PARIS — When Renzo Rosso acquired Maison Martin Margiela in 2002, it was described as a wedding of fashion’s Greta Garbo with Harpo Marx.
On Monday, Rosso surprised the fashion world again by appointing John Galliano, one of fashion’s most flamboyant and controversial figures, to take over the creative direction of Margiela, founded by an intensely secretive Belgian designer.
This story first appeared in the October 7, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The appointment telegraphed Rosso’s daring approach to the fashion business and raised questions about how one of the industry’s great romantics might interpret a house built on avant-garde ideas like deconstruction.
It confirmed widespread market speculation that Galliano was headed to the Paris-based company, despite recent denials during Milan Fashion Week by Rosso, whose group, OTB, controls Margiela via a subsidiary called Neuf.
“Margiela is ready for a new charismatic creative soul,” said Rosso, president of OTB. “John Galliano is one of the greatest, undisputed talents of all time — a unique, exceptional couturier for a maison that always challenged and innovated the world of fashion. I look forward to his return to create that fashion dream that only he can create and wish him to here find his new home.”
Galliano, 53, has been sitting on the sidelines since being ousted from Christian Dior and his signature fashion house in 2011. It is understood he will take over the design leadership of all Margiela lines, including couture and the women’s and men’s ready-to-wear.
He is expected to show his first designs for the house in January during Paris Couture Week.
The development marks the return of one of contemporary fashion’s most acclaimed talents, absent from the runways following racist and anti-Semitic outbursts that precipitated one of the most spectacular flameouts in recent history.
It also represents something of an about-face for Margiela, whose Belgian founder was often described as the industry’s invisible man for his Greta Garbo-like ways. Following his retirement in 2009, the house left an anonymous team to carry on his legacy, steadfastly refusing to identify any its members.
Prized for his ultrafeminine, historically inspired designs, and a particular penchant for bias-cut gowns, Galliano is hardly an obvious choice for a house known for cleft-toed boots, deconstructed fashions and all-white stores.
Yet the British fashion maverick has wide experience designing different kinds of collections, including more casual ranges for women and men under his now-defunct Galliano second line, known for its newspaper prints, distressed leathers and denim.
Despite the outcry that precipitated Galliano’s downfall at Dior, early industry reactions to his appointment at Margiela were mainly positive.
“Wow,” said Joan Burstein, founder and owner of Browns in London, who famously bought the entire collection Galliano produced upon graduating from Central Saint Martins in 1984.
“Those who have nothing against [Galliano] will be happy he’s back in the fashion world, and those who aren’t happy won’t be happy. Browns wishes him happiness as well as great success and we will follow whatever he does with great interest,” Burstein added.
“I think this will revolutionize the brand,” said Averyl Oates, fashion director at Galeries Lafayette.
“Although controversial, there is no doubt that Galliano has great energy and is an undisputed visionary. He has a wide repertoire even if he is better known for his theatrical flair, and no doubt they will find a way to bridge his style with the familiar signature deconstruction of the Margiela house,” she added.
Jonathan Newhouse, chairman and chief executive officer of Condé Nast International, said, “I am delighted that John is returning to the fashion world at Margiela. He is one of the great design talents of our day. He is in terrific form and it will be exciting to see what he creates.”
Last year, the publishing executive told British Vogue that after Galliano went into recovery, he had formed a friendship with the designer and had “opened some doors to the Jewish community,” introducing him to Jewish leaders and Rabbi Barry Marcus from London’s Central Synagogue.
Maria Luisa Poumaillou, fashion director at Printemps, said she was intrigued to see what the pairing of Galliano with Margiela would bring.
“It’s the most interesting thing I’ve seen in a long time,” she said. “It’s not immediately obvious what they have in common, except for talent.”
She said enough time had passed since Galliano’s firing for the industry and consumers to forgive and move on.
“I thought it was the ugliest sacrifice of a great talent that I’ve ever seen, so for me, wherever he’s back, he’s more than welcome. I’m very happy for John,” Poumaillou said.
She saluted Rosso’s “guts” and said the decision was a good fit for the brand.
“The most conceptual of all fashion houses fell into the hands of the man who built Diesel, so why shouldn’t it today tap the greatest living couturier, who is unemployed?” she asked. “[Rosso] has already pulled it off. We are all talking about Margiela, which will stop being a niche brand in order to become front-page news.”
Armand Hadida, founder of Paris concept store L’Eclaireur, said he bought Galliano’s first collections and was excited to have him back.
“I like the idea because that is what you expect from fashion and from players like Renzo Rosso — it’s to shake things up, to give them a second lease of life. I think that without Renzo Rosso, Margiela would have closed down,” he said.
The retailer, who is of Moroccan-Jewish origin, said it was time to let bygones be bygones. “No one has the authority to judge anyone whatsoever. We all make mistakes and it’s part of our journey. The important thing is to know your mistakes and to learn to correct them, and I guarantee you that John Galliano has done that,” he said.
“I think we have spoken about it enough and today, I am thrilled and also very curious because that is what drives us and gives us pleasure in our work — being on tenterhooks,” he said. “Galliano is an artist who deserves his place and I think he will have more openness and freedom to express his sensitivity and his talent.”
OTB noted the appointment of a “visionary, non-conformist” talent would give “significance to the iconoclastic heritage of Margiela, and new impulse to its exciting future.”
The appointment of a star designer like Galliano also suggests that Rosso is keen to bring more attention to Margiela — and willing to risk a possible backlash.
Galliano was not immediately available for comment.
According to retailers, Margiela management has put the development focus on its secondary line MM6 in recent years as buzz faded around its top lines.
Rosso’s OTB swept in and bought a majority stake in Margiela in 2002, one of series of acquisitions aimed at building a multibrand Italian group. More recent investments include Viktor & Rolf and Marni.
At the time of Margiela’s 20th-anniversary fashion show in Paris in 2009, the founder had gradually reduced his day-to-day involvement in the company, working mainly on special products, including the house’s first fragrance under license with beauty giant L’Oréal.
While long cloaked in mystery and steeped in conceptual high-mindedness, Margiela ultimately took on a more commercial bent following the Rosso investment, opening boutiques in more established neighborhoods, expanding its offer of accessories and branching out into lifestyle categories such as home decor.
Market sources estimate the company generates about 100 million euros annually, or $126 million at current exchange. It operates about 50 directly owned stores.
Upon Margiela’s final exit, the company explored the possibility of naming a new creative director, with Raf Simons and Haider Ackermann among those approached.
More recently, the likes of former Céline designer Ivana Omazic had cycled in and out, with London-based Marios Schwab brought in recently as a secret consultant. Industry insiders were familiar with other key talents in the maison, particularly Christopher Booth in men’s wear and Matthieu Blazy, who exited the house Oct. 1 after receiving kudos particularly for the Artisanal couture range, cobbled together with offbeat materials and vintage materials.
Rosso has never hidden his enthusiasm for Galliano, best known for a 15-year stint at Dior.
“Who wouldn’t like to work with him? If he ever got back his name, I would be the first to produce his collections,” Rosso told WWD on Sept. 18, while also denying that he was joining Margiela.
Brave Kid Srl has produced children’s collections for John Galliano since 2008, a licensing deal that sparked a friendship between the designer and Rosso. According to sources, Rosso was among top industry figures who embraced Galliano and assisted him during his rehabilitation.
Last year, Galliano took up a three-week designer-in-residence role at Oscar de la Renta, and the designer’s influence was very visible in de la Renta’s subsequent fall 2013 collection.
It was a bold and risky move for de la Renta, who later was said to have engaged the controversial talent in advanced talks of permanent employment, which eventually disintegrated when Galliano pushed to bring his own staff with him.
At the time of Galliano’s stint at de la Renta, Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, voiced his support for the designer.
On Monday, Foxman told WWD: “I wish him all the success. He has earned it. He’s got the talent, and hopefully, he has overcome the past. He certainly has tried hard enough to apologize, to put the past behind him, to rehabilitate. I think it’s time for people who care to move on. If this is the place for him to succeed, I only wish him the greatest of success.”
Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, said, “It felt like the time was right to see him re-enter the world of fashion. I think he is a good fit for Maison Martin Margiela.”
As reasons, he cited Galliano’s tailoring prowess, ability to reimagine the codes of a house‚ “taking something common and making it uncommon with the twist and the turn and the unexpected way to deliver ready-to-wear.
“I think his success at a house and his success in the industry is all up to John,” Downing said. “He spent a lot time getting himself together. He is a supertalented man and has a lot of great things he can bring to the industry. If his mind and his body are in that place, surely he will be welcomed back with open arms into an industry that understands the enormity of his talent and his contributions from the past.”
Whether the customer is ready remains to be seen.
“Will everyone be thrilled? I can’t answer that,” Downing said. “That’s up to the customer in the end, but I think that he has worked very hard at getting himself together and making sure he finds himself in a good place.”
Foreshadowing another return to fashion, Galliano appeared on French television last month saying he was in the midst of a return “back into creativity,” citing his role as creative director for Russian perfumery chain L’Etoile and as a mentor to four male students at Central Saint Martins in London.
Following a series of drunken altercations that prompted his dismissal from Dior, the designer was charged with public insult, with a Paris court sentencing him to suspended fines totaling 6,000 euros, or $8,400. At his trial, Galliano blamed work-related stress and multiple addictions for his behavior.
He is embroiled in a labor case pitting him against his former employers, Christian Dior SA and John Galliano.
It is understood the designer is seeking compensation in the range of 6 million euros, or $8.1 million at current exchange, for wrongful dismissal. A works tribunal is slated to begin hearings on the case on Nov. 4.
However, sources said Galliano could be laying the groundwork for a possible rapprochement with Dior — seen as a possibility should the designer withdraw his ongoing labor suit against the company, as reported.
Galliano recently extended an olive branch to Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, during his television appearance, saying, “I hope one day to be able to visit him, explain what happened.”
A club kid from South London via Gibraltar, Galliano hit the international fashion radar immediately after graduating from Central Saint Martins. With his theatrical flair and inspirations of epic proportions, Galliano immediately became famous for his ultrafeminine gowns, innovative tailoring and a cheeky, streetwise edge.
Commercial success didn’t come as easily. Based in London early in his career, Galliano struggled throughout the Eighties and early Nineties, with a succession of backers. He had to close his business three times after they withdrew their financing because of slow sales growth.
Still, his technical virtuosity and knack for making fashion headlines attracted the attention of Arnault, who tapped him in 1995 to succeed Hubert de Givenchy upon his retirement, moving the British designer to Dior a year later. “Mr. Arnault is a true visionary to put someone like myself in my position,” Galliano told WWD in an interview in 2007. “Many houses have copied that since.”
At Dior, he succeeded a string of legendary design talents: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan and Gianfranco Ferré.
Galliano quickly woke up the brand with his bravado, a broad spectrum of fashion expression and a soaring imagination.
He characterized his shows around 1999 and 2000 as “rupture” moments for Dior, including the so-called “Matrix” couture collection that announced a tough-chic moment, and a hip-hop flavored, Lauryn Hill-inspired show that arrived at the onset of logo mania. He has also sent trailer-park babes, bruised boxers and rockabilly types down Dior’s rtw runway.
His signature collections have been no less spectacular, from Bollywood beauties dusted in colored powders to a charming, oddball parade of childlike cardboard floats and clothes deliberately too big for the models.
Later in his Dior career, Galliano churned out more ladylike and commercial rtw and ratcheted up references to Dior icons, like the bar jacket, equestrian looks, English men’s wear fabrics and the color gray.
Margiela’s spring show, with Kanye West in the front row next to Rosso, melded sweet, pioneer styles like floral house dresses with edgier fare like nude bodysuits and oversize Willy Wonka sunglasses.
Margiela himself, who along with the Antwerp Six put Belgium on the map, could not immediately be reached for comment. According to sources, he has recently poured creative energies into painting and other artistic pursuits.
OTB is also the parent of Diesel and the manufacturer Staff International. Last year, OTB’s revenues totaled about $2 billion.