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John Galliano in Savannah, Georgia? If the idea of the Parisian couturier and all-around over-the-top character in the Deep South seemed unlikely — well, it almost happened.

This story first appeared in the May 20, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Galliano was scheduled to accept the Savannah College of Art and Design’s André Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award Saturday night at the school’s annual graduate fashion show, but he canceled at the last minute. It was during a lunch for press, designers and other SCAD guests, held Saturday afternoon at college president Paula S. Wallace’s home, that word spread that the designer would not make the trip. The rumor was confirmed later in the day in a statement released by Olivier Bialobos, vice president of press and international public relations for Christian Dior. “John Galliano became ill last night and is not able to travel today to Savannah,” the statement read. The news was quite a shock, since, when it broke, Galliano was thought to be en route with Talley.

Indeed, Talley, Vogue’s editor at large, is the reason such a high-profile designer would be on the road to Savannah. Since receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award himself in 2000, and subsequently adding his name to it, Talley, who sits on the SCAD board of trustees, has set a gold standard for award recipients. He has drawn a list of major designers — Oscar de la Renta, Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, all of whom accepted in person, and Karl Lagerfeld, who did not — not to mention media attention, to the school. Yet even among such a group of predecessors, getting Galliano there was a big deal. “It took us two years to plan to get John here because of his busy schedule,” said Talley, a few hours before the evening’s festivities began. “I’m devastated that he’s not here.” Of course, as Talley pointed out, this isn’t the first time Galliano was a no-show. In 1996, he famously stood up Queen Elizabeth II and then-French president Jacques Chirac for a royal state dinner at Buckingham Palace. His excuse? A panic attack.

Between British royals and heads of state, SCAD is in good company. And, as Talley sees it, it’s Galliano who’s missing out. “I’ve been coming here since 2000, and Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, no one has ever gone away without thinking this is the most extraordinary place. Savannah is the physical jewel of the south,” he continued, adding that SCAD had really rolled out the red carpet for Galliano, going so far as to book a gospel choir to greet his plane — which was missing the guest of honor, of course. “I know John would have loved it. We will bring him wonderful visual souvenirs.”

Still, the town did get a significant glimpse of Galliano. Earlier this month, the designer oversaw the long-distance mounting of a photo exhibition at the college’s Red Gallery. Its purpose, he told WWD in a previous interview, is to highlight his career and “document the many changing faces, moods of not only myself but of fashion.” Among the works on display are photos of the designer and his creations by Peter Lindbergh, Nick Knight, Steven Meisel, Ellen von Unwerth, Paolo Roversi, Julien d’Ys, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Stéphane Sednaoui and Zanna.

As for Saturday’s scheduled activities, the show must go on. And it did, without any additional hitches. Talley, who took to the stage in a flourish of custom-made Valentino crimson cut like an oversize graduation robe and magenta Yigal Azrouël turban studded with Fred Leighton gems, lauded Galliano to the hilt.

“John Galliano is the emperor in new clothes, a master blaster,” he said, before delivering the news that the guest of honor had remained in New York. “Please know how excited he was to share this with the SCAD students,” said Talley. “He is so completely sad and devastated that he could not be here.” Meanwhile, Katherine Ross, senior vice president of public relations and communications for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, accepted the award on Galliano’s behalf.

And then it was showtime. Roughly 50 of the 123 graduating designers were selected for the juried runway presentation, which consisted of 201 looks. Styles ran the gamut, with a large array of sporty clothes, such as nylon parkas and rompers, and architectural pieces, including several charcoal gray silk-and-wool numbers by Laura Russell, this year’s Golden Scissors winner for women’s wear. Some of the show’s strongest pieces also came from the school’s inaugural Style Lab, a mentorship class in which select students work with professional designers. This year, it was Brian Wolk and Claude Morais of Ruffian, who asked their students to draw inspiration from the 18th century and the Eighties.

“I thought things were very wearable,” said Wallace. “In past years, we’ve had some collections that were more purely artistic, but here I feel they focused on the well-crafted and wearable.” When asked how she felt about Galliano’s last minute no-show, Wallace was diplomatic. “It’s a wonderful honor for André to select a major designer to present to,” she said. “But really, it’s all about the students.”

For their part, the graduates voiced a range of opinions when it came to their absentee honoree. “I heard a lot of students that were like, ‘He’s coming here? I’ll believe it when he gets here,'” says senior Ebonee Moore, a self-proclaimed skeptic after seeing a documentary that cast Galliano in a temperamental light. “I don’t think his not being here overshadows the excitement of being in the show.”

Others were more interested in the present attendees. “It’s sad and regrettable [that Galliano couldn’t attend], but it’s great that André supports us. I look up to him personally,” said Liz Goff, who added she was also happy to see representatives from Anthropologie, Abercrombie & Fitch and other companies looking to recruit. “I think it’s more exciting that the industry is here looking to hire than a designer who’s here for an award.”

As the night’s de facto star, Talley certainly held up his end of the bargain. During the congratulatory postshow rounds backstage, he invited a few of his favorite student designers to bring their offerings to Magnolia Hall, SCAD’s VIP guest house, where Talley and company stayed, for cocktails and dinner. There, the students mingled with guests including Alice Tisch; Ann Tenenbaum; president Wallace, her husband, SCAD senior vice president for college resources Glenn Wallace, and Miss J. Alexander, “America’s Next Top Model” judge and SCAD runway coach, who delighted guests with spot-on imitations of Tyra Banks, Southern drivers and Talley himself. And even before the night was through, Talley was looking forward to next year’s festivities, the 2009 Lifetime Achievement honorees in particular.

“It’s going to be Isabel and Ruben Toledo,” he said with a laugh. “They don’t know yet, but they will when they read this.” Because the current recipient was absent, the benefit of honoring a couple didn’t go unnoticed. As one person joked, “That way, if one of them gets sick, the other can still accept.”

PHOTOS BY WAYNE C. MOORE AND DENNIS BURNETT

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