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A Conversation With John Galliano

For Galliano, the road back to fashion has been long, but not lonely, as he found essential support in a core of dedicated friends.

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High-low, haute-street, minimal-opulent — the sartorial extremes that have become ingrained in fashion’s parlance. John Galliano has experienced extremes on a far deeper level, the object at different points in his career of raptured celebration and stunned censure.

Anyone involved in fashion during Galliano’s glory years at Dior, the mid-Nineties through early Aughts, knows his best shows for the house, and simultaneously, his own label, resulted in moments of pure magic. A dreamer with the imagination and skill to realize his dreams as glorious runway reveries, he was the right talent in the right place at the right time. Fashion then was far less clinical and more romantic than now, and more likely to group-swoon over something exquisite, whether or not there was a great deal of real-world crossover. It was also more indulgent of designer angst. But somewhere along the line, his runway magic started to fade. The shows grew increasingly erratic and less compelling, some with a palpable undercurrent of anger. Now we know why.

This story first appeared in the March 9, 2016 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Five years ago, Galliano left fashion in disgrace after the disastrous, drunken barroom incident that was as ugly as it was public and devastating to Galliano, the house of Dior and literally millions of people around the world, including legions of his customers, who felt betrayed. Galliano was persona non grata, not only in fashion, but everywhere.

Everywhere but rehab. Galliano disappeared from view to work on his issues, his anger, his addiction. The road back has been long, but not lonely, as he found essential support in a core of dedicated friends. He also found his way back to fashion. He took baby steps to New York, where he worked in-studio with Oscar de la Renta for the fall 2013 season. Oscar, he says, was “like a father, almost. I felt safe.” While Galliano shunned the press and the limelight in New York, his hand could be seen distinctly in the de la Renta collection. In October 2014, Galliano joined with Renzo Rosso, president of OTB, as creative director of OTB-owned Maison Margiela. While he’s taken a very different approach to showing than during his Dior height — instead of fantastical, intricately appointed sets, he shows in an intimate, no-frills plain white space — the intense creativity is back in full force. “It’s design,” Galliano says of his process.

I wasn’t in London for Galliano’s Maison Margiela Artisanal debut for spring 2015. During the following ready-to-wear season, I went to the house in Paris, where the collection was installed in a manner that referenced Galliano sets of yore — a bit of Miss Havisham meets The Brothers Grimm. Seeing the collection in person brought back the power of the man’s creativity, one crystallized in a single detail: on the skirt of a little bustier minidress, festoons of fringe made of black bobbi pins. In couture. John walked me through. We talked, but he declined to put the conversation on the record.

I returned this season, and this time pressed the red record button on my phone. We talked over tea, in John’s special room, a heady enclave of mostly vintage possessions he says have become “like friends.” Here, a skeleton wearing an Imperial Margarine-type crown; there, an ages-old cloth-bodied mannequin in cane-chair recline, naked but for picture hat and black velvet opera gauntlets. Galliano calls her “Auntie.” A beautiful spread of pastries and pastel macaroons was set on a table covered in shadow-striped white linen, its centerpiece a long, wistfully aged wooden horse. I assumed the green, pink and white china was Limoges. When John excused himself for a moment, I turned over a saucer to confirm. (Manners play second fiddle to journalistic accuracy.) Alas, just as fashion is a world or extremes, it is also one of irony. The saucer’s signage: Porte-Bonheur de Christian Dior.

 

Tell me about this room. Office? Sitting room?

It’s a place where I can come and resource, which is good for me. It’s a few of my favorite things.

Tell me about a few.

As you see, I like to collect, and they all have a little story behind them. They constantly engage and inspire, and I look at them differently each time, depending on the mood I’m in. They’re like friends.

The painting must have a story. [It depicts three family members, including a military man.]

It’s early 18th century. A very good family. He must have received an award at some point. You can see a [later-generation] member of the family actually painted his medal later on — it was added on. I felt it was quite punk in a way.

Kate Moss in Marilyn Monroe mode.

Kate [painted] by Banksy. I don’t travel very far without Kate.

The skeleton wearing a crown.

She was very late for her fitting.

What about the ship?

I found that in a flea market. I think it appealed to the boy in me.

Do you still collect? Do you find time for flea markets?

Yes. You get so much knowledge from people selling things. They spin a yarn and are inspiring, and one thing leads to another. You never stop learning, never stop learning.

What’s your working day like?

It depends on the collections. I’m a little bit more organized now. I am able to leave earlier, which is important, and to enjoy my life. And of course, there’s this great team. I can work step-by-step way more. I try to be a little more divisional — so when it’s Artisanal, it really is Artisanal, or when it is defilé, it really is defilé.

Is there a difference in how you approach Artisanal vs. ready-to-wear?

The approach is the same, really. Through the Artisanal, I’m able to experiment, develop a line. Then, some of those key things we industrialize for the ready-to-wear. The ready-to-wear does come with its own energy, but some of the concepts and the silhouettes or techniques developed for Artisanal can be exploited with the ready-to-wear, if we think they’re relevant.

Can you give me an example?

From the Artisanal, we worked a lot with the humble idea of collage and tearing papers, which I really got into. That not only developed as a surface decoration, but as a way of constructing garments or mixing garments.

How did it work?

It started with whatever I had, playing around. We photographed it. I just start ripping, and that emotion and that [torn] line became something that helped refocus the silhouettes and shapes, which is quite interesting.

You took pictures of looks, ripped them up and joined pieces of different looks together?

That’s one way. Another idea within that whole world of collage — “ripped to reveal.” It could be layers and layers and layers, and you could start to rip pieces off and [from there], reveal. Something as simple as that.

I can rip paper, too. How does it result in a couture collection?

In a very modern way. I was working with Pat
[McGrath] and we had pictures of the fitting. [In photographing a look] this happened. [Galliano indicates a photo with a white stripe down the model’s face.] A glitch.

It was a black-and-white picture, and we were just trying different colors [digitally]. I wanted to see the jacket in Yves Klein Blue. My design assistant was doing it and that came out. He was going to throw it away, and I said no. I wanted to see what the makeup would look like.

It became essential to the collection.

We had the mechanical version and the Artisanal version.

You seem to have a stronger affinity for day clothes than you once did.

Yes. I think because I have been inspired by great couturiers — Vionnet, Charles James — the challenge for me now is to be inspired by what we called “normcore” — normal, casual clothes. That isn’t to say there isn’t experimentation in some places. That was a challenge to me. Equally exciting: to be moved to tears by a territory I perhaps haven’t [delved into before]. [He indicates a sweater someone has brought in.] The looser chapman worn with the [trompe l’oeil] normcore polo. Again, running with that idea of collage.

Are you interested in expanding, perhaps into men’s?

Step by step. There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes kind of reassessing the fit and the cut, how it feels. I spent a lot of time working here and in Italy redefining that because the Collective had done a fantastic job, but it had become what’s known as a contemporary line, and now it’s a designer line. The fit wasn’t quite what I felt it should be. It’s been intense.

How did you change the fit?

There’s more emotion to it. You can feel a difference between a high-street and designer cut. There is more emotion. The challenge was the anonymity, those great four white stitches [the Margiela label], but how did it feel?

I understand designing with emotion, but cutting with emotion? Cut seems a like technical concept.

It is. But let’s describe a frill, a little frill. I could put Schubert on and cut the frill and it would be very different than if I listened to flamenco and cut that frill. You would get nuances, and it would be faster and slower and calmer and deeper and shallower, that frill. My emotion depends on my mood and the music I listen to, as opposed to a mathematical three centimeters — no, it’s not. It’s cut with feeling and emotion, and I think people today see that and feel that.

How do you feel right now?

Really good. Really good and so grateful to be experiencing what I am experiencing. To be given this second chance and to be reconnected and to be creating. I’m so grateful.

To whom are you grateful?

God. And of course, there’s been incredible support from the industry as well. You know, it’s not been easy. It’s hard work and daily work. But I am so grateful just to be able to reconnect with a creative process and with people. It’s wonderful.

Support from whom?

Very solid support from people in the industry who have believed in me, cared about me. And taken the time in my deepest, darkest hour to stay in touch and encourage me. That’s been amazing. Anna [Wintour] has been incredible. And Jonathan, Mr. Newhouse. Just a constant support when one had maybe lost faith in humankind.

Had you lost faith in humankind?

There were moments. There were dark moments where you don’t always understand, because you’re trying to understand yourself or forgive yourself or trying to understand what happened. Dealing with a lot of things, I’ve learned this concept of step-by-step, day-by-day. I didn’t understand the day-by-day thing. I’ve been so tied up with the future and what I’ve done yesterday. You’re not living anymore; you’re not in the moment. Now, I really do appreciate the moment and being in the moment. That’s not to say sometimes I don’t go off in my head, because we all do. But I’m much more aware of that now. And I’ve been given the tools; I know how to deal with it. Just being able to learn that at this time in my life is amazing.

How are you different today than when you left fashion?

I’ve reconnected with so many things; it’s a hard one to answer. It’s total abstinence. It’s a daily thing. I go to my meetings. I’m in a much, much better place now. Maybe you can feel it, hear it, you can see it. It’s an ongoing thing. I feel much, much happier.

Do you miss drinking?

I’m somewhere else now; I don’t need that. But I won’t say the desire or temptation ever goes away. It’s a disease. The minute I thought that it would go away, I’d be in trouble. I’d have to run to a meeting. It’s that daily [process], it’s a daily reprieve.

What is your day-by-day approach?

Just being connected and present. Often I wasn’t present. I was consumed by guilt and worry and so many things.

Guilt about what?

That was more having to do with my upbringing or [concern about] the future. A lot of those things would take up a lot of my time, and I lost a lot of time to be in the present, which is where I am today. I’m superhappy, and I’m grateful for everyone that helped me get to this point. It’s hard work.

Do you feel your perspective has changed?

I love fall now. I go to the countryside. I see the leaves and see how they create a tapestry on the lake and the lights. I never noticed that before. I would say, “Oh it’s too cold; I’m not going there.” I’m just more aware of everything. That’s why I’m so grateful. I wasn’t that aware. I was in this world that’s producing what I have to produce. That isn’t living….The learning process and learning to communicate with people as well. It’s just wonderful.

In what way could you not communicate before?

I just found it very difficult. I would have to be in a certain state to be in a room with some people.

Certain state as in, under the influence?

Under the influence of whatever. I was full
of fear.

What were you afraid of?

That is quite a deep question. It’s just this mind-set. The phone would ring and I would jump out of my skin. Just walking across the room in the morning, I felt like I was walking on eggshells. It’s just fear, everything was fear.

Can you say why?

There are many reasons why. That’s where my mind was at that point. There were many things I dealt with and am dealing with still. Once you deal with feeling the anguish, the aggression, all of these negative emotions…

What’s most important about being back at work?

I’m able to create again.

Is your approach different now?

It’s personal for everyone, how you create a collection…I see myself or my behaviors in other people. I recognize obsessive people…I say to myself, “Let it go, John, let it go. You’re not going to win. The only person that is suffering is you. Let it go. She’s not feeling any of your anger and she’s never going to feel it.” [Before] I was totally unaware of what motivates some people, I was self-willing. I used to self-will all of the time and along with that, I made other people help me achieve. It was never God’s will. It’s not what God wanted. Now, I see when a fitting’s not happening. I’m just like, let it go. Before, we would suffer. I would get there and I thought it was perfection. It wasn’t really perfect at all.

Are you comfortable letting things go?

It’s such a revelation to understand yourself and what you’re going through and how to take life on life’s terms and not on your terms.

What makes someone wise in your eyes?

All of those things we talked about. Staying in the present and being able to handle emotions and being able to handle what’s coming from other people and not always jumping to conclusions in my head. How can I possibly know what’s in your mind? I thought I did. It’s just all that. Surrounding yourself with wise people, strong people that are like rocks. I’m not saying I’m the wisest man in the world. And to not take myself so seriously.

As a designer, is it difficult to not take yourself seriously?

That’s not my driving force. I’m passionate about creating, I’ve had experience with building a brand. I love doing that, but I’m doing it a little bit more on my own terms today. I love coming to work. I love being in this room. I walk here with my dog. I never had that sense of enjoyment.

Not even in the early days in London?

No, because it was fueled by so many other things.

Have you been in touch with anyone from your former professional life, anyone at Dior?

Some people did reach out and some people didn’t. When something like that happens, there’s a silence. People just don’t know how to react. Some people actually felt they were partly involved or an enabler, which is not true. But that stops people from reaching out. But, I have seen a couple of people.

Did you reach out to anyone?

I tried to, to some people. But honestly, I changed my landscape completely. I changed my location to the countryside, which was really good for me because there was a lot I had to deal with. I did bump into some people in different instances in my life. You just pick up like nothing had happened. Or I’ll really apologize for what happened and they don’t know how to react. I’m still making amends. That’s a daily thing to do as well.

You’re a creative person. Did you continue to create on some level, all along?

No. Because you see, I equated being creative with what I said, and so I couldn’t pick up a pencil for four years. The two things just didn’t work. I couldn’t. I hadn’t forgiven myself. That takes a lot of work — to forgive yourself. I would still go to a market or rearrange the house or paint a wall. The fashion thing, I couldn’t go there. It was too painful for me.

What made you decide that you were ready?

I’m not saying I was completely ready. But I felt in my recovery I had tackled a lot of issues. Then Oscar [de la Renta] reached out to me. Nothing was planned, really. I felt strong enough to go to New York. Oscar was so protective, like a father almost. I felt safe. That helped. It’s been step by step, there’s not one moment you wake up and say, “OK, I’m ready to start creating.” Mr. Rosso had approached me the year before, and when he approached me I was definitely not ready.

Did you tell him that?

Yes. I’m honest. I said, no way. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it.

Didn’t get what? There are points of convergence in your and the Margiela aesthetics.

Totally — since I met Martin. We’d met back in the day.

What was your impression of him?

I wasn’t always conscious. He was JPG’s [Jean Paul Gaultier’s] assistant and we had crossed paths. We had a lot in common. I met him [after getting the Margiela job]. That was a quite wonderful experience. I remember him saying, “Take what you will from the house, protect yourself, but make it your own.”

Did he come here?

I’m not sure how it happened. Maybe we shouldn’t go into too much detail because I do respect him enormously. Maybe Mr. Rosso reached out. It’s quite hard to get a hold of Mr. Martin, and he replied, “Yes, I would love to meet John.” I thought, “This is major. I’m going to do it at home.” So we had tea. He came to my house. I think he arrived at about three and left at nine, and it was just the most magical — just to hear him speak of his love of 17th-century poetry or costuming. Who would have known! Or understanding kitsch and the L.A. side. I didn’t have to ask any questions. It was God-sent! As he left, I said, “Let’s stay in touch.” He said, “You might not hear from me for a while.” We do converse. He does reply. I give him an update with what we’re doing. He’s always concerned with my health. He’s really nice, a gentleman, no?

I’ve never met him.

Cool with the last fiber in his body.

Why did you retain the white lab coats?

It was emotion…it was trying to construct a couture house. That’s what you wear in couture houses, the lab coat.…His aspiration [was] for a couture house.

Interesting.

And the white chairs. They were all different. To give a harmony, he painted them all white. That whole white-coat thing became a DNA. I guess this myth, it’s built and built and built. It was an organic thing that grew. The other thing about the white coat, it helps you to focus a bit in fittings because there are no distractions. Still, my mind will wander. You focus on how people still try to denote differences, whether it’s a red lip or the heel gets higher. You read that.

You said that for a long time, you couldn’t take pencil to paper but now you can. How does the work impact the recovery?

It’s a very important question. Because it took me over.

What took you over?

The creative side. And of course, I started missing my meetings. I was working here until midnight and people close to me noticed. “John, what’s going on?” And I started lying and saying, “I left at 9 last night.” Then I said, “This is in my agenda. Seven o’clock on Tuesday I’m out of here because I have to go to my meeting and I can’t let this thing, I can’t think of the right word — never again will my work become more important than my health.” That’s where I’m coming from; work was everything and my health was falling apart.

Again, it’s a daily thing. I get carried away like we all do in the creative process and suddenly that’s more consuming — that’s the word I’m looking for. And I can step back and say, “This can wait until tomorrow. The world is not going to burn if I walk away from this fitting now.” It’s a balance.

The work-life balance conversation has become a major fashion topic. Is the industry just too demanding right now, particularly for its creators?

I can only talk for myself, for my creative process. I need that time to develop and kind of live with it a little bit. I get that time with Artisanal.…I know that some people like to turn it around really fast and move on. For me, my designs are considered, not just how they look or the proportions, but how they feel. It’s considered design. That takes time.

Do you pay attention to the conversation of whether the shows should be timed to the consumer schedule? Do you care?

Of course I care. It’s something I’m very passionate about. We are all creating this desire with social media. It’s wonderful, but it’s kind of taken us over a little bit. Maybe this whole world needs some balance, to know when to stop. We are creating a desire, people want it, they want to wear it now. I think everyone will find their way of dealing with this, and at Maison Margiela, we will find a way of rising to this challenge. There is not a formula. There’s nothing to say a part of the collection can’t be bought [early] if I could get my hands on the fabrics in time. That’s our life today, and I am connected to that.

The one thing I would like to bring back to that equation is the emotional aspect of it; we’re seduced. I was in London for Mrs. B’s [Joan Burstein, founder of Browns] birthday — it was divine. She’s a wonderful lady who bought my graduation collection. It was a surprise, and it was heaven.

So on Sunday, I went to Selfridges. I walked past a little tray of gloves and the fit was great and I said, “I’ll buy six of these.”

You understand the instant-gratification desire.

Of course one understands that. I think as well something like Artisanal is going to become more relevant to today. We are inundated with these things and they’re interpreted to the high street. Something that has an emotion and meaning and has been decorated means more — it’s authenticity. What we’re after is something more authentic.

Can you describe authenticity?

We need it. I just explained a tweed glove. I don’t know, I need that. I need my tweed jacket when I’m in the country. I need my Gucci bag. [He picks up an ultratony bag. There’s only one in the world. No, there’s two.

Alligator?

Let’s just say it’s an exotic.

Authenticity. Appropriate, inappropriate. At Dior, your runway bow was a major deal. Now you don’t take a bow at all. Is a grand bow no longer appropriate?

Honestly, I started to do those little bows that then become overwhelming and became forced. The president at Dior said, “You’ve got to go out there and be really confident. Imagine you’re a toreador and you just killed the bull. Then you’re going to inspire everyone with confidence in what you’ve done.”

Who said that to you?

That was [former Dior president] Mr. [François] Baufame. That grew and started to become part of the creative process. Then it kind of took over a bit and that was the past. Part of — I don’t want to say my comeback, because I didn’t go anywhere — I wanted to put the focus back on the clothes. That was also an appeal of coming to Maison Margiela. It’s about respect of the tradition and all of the things that matter today. I’m really happy.

Not taking a bow keeps the focus on the clothes.

I never wanted the focus to go off the clothes. I never set out to do that; it happened. I’m really happy that now I don’t read, “disgraced designer” or about who is sitting in the front row. It’s great because all of the focus is back on the clothes.

Is there an emotional or psychological difference in working for another brand as opposed to under your own name? Would you like to design under some version of your own name?

I’ve done a great work in my head. I am emotionally, mentally, very recovered from my past; I’m not that person anymore. I am so grateful to be able to create in this way, at this house. That’s my passion and what’s driving me now. I think that answers the question. You can see that I’m loving this challenge here today. It is a step-by-step process, and I’m totally focused on the job at hand and what I’m doing.

Tell me about Renzo Rosso.

He’s been very gentle. Understanding. Like I said, when he first reached out, I wasn’t ready at all.

And he came back.

I wasn’t ready in my head, and I think I let Renzo seduce me for a bit. I didn’t say “no” to the boat and the cruise around the Greek Islands with Gypsy, my dog. Then I said, “No, I’m just not ready.” He said, “Look, John, we’ll turn up the security. Come to the house.” I came with Alexis [Roche, Galliano’s longtime companion]. When I walked through that door I looked at Alexis and he said, “Do you feel ready?” When I saw the building, [the view of] the church [across the street]. He said, “I’m sure you’re ready. It will feel really good.” And Renzo said, “Do you want to come to tea and talk about this?”

There’s nothing wrong with a little seduction.

I didn’t know about the [building’s] history, that it was a nunnery before it turned into an industrial school of design. And Saint-Joseph [des Nations] Church — at that time they would build churches on the most positive energy.

Privacy seems like a vanished concept today. Are you more conscious than ever of trying to retain some privacy?

I value my privacy. It is true, I turn a certain way in difficult corners. When it’s fashion week, I choose not to go to some restaurants. It’s the balance. I was really proud of myself when I went to Mrs. B’s. There were a lot of fashion people, really nice people.

The birthday party for Joan Burstein.

I was sitting between Mrs. B and Suzy [Menkes]. I had a whale of a time, actually, maybe because I am much more connected today. Alber was there. And Rifat Özbek and Robert Forrest. I walked in. At first I had a bit of an “Oh…” — like that. There was so much love in that room.

Back to your recovery — do you fear relapse?

Everyone does. I’ve heard stories, people who relapse after 22 years. They say, “I’m three days old.” It’s cunning. It’s baffling. It creeps up on you.

What are your biggest character flaws and strengths? Flaws first.

I jump to conclusions, I can be irritable. Sometimes it’s very simple; I haven’t eaten. I can be impatient, I put a lot of pressure on myself.

Greatest strengths?

Well, looking at my life, I would say resilience. And I’m from South London — having a sense of humor.

Are people from South London humorous?

Yes, because they’re real. When your back’s up against the wall, humor is something that’s very important. As well as creativity.

Do you feel joyful?

I do feel joyful. It’s fine to be joyful; I don’t feel guilt about being joyful at all. I think I did before. I didn’t deserve this. That’s all from the past.

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