By  on March 2, 2011

The fashion world is in shock over the news of John Galliano, his dismissal from Dior and the inexplicable behavior that prompted it. The sadness equals the shock. With everyone together for collections in a twist of timing, there’s the aura of a wake after a sudden death. May this not offend those who love Alexander McQueen, but I feel not unlike I did last year when I learned the news of Lee’s death: One of our rare geniuses, a man of unique and irreplaceable talent, has destroyed his career. Coming on the front-end of the New York shows, McQueen’s death cast a dark shadow over the entire season; Galliano’s career crash casts a pall over Paris.

I don’t know Galliano well, certainly not well enough to speak with conviction about his innermost thoughts and emotions. I have witnessed much of his career, not from the London days but from that intimate, glorious show at São Schlumberger’s hotel particulier in 1994. It seems a lifetime ago, and in fashion terms, it was.

I’ve seen the transition from those madcap, flights-of-fancy shows to the passionate dissonance of the “Matrix” era, to a time when he seemed fed up and over it all, to his apparent embrace, marked by a remarkable couture collection for spring 2007, of his role as the creative master behind, and public emissary of, one of the biggest, most storied luxury brands in the world.

Never in all those years of seasonal check-ins has Galliano presented himself other than as a quiet, gentle soul. At times he seemed uncomfortable with the monotony of walking editors through his collections; at other times, agreeable and energized, possibly substance-enhanced. One sensed a bit of wickedness, but playful, never hateful or mean. Without a devilish sense, how could he have produced those brilliant shows? In recent years, as Galliano brought his aesthetic to a place more pretty than perverse, his demeanor indicated increasing comfort with the role of house emissary. He would talk about the art of creation, his still-wondrous points of reference and methods of realization, but he would work in snippets about protecting the brand, globalization, the need to give his ladies what they want.

When my colleague Marc Karimzadeh and I met with him in New York in December, his conversation proved pure delight. He was open, witty and, for whatever reason, in the mood to talk. Part of that conversation came to mind as I watched the hideous video that is his ultimate undoing. Galliano told Marc and me of a shoot with Marion Cotillard in a tacky ballroom in SE4, a rough section of southeast London. “You from around here? I can tell from your voice,” the proprietor inquired. “I was like, ‘Yeah, but not SE4. I grew up in SE22’ which is even rougher,” Galliano responded. “I asked ‘What happens here now?’ Because I couldn’t imagine SE4 people coming in here now and doing waltzes. So he goes, ‘Well, we get a lot of gay people coming in here now....They dance.’” From the tinge of first-person knowledge in his delivery, it was clear Galliano found the exchange with the proprietor both amusing and stirring.

The gentleness, the worldliness and the likelihood that a man who dresses like a pirate at 50 may have confronted hatred himself in his younger years in a rough neighborhood made it impossible not to give John the benefit of the doubt when the news of Thursday’s bar incident hit. He couldn’t be anti-Semitic. Who hasn’t at some time told or laughed at a questionable joke based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, fat, skinny, whatever, without buying into the real meaning? And practically speaking, who shows the angriest, most frightful side of his personality for the first time in middle age? Everyone latched on to the much-traveled, though unsubstantiated, version of events, in which Galliano, provoked by insults sent his way, insulted the woman’s handbag, calling it ugly.

Then came the video, and Galliano’s positive invocation of the H-word. Angry, goaded people say things in haste, or type them and hit send before considering the ramifications. Drunk people, at least some, say things they can’t remember the next day. We live in a society in which people can and will say almost anything, and get away with it. Almost.

Watching that video proved surreal. I don’t claim to be an intimate of Galliano, but I’ve been in his presence often enough to have seen some inkling of viciousness. I never did. I have no sense of how this particular person could have said that particular thing. Most people I’ve spoken to can’t believe it either. Everyone comes back to: “It’s not the real Galliano.”

Since the video was posted on The Sun’s Web site Monday, all kinds of surreal reaction has mounted. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal Europe’s front page featured a giant photo of Galliano on one side, a piece on Gadhafi on the other. The IHT placed its page one story below the fold, kitty-corner to a Dior watch ad. Most bizarre, in postings on Italian Vogue’s, Franca Sozzani, while stressing, “I condemn John’s words,” was more outraged by “how quick these young people were to try to gain notoriety or money while destroying the image of a genius in the process.” Was Galliano drunk and egged on? Apparently. But we can each write one part of every script — our own.

The moment that video surfaced, everyone knew Galliano had to go. His undoing reads as all the more tragic because he fell victim not to miscreants with phones — note to famous people: Everybody has one — but to self-destruction, perhaps rooted in issues about which we know nothing. Some observers have pointed to the death of Steven Robinson, his friend and right hand for more than 20 years and long the head of the Dior and Galliano studios. Who knows what other sadness may have happened in his life? But not even a mild-mannered creative genius can get a pass on this one.

One assumes that Galliano’s dismissal from Dior was based on moral grounds as well as sound business practice. But businesses make decisions based on what’s good for the business. Great genius has always been given license to act more outrageously, and sometimes more offensively, than the rest of us. But there are limits. Furthermore, Galliano is not only a creative genius; he was also an extremely high-ranking executive at a large mainstream luxury house.

At some point, you’ve got to toe the line. In-house, the line held that Galliano’s drinking was out of control. He was encouraged, and refused, to get help. Now perhaps he will; it is incredibly sad the need didn’t resonate before that fateful October night at La Perle. “I love the business and I’m very fortunate to be in this fantastic business,” he said in December. “I’ve been very lucky to work with the greats at Dior.”

At the time, Galliano talked as well about Natalie Portman, the face of Miss Dior Cherie, who on Tuesday severed ties with Galliano (without mentioning Dior). Galliano had not seen “Black Swan,” and inquired, “It’s about dance, isn’t it?” Told it was a psychological thriller about a woman whose emotion for her art sends her over the edge, “Oh,” he responded, “that sounds familiar.”

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