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John Galliano: the New Constructionist

NEW YORK -- John Galliano looks a bit tired at Saturday morning breakfast in an East Village cafe, but there's a twinkle in his eye that matches the thoughts of diamonds that are floating around his head. Having just arrived in New York the day...

NEW YORK — John Galliano looks a bit tired at Saturday morning breakfast in an East Village cafe, but there’s a twinkle in his eye that matches the thoughts of diamonds that are floating around his head. Having just arrived in New York the day before, Galliano is excited by the results of a meeting he had with luxury jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels here on Friday.

Not wanting to give too much away, he only hints that it has him dreaming of what he could do with diamonds. His only disappointment about his visit to Van Cleef, he says, was not being able to see Empress Josephine’s tiara, which is out on exhibit. Ordering an espresso, Galliano explains that he used diamonds to accessorize his fall collection because the gems reflect an important element in fashion’s return to glamour.

“Diamonds are a great part of glamour,” he says. “I also like working with diamonds irreverently — wearing them in unexpected places. Or with necklaces, putting them on back to front. With the [fall] collection, part of the inspiration was the purity of the kimono. And with the back of the geisha girl’s neck being the most erotic part of her body, we put the necklaces on the models backwards.”

Prompted about whether he’s discussed doing a jewelry line for Van Cleef, he demurs. “I’d love to get into the jewelry side,” he says with a laugh. “It could happen.”

Galliano’s main reason for being in town, however, was not to meet with Van Cleef. It is for today’s presentation of his fall ready-to-wear collection at Bergdorf Goodman. The event features a fashion show brunch and personal appearance by Galliano at 11 a.m., followed by a trunk show. He explains that the collection that will be shown today — which will be delivered to the stores in August — marks what he felt was an essential response to deconstruction.

“After deconstruction, what do you do?” he asks. “You construct. You build structure and technique. My generation, perhaps, hasn’t had the chance to appreciate the fit of a wonderful jacket, like Dior, unless they’ve bought it at a flea market. Or to have the sense of a bias cut dress, again, unless they’ve bought it at a flea market. So it is important to work with old techniques and to use them as a springboard toward the future. I see that as a return to glamour and construction. Otherwise, we’ll lose all of that tradition.”

The Bergdorf’s event is expected to draw 110 guests, including David Bowie and Iman, and Joan Rivers. The 32-year-old designer is especially delighted about the occasion — although the thought of seeing David Bowie gets him nervous — because it was not long ago that Galliano was walking a fine line between being in or out of business. Until this winter, Galliano had been working out of the Paris atelier of Fayal Amor, the backer most notably of the Plein Sud collection. The plan was that Amor would help Galliano until he could find a group of investors. The fashion world, however, was filled with reports this winter that Galliano was not going to be able to ship his spring collection nor create a fall line. “I wasn’t out of business as such,” he maintains. “I was waiting until the right backers came along, but it was taking longer than I had planned, so I decided I had to go out there and sell myself. That was part of the reason I was in New York in November, and I met really interesting people.”

It was at one of the dinner parties Galliano attended in New York that he met Catie Marron, a contributing editor of Vogue, and wife of Donald Marron, chairman of Paine Webber. Catie Marron reportedly initiated the contact between Galliano and his current backers — Paine Webber International chairman John Bult and his associate, Mark Rice.

“I just started telling people what my dream was — of a couture house for the future,” he explains. “How I want to offer a service to women. I want to become an accomplice in helping a woman get what she wants…to offer the service of cutting the clothes directly on the body. It’s not heavy, and jeweled and constipated, like old couture.

“It was like a fairy tale, really,” he continues, of meeting Bult and Rice. “I don’t remember exactly how it happened. But I was invited to amazing parties, and I just kept telling everyone my dream and it happened.”

Although he admits now he had no money to produce his fall show, Galliano organized a small one — 17 pieces, most black — at the last minute, just to keep his name out and about. Bult and Rice attended.

The two businessmen are now Galliano’s partners, explains the designer. Their involvement has enabled him to have a fully staffed atelier in Paris — in a building Galliano describes as light and spacious — with his assistant from London, Steven Robinson, at his side. Jacqui Duclos, who accompanied Galliano to breakfast on Saturday morning — and who was anxious to check out the local retail scene — is the atelier’s general manager. While Galliano’s ready-to-wear line has caught the attention of the press, society ladies and fashion hounds alike, he is increasingly fascinated these days with the idea of cut-on-the-body couture. He believes there are women who crave that type of individual service, and it’s a business he is developing.

“I see a place for couture as much as I see a place for Gap clothing,” he says.

“At the moment I’m building up my couture clientele slowly,” Galliano continues. “I’m not rushing into it because the most important thing is to make sure the ladies are happy with it. But the couture clients that we have are some of the best in the world. And I’m learning as well. They teach me little tricks, like to cover the button this way or that.”

And he maintains that there is a demand for couture from younger women, rattling off an impressive list of young women for whom he’s made wedding dresses.

Of the American market, Galliano concedes it’s a challenge. “It’s a new market for me, although I have sold in America [to Untitled and Bagutta in New York and Maxfield and Comme Les Habitudes in Los Angeles],” he says. “It’s a different type of market and one I’m just coming to grips with. But we really want to make it work.”

Asked if he will be making more personal appearances in the U.S. to establish the business, Galliano says he would like to because he likes meeting customers “face to face.”

“But,” adds Duclos, “he’s not going anywhere after New York. He has to go back and work.”

Upon returning to Paris, Galliano will continue to design his spring-summer collection. And will diamonds play a major role again in that collection? “Wait and see,” he says with a wink. “Who knows — they might be designed by John Galliano. That would be fab, wouldn’t it?”