"The idea behind the glitter is to leave a trail of stardust wherever you go," explains the set designer Michael Howells, backstage at the Dior couture show. He might be referring to the tiny, shiny flecks that are currently being strewn across the floor of a marquee in the grounds of the Polo de Paris by his two assistants, but it could just as easily be a description of his role in the fashion world. Technically he is a production designer and art director, who has worked on everything from films such as Bright Young Things, to parties for Kate Moss and the V&A Museum, to catwalk shows such as this, but a more romantic description of his métier would be that he brings the dreams and figments of the most creative imaginations to life.
And appropriately, although he is clad in a quietly expensive grey suit when we meet amidst the pre-show preparations, Howells has glitter stuck to his cheeks and forehead. Even one of the make-up artist's attempts to cleanse his face won't shift these stubborn sparkly particles. Howells is overseeing the final touches to the set he has designed for the Christian Dior spring/summer 2008 couture collection. While most ready-to-wear shows consist of a plain catwalk stalked by expressionless models, John Galliano's couture shows for Dior, and his own-label presentations are more theatrical events. Elaborate sets and coquettish models who flirt and interact with the audience create a performance in which the boundaries between the viewers and the spectacle are blurred. "The audience become part of the set," explains the man one Dior employee refers to as the Fellini of set design.
The clothes for the Dior show are inspired both by John Singer Sargent's Madame X portraits and by Klimt – and the colours will include vibrant geranium, lime and royal purple silks – so Howells has designed a dark, gothic catwalk with a moody opulence as a foil to the exuberant lustre of Galliano's creations. "The luscious dark set, with its inky pools of water, huge drapes of velvet and oversized tassles, maze-like entrance and polished runway, all add to the high octane, high luxe of the collection," explains Galliano, who has worked with Howells for years, "and it contrasts fantastically with the shocking acidic shades and lavish bead work on the clothes themselves."
"I love it when the wind blows slightly through the tent and everything starts to sway," Howells muses lyrically of his "Belle Epoque ballroom-inspired set" which also features a trompe l'oeil panel painted by a scenic artist to suggest folded fabric, and reflect the gathering and ruching on the clothes. The January wind, however, isn't the only way the set is brought to life. The lighting animates and adds depth to the structure – initially the velvet curtains are bathed in an absinthe green, and imperial purple cast; as the show starts the lighting becomes hot white.
"The quicker the set goes up, the more time the lighting designer has to perfect the lighting," Howells explains. "Work on the tent started two weeks ago, and I arrived four days ago when the team of drapesmen started hanging the curtains – on to which some four-and-a-half thousand jet costume jewels, as well as cockerel feathers and black lace and sequins were sewn. Many of the props, such as the giant theatre tassles – which are actually made of fibreglass and giant cotton rope – were made in London, then shipped over." Now it's down to the final details, such as pouring olive oil on to the shallow tanks of water, which pushes unwanted dust to the pools' edges, adding Prussian blue dye to achieve a pitch-dark iridescence and pouring gardenia perfume on to the carpet, which will be released as the éditrices' Manolo stilettos and Lanvin pumps crush the scent. Half an hour before the show starts, immaculately dressed Dior assistants are straightening name cards on the steeply tiered, velvet-covered benches with incredible precision given that the dark lighting, dark seating and darkly dressed fashion crowd test the audience's ability to find their seats with appropriate composure.
It is Howells' attention to every sensory detail that makes his sets so special. "He is a perfectionist like me," confirms Galliano, "and I know that everything down to the glitter, to the number of goldfish, to the swooshes of fabric, is done for a reason and adds to the set." And the two clearly have a lot of fun working together. Galliano quips that, "You look up to Howells as he's so tall [he's a statuesque 6ft 7ins] but you would anyway because he is the best. He is an encyclopedia of information, a joke shop full of gags, an optimist and a voice of calm on a frantic show day."
Indeed, Howells seems completely serene before the show is about to start, springing up to his full height only occasionally to tweak a tiny imperfection such as a visible piece of tape. Howells describes Galliano as "a total and utter joy to work with. We spend a lot of time laughing – he's gentle and kind with a wicked sense of humour". This rapport often expresses itself in private jokes – for one show, the pair wrote fictional love letters between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII and stuffed them into the set. By the end of the show they had all been "stripped as if by locusts", or rather kept as souvenirs by guests, like programmes for the theatre. There is always a high level of eccentricity to their mise en scènes – Galliano likes to fuse many different themes and his sources of inspiration and past sets have included some truly bizarre,
almost Dadaist, juxtapositions. For the spring/summer 2008 Galliano show, Howells' brief was, "Edie Bouvier Beale meets Edie Sedgwick on holiday with Andy Warhol in Coney Island with the Spanish Feria", and featured a stuffed ostrich in sunglasses sitting on a huge television set. Their working method consists of an initial meeting to go through the concept behind the show, "bouncing ideas around ... the concept and the muse we have in mind", as Galliano describes it. "Michael gets what we are doing. There is an unwritten communication that doesn't need a rigid brief. I give him an idea and then let it blossom."
It is this instinct and imagination that earned Michael Howells the Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator at the British Fashion Awards last November, which was renamed in honour of the fashion guru who died last year. "I was very flattered actually," says Howells, "and I think it's nice to have that kind of memorial for her. Izzy was one of those extraordinary people with ideas and imagination who was always her own woman, said what she thought – which can be quite rare in the fashion world." Yet Howells found the experience of hearing his name called from the podium, and of collecting the award itself, "quite scary actually. I like hiding behind curtains and making sets." That's not to say he doesn't know how to help exhibitionists enjoy themselves. On his packed CV, alongside working on sets for films such as Shackleton, Emma and Bright Young Things, editorial work for Vogue, Vanity Fair and Pop, fashion shows for McQueen and Lacroix as well as Galliano's various projects, numerous art installations and advertising – he created a fake office for Madonna in a Versace ad – he has also injected the requisite escapist glamour into some legendary parties.
In the Eighties he masterminded parties for Jimmy Goldsmith and Jacob Rothschild, and for Kate Moss's 30th birthday he "set-dressed" her friend Sam Taylor-Wood's house into a hedonistic palace – basing each room on a different colour. "One room was papered with orange flowers and piles of tambourines, another room would be all in red. It was a profusion of flowers; an intoxication of perfume and colour."
Howells thinks the British "really want to let their hair down and they love dressing up", and the British John Galliano, with his penchant for taking his bow in extravagant costumes, is no exception. Does he have a fancy dress costume of choice? "There was one I wore for a Piers Gaveston ball back around the late Seventies, early Eighties. The taxi arrived and I opened the door and the driver was like, 'No way mate!' I was dressed as a statue with a seagull on my head. But he did eventually agree to take me." Has he topped that since? "I have to say on the whole I prefer to be behind the camera. My work is the set and that's what I enjoy the most."