Miss Havisham school. From his electrifying St. Martin’s collection to his career at his own house and then for Givenchy and Dior as well, he blazed through three decades of unrelenting creativity. Since his world imploded, the designer has struggled with his demons and reached out to the Jewish community, receiving support and, ultimately, praise from no less an authority than the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham H. Foxman. In 2013, Oscar de la Renta invited Galliano into his studio to collaborate on a collection, and in October 2014, he moved to his new offices at Margiela.
Today, the designer is marveling in the world around him. “It’s great just being alive again,” he says, “and every experience is new.” He adds, in a confidential whisper, “I’ve never done this sober before. And I have to keep reminding myself that it’s actually quite normal. It’s actually quite nice, John.”
He is sitting at his desk serving Japanese tea in a bone- china service, his hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail, wearing a shirt and tie with a formal suit (he is eagerly awaiting delivery of the gray flannel pin-striped suit from Anderson & Sheppard that he plans to wear for his show). Over this he sports the classic Margiela uniform, the white cotton work coat that makes the house’s denizens look like surgeons. Galliano, however, calls it “la blouse blanche,” the customary garb of a Parisian couture-workroom hand, and it evokes Martin Margiela’s passion for the craft of making clothes, manifest in that designer’s use of the Stockman tailor’s mannequin form as a shapely cuirass bodice, of clothes cut like paper patterns, and even of the dressmaker’s basting stitches used to attach his labels to their garments—the subtlest branding of all. Galliano himself “was a fan and a client,” he says, claiming that he was drawn to the “innovation. I always felt that I was buying into an emotion because you could see the way things were put together and reworked.”
Galliano explains that he plans to structure Margiela in a “pyramidal” way, like the classic haute couture houses, with the couture collection at the apex, influencing the rest of the mens- and womenswear collections. In classic Galliano-ese, he describes this Artisanal collection as “the parfum of the house, which both informs and inspires the eau de toilette. What I’m trying to do through this collection is to establish my intentions,” he continues, “and to show what it feels like to wear Margiela today.” Although the designer seems preternaturally calm, he is aware of the responsibilities that lie ahead. “This collection has to be so many things,” he says. “I have to prove that I can do this job. That I am disciplined. That there’s still the J.G. magic. Let’s see what happens. But the process I am . . . enjoying.”
After his time spent juggling the overwhelming complexities and demands of a billion-dollar luxury brand, Galliano is more hands-on than he has been in years, “which is why we got into it in the first place, isn’t it?” he asks rhetorically. He walks me through the house as Gypsy, his tiny Brussels griffon, scurries about underfoot, and introduces me to his new co-workers—many of whom are long-term collaborators. These include his studio director, the svelte blonde beauty Vanessa Bellanger, who tracks the subtle changes from sketch through fittings of each piece in elaborate albums of drawings and photographs. Several have been recolored to show Galliano the possibilities. “They’ve just done it on a computer,” he whispers, faintly incredulous. “I’m living with the times!” Bellanger is tasked on this collection with finding the perfect red (“that I’ve used as shafts of light” in a sea of black) and then matching it across the fabric choices. The atelier, where Galliano has assembled a skilled new team, is a flurry of activity, with elaborate toiles of classic men’s trousers that have morphed into skirts, and an overcoat pulled inside out so that the lining becomes the dress and the coat its train (this will metamorphose into Galliano’s bride).
“To look at something on a stand and just attack it with my scissors . . .” he says. “I was taken so far away from this.” As involved as he now is, however, the designer has also learned when to step back. “When I see chaos, I know it’s in really good hands. I can explain what I would like, and I can just walk away and breathe. Just being able to take your time means I have more energy to give.”
Galliano’s studio is infused with the atmosphere of his apartment in an eighteenth-century town house in the Marais, where he lives with his partner of fifteen years, the stylist Alexis Roche. Both interiors are as densely decorated as his inspiration boards, the walls hung salon-style with contemporary photography and historic artworks, and surfaces crowded with books, objects, and poetically eccentric flower arrangements—pale-orange carnations with soft mauve-pink dahlias and palm fronds, for example. There are treasures found at the antiques shops in Auvergne in the remote heart of the French countryside, where the couple has a stone farmhouse (largely abandoned during the frenzied Dior years, it has latterly proved a soulful refuge), as well as Galliano’s beloved puces.
He is keen, however, to assert that “recycling doesn’t have to be flea-bitten old dresses. It can be something that’s as gorgeous as a seashell.” There is indeed “a veritable seafood platter” laid out here: Galliano trawled the beaches of Normandy for shells, tracked others down on a tiny island in the South Pacific, and even had the mother of one of his assistants save the mussel shells from her moules marinières, which she scrupulously scrubbed clean. These have now been assembled into extraordinary, surreal faces that evoke the vegetable visages painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo in Renaissance Italy and will serve as fastenings. Galliano has modernized them with chrome, lacquer, and gleaming car-paint finishes.
Meanwhile, he has been delving deep into the Margiela archive, focusing on the 20-year tenure of Margiela himself (who left in 2009 and is now devoting himself to art projects and living a domestic life nearby). Not long after Galliano’s appointment, Margiela met him for tea and stayed to talk for hours.
Galliano was euphoric about the meeting, although deferentially protective of what transpired in the company of the famously incognito Margiela, who has never given an in-person interview to the press. (In 2001, Vogue sent Annie Leibovitz to photograph independent designers. The brilliantly conceptual Margiela portrait was an old-fashioned high school group of 45 mostly white-coated accomplices, with a single empty chair in the front row representing the designer himself.) Galliano will, however, volunteer that the meeting “was a godsend, so cool and so interesting,” and helped him understand “the codes of Margiela” and they discovered unexpected mutual interests. “Make it your own,” the founder of the house told Galliano of the newly renamed Maison Margiela.
Galliano is hoping that his new designs will reveal a “strange new beauty” and marry his own romantic vision with the language of Margiela’s house. Starting with elaborate pieces that evoke Galliano’s imaginative eighties collections, when he was establishing his own line and voice, and the bravura skills he learned chez Dior, the collection evolves into what Galliano describes as freinage, the French for “braking,” which is perhaps more closely aligned to the reductive aesthetic of the house’s founding genius. “That is me moving on,” he explains. “Distilled.”
He understands how crucial this first outing is to underscore the DNA of the house without making it a prison. “I pushed myself into a corner before,” he explains. “I didn’t only do bias-cut dresses at Galliano, but I became renowned for that. We didn’t only do Bar jackets at Dior, so here I want the offer to be a little bit wider—confrontational, grotesque, impactful, and modern—and then let’s see people’s reactions. You don’t want to wear concepts,” he adds firmly, “you want to wear a fabulous dress.”
There is a playfulness at work here, too, with kirby grips used as elaborate fringing, and a trim that seems, from afar, like the shredding feather boa of a down-at-heel burlesque dancer, but on closer inspection proves to be lacquered toy soldiers fighting in hills of crinoline ribbon.
On his old flea-market forays, Galliano struck up an acquaintance with a vintage–costume jewelry dealer. “When it all went down, she somehow traced my address,” Galliano recalls. She wrote daily messages of encouragement that were delivered to his rehabilitation center in Arizona. “So when I got out, we hooked up with her,” says Galliano, “and she’s become a bit of a pal.”
It was then that he discovered she had an autistic three-year-old son, Ulysses, whom he occasionally looks after. “He’s gorgeous,” says Galliano. “We take him for walks with Gypsy because it’s good to help him communicate.”
Galliano’s surrogate parenting is on his own terms, however—Ulysses is now a flea-market aficionado. “I’m like a character from Dickens. He’s one of my boys,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll turn around and the kid’s pockets will be bulging with Tonka car toys. It’s tough work,” Galliano admits wryly, “but it’s my fault, too. I mean, we could just go to a park and sit there!”
Galliano seems keen to spread the love. At St. Martin’s, the elegant Sheridan Barnett was Galliano’s design tutor. “He inspired me a lot,” Galliano remembers. “He’s the one who introduced me to the library and how it works. And the fashion plates, and Modigliani and Lartigue. You just need someone to help you turn it on.”
In 2013, Galliano was invited to give a master class to senior BFA fashion students at Parsons, but the New School’s Jewish Student Union organized a petition that successfully blocked it. There were complications at Central Saint Martins (as it is now called), too, but here, four students independently went to the dean and insisted that they wanted to work with Galliano.
And so it happened that the Italian Alessandro, Dutch Stefan, Japanese Watero, and English Oliver came to Paris, crashed on friends’ sofas (and in one instance a kitchen floor), and absorbed Galliano’s approach to design. He set them projects and took them to study historical treasures at the Musée de la Mode, and to the Paris puces hunting for treasures that could serve as inspiration points.
The project was such a success that the following year a couple of dozen students asked to join the program, and Galliano selected another four. One decided to become a performance artist, but the others have all come to work chez Margiela. “They’re so excited,” says Galliano. “Some of them are making patterns. They never complain. They don’t walk upstairs like normal employees,” he adds proudly. “They run—and they’re the last ones to leave.”
He points out that he’s always had student interns, “but now I’m closer with them. Before, I was quite removed, even geographically; they were on a different floor. But in this place, you’re just much more involved.”
Galliano tells me that working with the students “stopped me worrying and thinking about myself. That’s part of the reason that I started to do it when I was coming out into the real world. It was fun sharing, and it was fun to talk to them about Modigliani and Lartigue—blank! nothing!—and we’re learning so much from each other.”
The designer, in turn, is coming to terms with “the Tumblr and Pinterest generation—it’s constant information,” he says. “I’m reconnecting with the modern world and all its beauty. Reconnecting is living in the present, in the moment, seeing the beauty in those shells that maybe I overlooked before, or the charm of a toy soldier, and giving it a second life.”
It has been decided that the Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson will depict Galliano for this story, so, rather surreally, a few days after the studio visit, Roche, Galliano, and I find ourselves in the airport car park in Reykjavík, struggling through fierce arctic winds to get to the cars and prize open their doors.
“Shapes!” cries Galliano, playfully striking a series of campy windswept poses on the tarmac in anticipation of his sitting. “I have been studying my neoclassical shapes,” he continues with a sly grin, “giving, giving, giving! I’ve even bought a little fig leaf.”
Kjartansson’s studio is in a converted fisherman’s storage bunker on the waterfront of this snow-frosted toy town, its walls strong enough to withstand the lashing waves that rise in a storm. He is exceedingly jolly and convivial, and serves us delicious Icelandic cakes while he explains his concept for the portrait. “I’m going to see your aura,” he says, “then I’m going to do the background, and then I’m going to paint you.” Meanwhile, Galliano will be lulled into a meditative state by listening to a continually looped sound track of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ influential 1969 country-rock album The Gilded Palace of Sin. Kjartansson has composed a stage set with an old-fashioned sofa where Galliano sits, letting the tie belt of his Margiela-atelier coat fall like a tail. “I’m turning up my aura,” says Galliano, laughing. “I kept it dimmed—for protection—but now I’m turning it up for you!” During a break for lunch I ask how it is going. Galliano says playfully, “I was giving it major face for hours, and he said, ‘You can relax, John; I’ve been painting your feet!’ ”
To celebrate the completion of the portrait, we have dinner at Dill, the capital’s acclaimed restaurant, with Kjartansson’s exquisite girlfriend, Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. “He’s really been like a muse should be,” says Kjartansson over herring ice cream and dried auk. “It’s been really inspiring to me. The artifice, the melancholia—and the silliness.”
After dinner, Kjartansson gleefully points out a strange green glow in the night sky—it is the northern lights above the clouds. We drive a little way out of the light pollution of town and are rewarded with a half-hour show as choreographed as an eighteenth-century fireworks display at Versailles. “We must ring Pat [McGrath] and tell her we want that exact shade of twinkle,” Galliano tells Roche jokingly. Then he turns pensive. “It’s the green of the Wicked Witch from Oz,” he says. “It’s the most magical thing I’ve seen.”
Back at the show a month later, Galliano’s Margiela bride is making her entrance, her slouching scarlet splendor inspired by the “Velázquez” gesture of Roche slipping his arms through the interior straps of his Moncler jacket, and the bride’s face is wrapped in chiffon embellished like the bejeweled saints in Italian catacombs. For his twentieth-anniversary show in 2008, Margiela sent out his models for their finale dressed in his employees’ signature white coats, and so, in an echoing homage, Galliano sends his girls out a second time in the toiles for the outfits they have each worn. “Like someone’s trying to capture the creative process through toiles and drawings and my Post-It messages to the tailor,” explains Galliano, “disclosing some things at the end”—a revelatory look at the thought process and technical skills of a great designer, who is putting himself together at the ultimate house of deconstruction.
“I’ve tried my best,” Galliano tells me. “Hey, already to be given this second chance, I’m so grateful for it. It’s been such a joy to be able to create,” he adds softly, “really a joy. It’s opening up your heart, which is what I’ve had to do . . . to bare myself, to be honest with myself.”