John Galliano bounds into a suite at the Mercer Hotel, an astrakhan coolie hat creating a halo of glam froth atop an expertly aged fur-trimmed trench. With a flourish he casts the coat aside revealing a fashionably shrunken woolen take on an army jacket, herringbone culottes and ribbed tights.
This story first appeared in the December 8, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In New York for a series of events around the opening of the just-renovated Dior flagship on 57th Street, Galliano is in fine humor, instantly professing love for New York. Over the next hour he engages in ebullient conversation that is both thoughtful and as entertaining as anything Joan Collins might stage at Feinstein’s. In addition to addressing the professional topic du jour, the beautifully redone store, he will discuss his own creative process, anoint a mysterious Brit designer a rising star and argue quite convincingly that the best birthday parties happen in London.
John Galliano: I love being here!
WWD: Why do you love being here?
J.G.: I love the energy, the fast pace. I find it really inspiring. New York is no shrinking violet, so you can see we have a lot in common. I love all those things and tearing around New York. I’ve got great friends here. I actually come more often than I let people know. I stay under the radar.
WWD: How many times do you come a year?
J.G.: Quite a few times. I work with Steven Meisel on the campaigns for Dior. I was here a month ago. I was doing research for Galliano, for the women’s wear line that will be shown in 2012. But I stay under the radar because we cover a lot of ground and we’re seeing different dealers, clothing dealers. A lot of them now are further and further afield — before you would find a lot of them in the center. Now you sort of have to go out.
WWD: To Brooklyn? Where else do you go?
J.G.: Oh, all over, all over. But it’s worth it because when you get there, you’re really focused and they look after you. And they know you’re there because you’re serious so they pull out all the great stuff.
WWD: What are your favorite places to go? Every design student will make a beeline.
J.G.: Oh, I’m not giving my dealers’ names. The Metropolitan. We always make a stop at the Met, at the Library, catch up with Harold [Koda] and Andrew [Bolton], see some great art. It’s always really enriching to see that, and the kids on my design staff are quite young and they may have never seen a Boldini. So it’s always enriching. When you come out you’re sort of flying, it’s wonderful.
WWD: Are you going to go this trip?
J.G.: I’m going to try. I’m only here for five days. I really shouldn’t be here at all. Well I’m in the middle of haute couture and working on the men’s wear. But we had a great meeting yesterday in the room. I got all my men’s wear stuff on the walls and the haute couture’s on the side and then we’re on the phone. It doesn’t matter where you are now because of all this kind of machinery.
WWD: Is it hard for you to switch from men’s wear to haute couture mode and then back?
J.G.: Look at me. Does it look like it’s hard to switch?
WWD: Is that hat Mongolian lamb?
J.G.: Ah! This is my favorite milliner extraordinaire, Stephen Jones. This [pulling at his jacket sleeve] is a great kid, but no one knows about him. He’s an English boy called Paul Harnden. You’ll find his stuff in L’Eclaireur. I’ve told my French friends and they’ve gone in there to try and find out about him, but he’s very Greta Garbo. He does that rough kind of tweed and stuff. I buy all my stuff from him.
WWD: Have you met him?
J.G.: I can’t get ahold of him. I believe he lives in England by the sea. Paul, we love you! If you get to read this piece.
WWD: Who else’s clothes have you worn? It’s one thing to say ‘This person is good’ but another to go out and buy.
J.G.: I wear lots of different designer clothes, even young designers that are still at school. You know, I’m the president for Fashion Fringe in London with Colin McDowell, Uncle Colin, who actually was my professor, too. He was one of my teachers when I was at [Central] Saint Martin’s School of Art. And I went out there to judge the competition and I bought a few bits and pieces from them. I’m always checking out the markets. I mean, I love fashion.
WWD: What do you love about fashion now?
J.G.: The diversity. There is so much out there that encourages you to be individual.
WWD: Do you think most fashion consumers take advantage of that?
J.G.: Do they? Well, we’re there to help; we’re there to direct; we’re there to inspire. It’s much easier when there’s someone there to inspire you, to help you, to make you maybe notice the finer, beautiful points that you’re not aware of and enhance those bits. Everyone gets so obsessed with hiding bits that they don’t want to show anything. Sometimes they forget their wonderful neck or profile or ear or whatever. I think that’s important.
WWD: To find the good parts and show them off?
J.G.: To find someone who knows the collection. Don’t ever go with a girlfriend! Leave her in the car park. Because she’s only shopping for herself and her boyfriend — not for you. The last person she’s thinking of is you. It’s the same thing with boyfriends. Don’t go shopping with boyfriends. They’re only thinking of themselves, too. Place your trust in the manager, the guy who knows the brand, who will tell you the story about the finish or these little loops and blah, blah, blah, blah. And choose somewhere where the light’s not too bright. And enjoy it. Enjoy!
WWD: Oh, the joys of shopping!
J.G.: Oh, retail therapy is just the best thing! You can use all that modern-day equipment and stuff, but it’s a bit cold. I like to go in.
WWD: Oh, you mean buying online?
J.G.: Online shopping — oh, no. I didn’t even know what e-commerce was until last week. I like the experience. I like to feel the fur, to smell the tweed. I like the service. I love that you go into Hermès wearing your trainers and they still say, ‘Oh Mr. Galliano, may we brush your shoes?’
WWD: Speaking of Hermès, do you think it will one day be a full-on sister house within LVMH?
J.G.: Speaking of Hermès, let’s just not talk about it. We’re here to talk about Dior, 57th and this fabulous reopening. John is blushing! I always manage!
WWD: Well then speaking of service, what kind of retail service do you respond to that you’d like to see in your store?
J.G.: The retail service that I respond to personally is the after-care, the fact that there’s somebody who’s written a note and gotten flowers and said, “Thank you for passing by.” I mean that’s just like, “Wow I’m going to go there again!” And that they have time for you when you’re in there. That they’re honest. I think it’s important to be honest. I think that’s how one ends up with faithful, loyal customers. Feeling great is part of looking great.
WWD: With more and more people shopping online, including at the luxury level, how do you see the role of the physical store changing?
J.G.: The role of the store, especially multibrand stores, they do have to move a little faster. It was fine when you’d go to these specialty stores when they would stock these fantastic designers that didn’t necessarily have their own boutiques in town. Now, those designers have gone the huge next step and they have their own stores. So it’s not really of much interest to have a smaller part of their collection in a specialty store. These specialty stores, why they started in the first place was that these designers were young, they were varied, you couldn’t get them anywhere else. They may need to think about that now. Why go to Comme des Garçons and buy from the specialty store when you have the hugest Commes des Garçons shops around the world? But I guess L’Eclaireur discovered little Paul Harnden.
WWD: But that doesn’t sound promising for the major specialty stores.
J.G.: It does. They just have to have younger, fresher collections. That’s why they started. They were very avant-garde, those designers who we’re talking about, when Maria Luisa was doing her thing or Browns. They just needed to keep their finger on the pulse and have those new designers there. That’s the way they should go now.
WWD: Do you think that today new designers can be anointed stars too early?
J.G.: Well fashion needs new blood, and I think all of the support that we can give, I mean you, us, all the editors around the world, we do need this new energy. There’s so much more help out there today then there was when I first started. Institutions like Fashion Fringe, for example, I was so impressed when I went there. I was being introduced to lawyers who were helping kids with their copyrights, how to register their labels. I mean I didn’t know any of that. It’s cool. So they’re going into the business. They’ve won this great prize.
WWD: Is that why you got involved with Fashion Fringe?
J.G.: Yes, because from the creative point of view, and then also because it was so kind of sussed. People from the industry were there to show the kids the way. I thought that was really important.
WWD: Let’s turn to the store on 57th Street. How do you describe the concept?
J.G.: Well the concept is, very simply, Mr. Peter Marino’s interpretation of the clothes of the house of Dior. He loves what I do at Dior and the clothes and he always dreams of the clothes when he comes up with these amazing concepts.
WWD: The selection of the art in the different stores?
J.G.: That’s very much Mr. [Bernard] Arnault, I think he’s had a very good time. I’m sure they’re moving bits and pieces around as we talk.
WWD: So the selection of the artists whose work is on view, that’s Mr. Arnault?
J.G.: Oh, very much. He has a great appreciate of the arts. He has a lot of — I’m sure even today — a lot of opinions. I don’t know that they need my opinion.
WWD: With the selection of the artwork, was there a deliberate notion to strike a balance between provocative and pretty?
J.G.: I think, like most art, it’s highly interpretive. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You can, as with any artist, open your own interpretation. I think that’s what these pieces do, which is not dissimilar to the way I work at Dior.
WWD: Talk about that — how you work at Dior.
J.G.: Well, you know, I immerse myself in research. I travel geographically, historically. I create a muse. She can be fiction. She can be fact. She can be made up or a mix of different fabulous women that I know. I like to work with a narrative. The narrative then evolves. From there, sketching starts. And then I go straight on the body. We try to create volume and shapes and try to define the lines, especially if it’s haute couture, we try to define the line. And then it’s working very, very closely with the ateliers, hand-in-hand with the artists, fabric manufacturers, beaders, all those great artisans who exist in France. Then I don’t know, before you see the final garment there could be up to 18 toiles before you reach the final, which can still be rough. Because in the true spirit of haute couture, the girls come in the night before and everything is fitted so you can’t actually fit it any earlier. They come in and there’s a whole organization, which is actually quite incredible. I’m sure you’ve been around ateliers and a bit breathless to see every single piece in pieces.
WWD: You have staged so many wonderful shows, each with a great story line and muse. Is there one muse or two or five whom you would deem particularly suited towards the Dior retail environment?
J.G.: Yes, all of them. You know all of my muses are incredibly elusive. So it’s very hard to keep track of them. I like to think that the clothes are very seductive. In fact, what you’ll be seeing is the store is the cruise wear, which is the collection we showed in Shanghai, which is now being fully delivered.
WWD: That speaks to the importance of the cruise season, that you can reopen a store with cruise.
J.G.: It’s a very strong collection. It used to be things you actually wore for cruise. But people don’t really take many cruises nowadays.
WWD: The name stays, but the collection has changed.
J.G.: It’s a great piece, a great jacket, a great trouser, that you can just throw into your existing wardrobe, whether it’s Dior or not, and just gives it that lift like red lipstick or a pair of bitch heels. It’s great. It stands on it’s own, that collection. It’s treated with the same reverence as any of the collections I work on, ready-to-wear, haute couture. The process is the same. I still do my research. I come back. I put it all together in a book. I’m inspired by a muse.
WWD: I like your use of the word reverence. You really do revere fashion.
J.G.: Oh, I do. I love the business and I’m very fortunate to be in this fantastic business. I’m very lucky to have worked with the greats, whether it’s photographers or artists or actors. I’ve been very lucky to work with the greats at Dior.
WWD: How do you feed off of other people’s creativity?
J.G.: It depends on what the situation is. I love working with actresses. I love their creative process. It’s a bit like brainstorming. Working with Charlize [Theron for J’adore Dior Parfum] was a scream. I mean, she ends up directing the whole thing. And she’s right; she knows what she’s doing. She’ll remember exactly which way she sat, where her butt was, her nails. I mean it’s just fabulous. I love the creative process. What they bring creatively is really important.
WWD: Any other such collaborations, whether a photographer…
J.G.: Kate [Moss].
WWD: You go way back with Kate.
J.G.: I’ve known her since she was 14. She threw a fantastic surprise birthday for me. You shouldn’t write that. But it was so genius I have to tell you. I was going to have a birthday party in Paris.
J.G.: It was last week. I’m like all the old actresses who have an official birthday and an unofficial birthday. This was my unofficial one. I started to organize it with a friend in Paris but it got all out of hand. It was going to turn very corporate, so I said, “Uh-uh-uh.” It’s just not the birthday you want to start bragging about. The big 4-0. [He exaggerates the number, to indicate that he has shaved off a few years.] So I said, “OK, we’ll move it to London.” I said, “I just want to do something quiet. Could we just go under the radar? Maybe to someone’s house?” Anyway, Kate and my friend Francesca [Cutler] arranged it, a surprise. We went to the new bar that just opened at the Savoy. It’s very Deco, very beautiful. I arrive and there were fantastic creatures there that I hadn’t seen for like twenty years, the London posse. And then they introduce the acts. David Bowie had come over to perform for me followed by Diana Ross followed by Tina Turner and then Barbra Streisand.
WWD: Oh stop!
J.G.: No, you stop! And then the last person who came on was Michael Jackson! They were all impersonators! It was so English and so tawdry! It was fantastic!
WWD: We can’t put this in the story?
J.G.: Of course you can. — it’s a true story! So I go outside for a cigarette with Kate, OK? She has this little jumpsuit on with little sequins. She looked gorgeous. Some dirty old man walks by and goes, “Oh, you do that really well. You could be a model.” She goes, “F— off! I’m too short!” Then this limousine turns up, this shiny limousine and this fantastic, chic woman gets out with the shades on and the bodyguards. Me and Kate look each other and we’re like, “Oh!” You don’t do that in London. Unless you’re Elvis Presley, you don’t do that. So this wonderful creature comes up to me, takes the glasses off and goes, “John!” And I go, “Hi…” I still didn’t quite know what was going on. She goes, “It’s Isabelle.” It was Isabelle Huppert, one of France’s greatest actresses, who had been giving a press conference and just turned up. So she goes, “What are you doing here?” and I said, “Oh we’re just having a little party celebrating my 40th. Would you like to join us?” And I’m like, “Shit, how do I get out of this one?” “Lexie, Lexie, it’s Isabelle! You’ve got to look after her.” She had the best time because I kept asking her if she was OK and she would say, “Laissez-moi! Laissez-moi! C’est une scene que ne j’ai jamais vue!” [“Let me be! Let me be! It’s a scene I’ve never seen before!”] Because the English posse were really going for it that night. She loved it. There were these kids who were break dancing to Michael who were twins. [Galliano extends an arm to approximate their height — perhaps that of an average eight-year-old.] One’s blonde, one’s brunette. They were break dancing, diving. But there was like a time lapse of something like six seconds. Twins do that apparently. It was the most weird thing to see. It was incredible.
WWD: From a big birthday party to a big store party, for the renovation.
J.G.: It was 11 years ago that it was first opened, with a party in The Magic Room [the event space at Dior headquarters]. And we put mirrors on the floors so we could all see up everyone’s skirts.
WWD: How important is this renovation?
J.G.: It’s very important. It’s a very important market. Everyone’s been giving a lot of their attention for it to work really well, to serve our clients, their needs.
WWD: How is the U.S. market for Dior?
J.G.: It’s going to be doing better after this launch.
WWD: And after the launch, what’s going on?
J.G.: God, everything’s going on. I’m working on pre-collection Galliano, pre-collection Dior, the men’s wear, as I mentioned, and haute couture. You know how November is, with lots of parties. Also because it was my 40th, there was cake and Champagne and back at Dior there was more cake and more Champagne. I’ve never seen more bottles of Champagne. I mean, I don’t drink but so many cakes! It was outrageous. But November is like that. It gets very festive.
WWD: At the store on Wednesday, Natalie Portman has a role.
J.G.: Yes, she’s the new face of Miss Dior Cherie.
WWD: Have you spent time with her?
J.G.: A little. I mean she’s a beautiful girl, beautiful face.
WWD: Have you seen “Black Swan”?
J.G.: I want to go see it. I’ve heard it’s really genius. It’s all about dance, isn’t it?
WWD: Yes, a psychological thriller. The emotion of the art kind of sends her over the edge.
J.G.: Oh, that sounds familiar.
WWD: What do you look for in casting a celebrity?
J.G.: It depends on the product. It’s a creative process that I love, whether it’s working with Kate Moss, Sharon Stone, Charlize Theron or Natalie. We’ve had a fun time with Marion Cotillard doing some internet films. The last one, “The Grey Lady,” was in London. It was by John Cameron Mitchell. It was a real trip — with Sir Ian McKellen! [It makes its debut on dior.com today.] He’s in a wheelchair and she has these supernatural powers. She seduces him and because of her love he’s able to walk. I cried when he got up. Everyone was crying. We all were in tears. We shot in SE4 [a rough section of southeast London] in a ballroom with a Chinese lantern and a ceiling with linoleum — kind of tacky but kind of charming at the same time. [The proprietor] said, “You from around here? I can tell from your voice.” And I was like “Yeah, But not SE4. I grew up in SE22,” which is even rougher. I asked, “What happens here now?” Because I couldn’t imagine SE4 people coming in here now and doing waltzes. So he goes, “Well we get a lot of gay people coming here now.” I said, “Oh, yeah? What do they do?” He said, “They dance.” I said I want to have a party here.
WWD: You dance. But do you tweet?
J.G.: No, I get people to do it for me. When I was here last, I was only here for four or five days and there were 30,000 calls or whatever you call them.
J.G.: Yeah, there were 30,000. They had nothing to do with Dior, nothing to do with [the company] John Galliano. Just what I look like when I leave the hotel, or people had seen me in a restaurant or going to the gym. Thirty thousand! That’s a lot. I could advertise on that site. I think we need to exploit that, don’t you?