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John Galliano returned to fashion’s stage by pouring his bravado into the clothes — and not the set or his finale getup.

The name over the door — now shortened to Maison Margiela, as founder Martin is long gone — gave Galliano an excuse to shed his flamboyance and not strut out dressed as an astronaut, pirate or Cossack. Instead, there was a blink-and-you-missed-it bow à la Miuccia Prada: the Gibraltar-born, British designer smiling in the house’s signature lab coat as Shirley Bassey belted “Big Spender.”

This story first appeared in the January 13, 2015 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

This came after a no-frills couture show in an all-white space in which Galliano married his penchant for romantic silhouettes and daring cutting with the Belgian house’s codes stretching from deconstruction to brushes of white paint.

This two-part production had models first file out in one direction, and return wearing the toiles and experiments to realize this Artisanal collection, for which everything from bird figurines, scraps of fabric, toy soldiers and safety pins were repurposed.

The collection was bold, most exits densely detailed, save for a few simple evening columns, flaring bustier dresses and mannish tuxedo suits. It was a promising start, but fell short of the triumph so many were hoping for.

Despite the hype and hyperbole that proceeded Galliano’s show at the tail end of London Collections: Men, everything about the production seemed designed to calm, from the spa-like music that washed over the two rows of chairs and spotlights that lined the narrow room, to the restrictions on hubbub.

There were only three photographers in the pit, including one in-house, and no paparazzi allowed inside to document the arrival of Kate Moss and her rock-star husband Jamie Hince, plus designers including Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz, Manolo Blahnik and Rifat Ozbek.

The few people who jockeyed to reach Galliano backstage, whether for congratulations or ambush interviews, were deflected by PRs, presumably sheltering the designer from awkward questions or some of the pressures that might have fueled his use of alcohol and drugs. Galliano blamed those addictions, along with work-related stress, for the altercations that led to his dismissal from Dior and a conviction for public insult.

The Greta Garbo-like ways of Margiela himself, upheld since his retirement in 2009, may serve as a buffer for the 54-year-old Galliano as he steps gingerly back into the media spotlight.

Galliano chose London — where he first catapulted onto the scene in 1984 with his graduate collection at Central Saint Martins — for his first couture show since 2011, his last at Dior.

The anticipation in the room for one of the biggest fashion comebacks in recent memory was palpable, though well shy of electric. Yet for those who felt pathos for the long unemployment of one of modern fashion’s most acclaimed and incendiary talents, this was a moment to cherish.

Moss and Ozbek clapped and whooped as the finale dress came into view: A grand red ball gown with a breastplate of lockets and jewelry fragments, the model’s face shrouded in a Day of the Dead mask.

“Shivers. You know when you get the shivers down your legs? I had shivers up and down my legs,” Moss said immediately after the show.

American Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, the designer’s longtime champion and a linchpin figure behind his three-week designer-in-residence role at Oscar de la Renta in 2013, clapped and laughed at the conclusion of the show, staged at a gleaming new office tower not far from Buckingham Palace.

“It was brilliant,” Wintour said after the show. “What I loved was the mix: There was so much that we know and we love about John, but then he took the Margiela vocabulary and translated it in such an appealing and innovative way. I loved seeing all the toiles at the end where you can see all the work and the new embroidery.”

In lieu of previews and to avoid the usual post-show melee, Margiela emailed show notes immediately following the show. They trumpeted “a process of discovery, returning to one’s roots: Piece by piece, deconstructing and constructing a new story for Margiela.”

It was clear Galliano had dialed down, but not abandoned, the retro-tinged glamour he plied over a 15-year tenure at Dior. The dramatic swags of fabrics and explosions of tulle were still there. Ditto the theatrical, drag-queen makeup: Crystals winking from lips, cheeks and kiss curls.

Galliano upheld Margiela couture’s original mission of upcycling. Raw canvas jackets came trimmed with Matchbox cars, and a series of dresses were fronted with 3-D faces constructed of lacquered seashells, a wink to Giuseppe Arcimboldo paintings. The pileups of trinkets on strongly colored dresses also had a perfume of Christian Lacroix, another of fashion’s maximalists, now devoted to stage costumes.

The humor and whimsy — minus the death mask — suggested Galliano is in a happy frame of mind, taking a playful approach to the show, from the platform shoes with their puzzle-shaped pieces to eyelash embroideries on fabric rosettes, giving dresses a winking aspect.

He also stretched the boundaries of the range, dubbed Artisanal, by whirling silk ribbons into sexy mermaid columns, and patching together tulle, yarn, organza and safety pins into a dramatic sheer red gown, an animal print bodysuit visible underneath.

“That, in my mind I couldn’t live without it,” Moss enthused of the latter dress. “And the black ribbons, all the romantic things, I love.”

Other attendees were impressed.

“It was so surreal — this is the first show I have ever seen,” said Bailey. “I do shows, but I don’t go to them. It was just extraordinary. I wanted to keep pressing the pause button, to study, look closer at, play with and enjoy the clothes. It was just what I had hoped for — and more.

“There was such a huge amount of storytelling and I love the way the clothes were constructed — like a work in progress,” Bailey added.

Elbaz related that Galliano called him about 18 months ago to ask where he should buy good paper and pencils. “I’m here to see how the sketches turned out,” he said with a smile.

“The boy is back,” Blahnik declared, with Ozbek picking up his thought.
“Oh my God — what a comeback,” he said. Ozbek noted he’s been friends with Galliano “since the blitz days — the Eighties. John is back! John is back! John is back!”

The handful of retail executives in attendance said they liked what they saw.

“I thought it was brilliant: A great show, great new beginning. Very Galliano and very Margiela both,” said Mark Lee, chief executive officer of Barneys New York.

“You see how easily it comes for him to apply his creativity to a brand,” said La Rinascente creative director Tiziana Cardini. “For him, fashion is a dream, and he makes you think about it. There’s something magical and emotional to what he does.”

“The show was fabulous,” added Simon Burstein, chief executive officer of Browns in London, which famously bought Galliano’s graduation collection. “I loved the take on Margiela at the end of the show. The first 12 to 15 looks were pure Galliano, and the last were Margiela.”

Burstein said that Browns has carried Margiela men’s wear before, but will now carry the women’s line by Galliano. “It doesn’t matter what the label is. The talent, the signature, the handwriting is there. John can deliver. We’ve seen it. That’s genius for you,” he said.

Renzo Rosso, whose group, OTB, controls Margiela via a subsidiary called Neuf, appointed Galliano to helm the house last October, giving a second chance to a controversial talent. Prized for his ultra-feminine, historically inspired designs, and a particular penchant for bias-cut gowns, Galliano was hardly an obvious choice for a house known for cleft-toed boots and all-white stores.

“You have no idea what dreamers John and his team are and how much love goes into their work,” Rosso told WWD after the show. “We are so excited and happy. This is a very big moment for John and for Margiela. I saw some of the pieces in the studio beforehand, and we talked about them – but I never interfere. John is totally free. What you saw today was Margiela with the Galliano spirit.”

Asked why the backstage was closed, he replied: “We wanted the clothes to speak for themselves, and we wanted to step away totally from anything that was not about the clothes and about this marriage of super-creativity on John’s part and know-how and professionalism on ours.”

Galliano’s arrival at the Paris-based label should re-ignite interest in Margiela, which had waned in recent years as a succession of hidden talents cycled in and out of the house. Management had put the development focus on its secondary line MM6 as buzz faded around its top lines.

Market sources estimate the company generates about 100 million euros annually, or $126 million at current exchange. It operates about 50 directly owned stores.

Not yet involved in Margiela’s men’s wear, down for its fall-winter 2015 show on Jan. 23, Galliano’s next fashion moment falls on during Paris Fashion Week, scheduled for March 3 to 11.

The Artisanal spring 2015 couture is also to be presented by appointment during Paris Couture Week, Jan. 25 to 31.

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