To say that John Galliano's magical touch was conspicuous by its absence at last week's haute couture collections would be an understatement.
The powers that be at Christian Dior stated that the autumn collection – the house's first without this designer at its helm for almost 15 years – was a team effort, designed by the studio. And that showed. Galliano himself always argued that the haute couture, where budget is no object, functioned as the "parfum" of a label, its essence, if you will, and as a laboratory of ideas. The need for a creator par excellence is greater here than anywhere else in fashion, then. Galliano is just that, although his conduct away from the atelier has not been that of a leader.
When he arrived at Dior in 1996, only the fashion insider really understood his potential power, as a designer, of course, but also as an image-maker who was second to none. Until that point, his shows had been among the most anticipated of the Paris season but Galliano operated under the radar, relatively speaking at least. His first show for this, a household name, was to change all that for ever. Because if John Galliano's self-titled collection was aimed at the discerning fashion follower, Dior was global, its advertising imagery stamped everywhere from billboards at airports to the more rarefied pages of glossy magazines. The designer's detractors – and there were a few, not least because he was brought up and educated in Britain, not France – were soon persuaded that here was an international force to be reckoned with. Under his creative directorship, the house of Christian Dior became the jewel in the LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) crown.
In particular, his haute couture collections wowed. The choice of venue was more ambitious and costly than anything that had been seen before – Galliano showed variously at the Paris Opera, on the platform of a disused train station and even at Versailles. He had the world's most famous and lovely models queuing up to walk his catwalk in show-stopping make-up courtesy of longtime collaborator Pat McGrath, and some of the most extraordinary millinery courtesy of Stephen Jones. As for the clothes... Anyone privileged enough to have witnessed these at first hand will know that, at best, they were the biggest, bravest and most beautiful imaginable.
It remains to be seen who will step into his shoes – the creative directorship of Christian Dior womenswear is among the most heavyweight positions in the industry. Bill Gaytten, who came out to take bows following the most recent show, has been named as Galliano's successor for his own line but the powers that be at Dior said afterwards that no decision had yet been made about the far more far-reaching opening there. Galliano stood trial, accused of racism and anti-Semitism, in June. The high court is set to announce its ruling on 8 September. However things turn out for him, and despite the fact that his behaviour – as he himself has admitted – has been deplorable, John Galliano will retain his place as among the great couturiers of the age.
Galliano's first collection for Christian Dior immediately confirmed his ability to take the house's signatures – the New Look line skirt, the slender shoulders and wasp waists, the hound's-tooth check – and invest them with a relevance that had not been seen for years. The chartreuse-green silk dress pictured here was famously worn to the Oscars in 1997 by Nicole Kidman, who was reportedly paid $2m to choose the label for this and other high-profile occasions throughout that year. From hereon in, the haute couture collections became the place for Hollywood stylists to search for big entrance gowns, whereas before, actors had made do with ready-to-wear.
Like many of the great French names, Christian Dior was something of an Anglophile – witness the prevalence of hound's-tooth check in his work. And so too was the infamous couturier Charles James. Galliano visited the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before designing this collection, which had recently received a considerable donation of the latter's clothes. "I was reading that, actually, it was Charles James who influenced Monsieur Dior to come up with the New Look," he told Style.com. "And then I was looking at a photo of Charles James doing a fitting – and on the wall behind him was a picture of women riding side-saddle. And that was it." Never has the hunting jacket appeared so unashamedly haughty or so perfectly proportioned.
Not averse to a spot of controversy, Galliano said that this collection was inspired by the people he saw living on the streets as he went for his early-morning run in Paris. The famed Dior newspaper print has its roots here and suffice it to say that the more politically correct fashion commentator in his audience was less than amused. Not that the couturier ever cared – like many a fashion giant, he felt that everything he saw was potential raw material to plunder for his designs. This was "haute homeless", all executed with pride, from the sludgy colours of jackets to the homespun quality of trousers and even belts, apparently crafted out of trash.
Obi sashes, kimono sleeves, oriental embroideries and geisha make-up were always a source of inspiration for Galliano at Dior, often seen through the eyes of the New Look, and here he exploited that to the full. The designer said that he was this time inspired "by Pinkerton's affair with Cio-Cio San, Madame Butterfly". The scaled-up sleeve and multi-layered hem of this coat are a typical – and typically audacious – play on proportion, particularly as contrasted with the narrowness of the gown worn beneath. The intensity of colour – in this case citrus lemon and lime – is unparalleled.
For this collection, commemorating Christian Dior's centenary, Galliano installed an entire Edwardian garden as a backdrop, complete with cobwebs, fallen chandeliers and lily of the valley – famously the late couturier's favourite flower. The clothes, too, were a tribute to the house's namesake, focusing on the fin de siècle line worn by his beloved mother – his first fashion influence – and the New Look. In faded colours and scattered with delicate embroideries this was softer than most and unashamedly feminine – the stuff that little girls' dreams are made of.
Dior's autumn/winter 2007 collection – which celebrated the 60th anniversary of the 1947 New Look – was staged at the Orangerie at Versailles, far from an understated venue. Inspired by Old Master paintings – each look referenced a single artwork – there was an elegiac quality to this show, not least out of respect for Steven Robinson, Galliano's right-hand man and great friend of many years, who died earlier that year. The designer has said since that Robinson's death was at least partly responsible for any emotional instability on his part.
Of all Galliano's haute couture collections for Dior, this was perhaps the most audacious and least obviously rooted in the house's tradition. It followed a three-week research trip to China and the couturier employed the services of Shaolin monks to up the ante still further. The clothes, meanwhile, were huge: the most overblown and extraordinary shapes threatened to dwarf models as they stepped out. Chinoiserie rubbed shoulders with skin-tight latex and oversized kimonos morphed into baseball jackets as Galliano smashed through cultural and historical boundaries with a vigour that hasn't been witnessed before or since.
Influences as varied as Symbolist art, Diana Vreeland's Vogue and John Singer Sargent's Madame X were all at play in this collection, Galliano said, testimony if any were ever needed of his tendency to play the magpie where any referencing was concerned. Like Dior before him, Galliano demonstrated an unashamed affection for nostalgic silhouettes – even the misleadingly named New Look harked back to times gone by. That can be seen here in his idiosyncratic treatment of the elongated lines and curves of the belle époque.