Five-minute memoir: Camilla Morton, John Galliano's right-hand woman, on life at the 'creative Camelot'
'Eyes wide as saucers, I watched Galliano, absorbing every detail'
Saturday 21 September 2013
There's currently a sewing machine on my table. It's hot pink. Bright arrows. Easy-drop bobbin. How very different things might have been if I'd learnt to use this when I was meant to.
Foundation course, many, many years ago: I sat terrified in front of a sea of faceless white sewing machines that gave away no clues as to how to thread up a bobbin, and seemed to earn status by chopping off fingers. But I had always understood, through fairy tales, that looking good at a ball seemed the fastest route to a fabulous Happily Ever After. Clearly, I was destined to be a fashion designer creating magical froths of tulle. Happily thinking of this, I put my foot on the machine's accelerator.
Then everything went dark: the university had experienced a massive power cut, and I was left trapped, half my own sleeve chewed into the mouth of my evil machine. As I snipped myself free, my career ambitions shifted to the safety of writing. 'Sewing machines' was added to the list of things I never intended to risk again: hockey, ice-skating, sausage rolls, Brussels sprouts.
I decided construction was to be left to wand-waving Fashion Godmothers, or Couturiers. Namely, the person I had cut out and pinned on my mood-board while others idolised pop stars. I had set my compass for Neverland, passing through Saint Martins, Fashion Weeks, Manolo Blahnik's arms (as I tripped on some cables) and to the fashion cupboard of Russian Vogue. Finally, after all this faffing, I made it: snuck in via the press office and up to the studio of John Galliano at Dior. He glanced up from a cigarette. Lightning Bolt. He passed me a pen. I faxed home that I had moved to Paris. Neither of us blinked.
Did it matter that I didn't speak the language? That my flat had more shoes than furniture, books rather than groceries? When it snowed they sent furs, as if off to Narnia, rather than do something as mundane as to call the energy board. No. Life was Technicolor. At last, I belonged.
Weeks were spent writing love letters, rummaging through books and vintage treasures, and stripping roses of their thorns. Heaven was this creative Camelot. Eyes as wide as saucers, I watched, hardly daring to blink, absorbing every detail. I would slip invisibly into the corner and witness something possibly more exciting than the Night Before Christmas – final fittings, Galliano and his gang solving puzzles more complex than a Rubik's Cube. As I looked on, I knew it was time for me to be bold. I returned to London to be a writer. But only after we agreed I would eventually come back to him – a deal we struck in McDonald's Gare du Nord over a (very) Happy Meal.
And I did. Adventures spun him around the world, and each return would be punctuated with a commemorative snow globe for me, and a mountain of photographs, tales and ideas.
Was it then when I realised what a magic world I was part of? Or those moments backstage as girls crammed into confections, Walkie-Talkies screeched, and war-paint was slathered on while hair was teased into place? I would catch John's eye, he'd wink, and all was calm. He always said a show was like a swan gliding across lake. Who cared how hard her legs were kicking underneath?
Any time I arrived in Paris, my heart would pull me straight to wherever they were. Any time anything went wrong, I just set my compass for the red sofa and all would be well – even the time I discovered my hotel room had been ransacked. I arrived, mascara down my cheeks, and the unthinkable happened: fittings paused. Friends came first. We wrote not what was stolen, but what was missing from my life. My main skills were considered to be making tea and walking in high heels. So we listed all the other things I should do to be even more fabulous. That became my first book.
Ilearnt more here than any school or college could teach. It was as liberating as it was empowering. Fashion pretends to be all about labels and name-dropping, but the unknown adventures you have with it, the 'who', 'where', 'when', is the treasure that maps your soul. Friendship isn't endless parties or shows where kisses are delivered but not meant. It's about inspiring, nurturing, and being there for each other. That is what made all those creations beautiful: the laughter was as important as the pin-tucks and pleats. You can't always load a bobbin or stitch close to the edge, but practice and patience a beautiful creation makes. Surprise and challenge yourself, don't be predictable or give up, this is the greatest 'How To' I've learnt. After (slowly) loading up a bobbin.
Camilla Morton's 'How to MAKE a Beautiful Life' (Quercus) is out autumn 2014
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