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VERSAILLES — John Galliano gave new meaning to the term artsy with a breathtaking Christian Dior fall couture collection inspired by painters, illustrators and photographers. Picasso’s harlequins, for instance, sparked this romantic diamond-motif pantsuit, replete with a ruff and sweeping hat. It was shown at Versailles on Monday, where a lavish fete to celebrate the house’s 60th anniversary also took place.
John Galliano doesn’t cotton to being trumped by another’s grandeur — not even the Sun King’s. So it was inevitable that, for Christian Dior’s double anniversary bash — celebrating the house’s 60th birthday and, perhaps even more significant to Galliano, his own 10th year at its artistic helm — he would stage an extraordinary event, one dazzling enough to stand up to its backdrop, Versailles, the very name of which pulses with beauty, opulence and boundless indulgence.
Though royal life at Versailles did not end well, anyone who attended the Dior show on Monday night can attest that, in fashion at least, the exquisite lavishness it stood for is alive and breathtaking. Galliano’s Bal des Artistes proved an epic spectacle that riffed on the masked-ball motif, while providing a giddy feast for devotees of anything-goes haute and a big royal “take that” to those who have ever doubted the designer in any way. This was an especially emotional show for Galliano, his first since the sudden death in April of Steven Robinson, head of the Dior and Galliano Studios, to whom the collection was dedicated. “He was friend, family. There’s a very big hole,” Galliano said the day before his show. “But I have a guiding star up there. I’m feeling him.”
The designer more than wowed his thousand guests with every move, including the Surrealist improvements he made to the endless L’Orangerie corridor where he installed his runway — it takes beaucoup moxie du mode to plop Cocteau-esque animalia masks on baroque statuary. There was his musical fusion of string quartet, gospel and flamenco, and a post-show party on the grounds that wisely featured not a sit-down dinner but myriad tents, some with food stations and others, sumptuous seating arrangements done up with plush upholstered faux Louis this-and-that. Most importantly, the clothes were magnificent. No, they weren’t for any real-life end use, at least not this side of crazed billionaire weddings or the Met Costume Institute gala; (as with ready-to-wear, the “commercial” collection is back in the atelier). These gems wouldn’t even suit a major-release period costume drama; they’d break the most indulgent film budget.
Just like the Hall of Mirrors, they exist because someone had an over-the-top thought and the wherewithal to realize it, the latter comprised not only of talent and resources but guts galore. Consider Galliano’s account of finding the inner mettle to produce so audacious a spectacle. After a trip to Seville, the designer determined that the show would have some type of Spanish component. (Hello, Goya and El Greco.) He then spent time with famed matador Miguel Abellán, who invited him to a pré-corrida dressing ceremony. Galliano explained the experience in dramatic mien, quoting Abellán as confiding, “If I could escape, I would,” and, when fully dressed, “Now, John, there is no escape.” “He’s a kid, ” Galliano said, “and the courage.” Just before the corrida, the two had prayed together. “I have never felt closer to God,” Galliano proclaimed with Shakespearean tension, “than when I came out of that chapel.”
A performance? Perhaps, but a captivating one to which Galliano managed to relate his own ability to turn out a stunning show that celebrated art through the prism of the New Look and vice versa, with homages to artists as diverse as Christian Berard, Watteau and Rembrandt. First out: Gisele-as-an-Irving Penn, the first of a stellar multigenerational cast of supers that included Amber, Shalom, Linda, Helena and Naomi along with today’s current runway girls. Gisele’s seriously peplumed and embroidered gray wool suit and a divine René Gruau sheath punctuated with an enormous 3-D hip rose were about as simple as the clothes got, as Galliano proceeded through heady Symbolists, moody Spaniards and endless poufed, bustled and bedazzled neo-romantics, often punctuating his own wonders with glorious Stephen Jones chapeaux. It was awesome in the extreme, just like Versailles itself.