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Seeing John Galliano come out for his runway bow at Dior—dressed as a pirate one season, an astronaut or admiral the next—for years ranked as one of the theatrical high points of Paris Fashion Week.
This story first appeared in the March 21, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But this season, the fashion world was instead transfixed by a grainy online video depicting Galliano—looking vaguely Pierrot in a tall cap and demonstrative collar—engaged in a drunken, anti-Semitic rant at a Paris cafe. “I love Hitler,” he says in a slurred voice.
In what will go down as one of the most bizarre, shocking and momentous stories in recent memory, Galliano was ousted as Dior’s couturier, marking the sudden end of a 15-year affair between one of the industry’s most acclaimed talents and luxury titan Bernard Arnault, his champion and benefactor.
A week of rapid-fire developments and wrenching emotion seemed to turn the industry on its head, raising a host of questions:
• Does Galliano’s ouster represent the end of the star designer role, giving primacy to brands rather than the creative talents behind them?
• With Galliano’s fall from grace coming only a year after the suicide of Lee Alexander McQueen, another incendiary talent, is it officially the end of the mind-blowing runway extravaganza?
• Is it possible for Galliano to rebound from the taint of anti-Semitism, and overcome what appears to be alcohol addiction, to work in fashion again?
• Who will fill one of the most coveted—and high-pressure—seats in fashion and become Dior’s next couturier?
The Galliano affair ignited while the fashion pack was still in Milan, and word spread quickly that the designer had been detained by police after a drunken altercation in a cafe with a couple who lodged complaints of racist and anti-Semitic outbursts.
Dior reacted swiftly, immediately suspending the designer and citing its policy of zero tolerance for such beliefs or attitudes. What had been perceived as a close alliance between Galliano and Dior chief executive officer Sidney Toledano, who is Jewish, was swept aside, and an iron curtain seemed to fall between Arnault and his prized couturier, whom he had frequently hailed for his design prowess.
Although Dior ranks as his most treasured fashion property, Arnault kept silent during the crisis, and was notably absent from the Dior show, which went ahead despite the turmoil—and with an extra surreal twist: Newspapers were handed out in slick folders advertising Dior Addict lipstick. Inside the tent erected in the Rodin museum’s gardens, the show was a sober affair, with no front-row hoopla, bookended by a speech by Toledano and a runway bow from the white-robed seamstresses and craftsmen from Dior’s atelier. “It has been deeply painful to see the Dior name associated with the disgraceful statements attributed to its designer, however brilliant he may be,” a rueful Toledano proclaimed. “So now, more than ever, we must publicly recommit to the values of the House of Dior.”
Meanwhile, the Galliano presentation—downgraded from a runway spectacle—was an informal but more lyrical showing of delicate dresses in a tableau of mismatched furniture and platters laden with sweets.
Business as usual? So it seemed, as Arnault grabbed headlines the very next morning by announcing his biggest deal in years: a $6 billion transaction that will see Italian jeweler Bulgari absorbed into his constellation of brands at luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The market, confident Dior would transcend the crisis, turned its attention to the transformative Bulgari deal.
Still, Arnault has big shoes to fill at Dior, a storied French couture brand with a $1.1 billion fashion franchise. The titan has at his disposal an array of in-house talents, including Louis Vuitton’s creative director, Marc Jacobs; Givenchy’s rising star, Riccardo Tisci, and Celine’s minimalist master, Phoebe Philo. But he could also try and wrangle away Alber Elbaz from Lanvin or Nicolas Ghesquière from Balenciaga, or snap up a young, red-hot talent such as Haider Ackermann. Dior has repeatedly said it is in no hurry to name a new couturier.
Galliano’s flameout, coupled with another fashion week bombshell that Balmain designer Christophe Decarnin was battling depression and on leave under doctor’s orders, sparked another debate: Is the breakneck speed and intensified industrial pressure driving fragile talents to the brink?
“I’m sure it’s the pressure and it’s everything that’s not normal at the moment,” remarked Joan Burstein, the owner of Browns in London, who famously bought Galliano’s 1984 graduation collection. “Fashion, I think, has caught up so many designers in such a fever.”
Yet many industry figures countered that no extenuating circumstances relieve creative people of their responsibilities. “You don’t accept this kind of business if you’re too much of an artist,” noted Karl Lagerfeld.
“You don’t think bank tellers have problems? You don’t think people in the middle of the suburbs have problems?” asked Marc Jacobs, who has been open about stints in rehab and time spent in self-help groups for substance abuse. Jacobs said he learned in various treatment scenarios that “blaming is such a complete waste. I mean, it’s so pointless. To say, you know, my mother was absent and therefore I ran amok, it’s ridiculous.”
The High Court in Paris is to announce on May 12 the date when Galliano is to stand trial on a charge of public insult stemming from three complaints. He could face six months imprisonment and a fine of 22,500 euros, or $31,300 at current exchange.
The designer has apologized, sought help for substance abuse, vowed to fight to clear his name and reputation and continued to deny the charges against him. “Anti-Semitism and racism have no part in our society. I unreservedly apologize for my behavior in causing any offence,” Galliano said in a statement released by his lawyers.
Unless he’s able to rehabilitate himself, fashion has been robbed of one of its greatest showmen: a club kid from South London via Gibraltar who unleashed fireworks right out of the starting blocks. With his theatrical flair and romantic inspirations of epic proportions, Galliano became famous for his bias-cut gowns, innovative tailoring and a cheeky, streetwise edge. He became Dior’s couturier in 1996 after a one-year stint at Givenchy, waking up the sleepy brand with artistry, imagination and bravado.
Mining the house heritage, Galliano brought Irving Penn photos and René Gruau illustrations to vivid life. He also summoned transporting and pulse-pounding runway magic with collections inspired by China, Egypt and Latin dance. Among wonders parading his signature runway were Bollywood beauties dusted in colored powders and a charming, oddball parade of childlike cardboard floats.
“A gust of genius blew through the room,” was Arnault’s reaction to Galliano’s 2000 “tramps” couture for Dior, inspired by the homeless and mentally ill.
A lone, silent demonstrator outside the latest Dior show seemed to sum up the stunning turn of events. Cradling yellow flowers, he hoisted a sign declaring “The King Is Gone.”
The guessing game about who might replace John Galliano as Dior’s new couturier is also a gambling game.
The Irish online bookmaker Paddy Power recently closed betting on Galliano’s replacement, with Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci the 3-to-1 favorite. The odds are lower for Alber Elbaz (9-2), Roland Mouret (5-1), Stefano Pilati and Olivier Theyskens (6-1) and Nicolas Ghesquière (8-1).
Here’s a snapshot of some of the potential contenders.
PROS: Givenchy’s rising star knows couture, has deafening buzz and an artsy entourage.
CONS: His brand of dark romanticism seems too gloomy and edgy for glamorous Dior.
PROS: Charisma, good looks, marketing muscle and Hollywood connections.
CONS: He’d have to do an about-face on the low-key policies he’s instilled at his own brand, not to mention control issues.
PROS: The architect of Lanvin’s rejuvenation is a media darling, and can do ladylike chic and emotion-laden fashion shows.
CONS: Had his fingers burnt at another big brand—Yves Saint Laurent—and holds equity, both emotional and monetary, in Lanvin.
PROS: A cultural force with rock-star charisma, he already worked wonders at Dior Homme.
CONS: Has never really designed women’s collections, and seems monolithic in his black-and-white brand vision.
PROS: Louis Vuitton’s superstar designer does big shows and generates big buzz.
CONS: He already generates all that—and big bucks—for LVMH’s cash-cow brand.
PROS: This comeback kid heated up Celine in a nanosecond, and is obsessed with haute quality.
CONS: Dior would have to move its atelier across the Channel to satisfy this die-hard Londoner, and devout minimalist.
PROS: Synonymous with experimentation, modernity and couture-caliber creativity.
CONS: Holds a minority stake in Balenciaga, and seems married to its ongoing rejuvenation.
PROS: The successor to Lee Alexander McQueen has proven herself a gutsy talent, and true couturier.
CONS: She was hired by McQueen right out of school and seems devoted to upholding her master’s teachings and legacy.
PROS: Has Karl Lagerfeld’s stamp of approval and fawning admiration of editors and retailers.
CONS: His business is niche, and he has limited exposure to corporate behemoths.
PROS: American fashion’s greatest sister act, the Mulleavys can spin poetry and runway magic.
CONS: Niche players, they’ve been somewhat indifferent to overtures from LVMH.