From when he first exploded on the scene with his Saint Martins degree show to today's sophisticated collections for Christian Dior and his own label, John Galliano has strived to stay a bias cut above the rest. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Dmon Pruner
Anyone travelling to the haute couture collections held in Paris last month could have been forgiven for assuming that, even with unbridled fantasy so high on the agenda, the most extreme spectacle of them all would come courtesy of John Galliano, designer-in-chief at the house of Christian Dior. This is, after all, the man who has, in the past, transformed the interior of a monolithic sports stadium, located in the particularly unglamorous suburbs of the French fashion capital, into an enchanted forest filled with 40ft spruce trees. Then there was the time he installed a Manhattan rooftop scene at the normally sterile Caroussel de Louvre, official home to the Paris collections: a scene that came complete with Christian Dior trash cans - with the famous CD logo emblazoned on their battered sides - and tumbledown chimney stacks, of course. Most famously, Galliano took over the Paris Opera, if you please, turning it into the world's most sartorially accomplished tea party - part English country garden, part Ballets Russes in flavour. And, finally, there was last couture season's extravaganza: Galliano commandeered the Gare d'Austerlitz, hiring a steam train with which to ferry models on to the set and dressing the platform as a Moroccan souk complete with exotic drapes, musclebound extras serving fresh mint tea, and burnt-orange sand floor. (Orange sand! Mon dieu! Mes Manolos!)

This season, however, that was not to be. For spring/ summer '99, Christian Dior Haute Couture was taken back to the salon, shown in a single room and to an audience of no more than 60 people at a time. Gone was the throbbing soundtrack, the dazzling lights, the 2,000-strong media presence - including film cameras tracking the world's most beautiful women as they walked and spotlighting the celebrity-packed front row - in favour of a more restrained offering, one where you could see the clothes up-close, even hear the silk rustle. What's more, in an unprecedented move, Galliano himself introduced the collection - normally, he would be busy panicking with the rest of them backstage - reading nervously from a single sheet of paper and blushing coyly throughout.

The designer cited surrealism as his inspiration: "As Dali and Cocteau understood it, with wit but always romantic." He said he "had always been fascinated by the relationship between Dali and his wife Gala, and the power play between them for sexual dominance". Finally, he name-checked as inspiration the surrealist photographer Madame Yevonde, famous for persuading her subjects to dress like Greek gods and goddesses. "She came from Streatham," said John Galliano, adding only as he left the room with a wink: "Just like me."

As guests filed out afterwards, Galliano's long-time supporters marvelled at such a happening. How could the powers that be at Dior have forced such a delicate soul to stand up and face his audience? And how terrible for John, who is famously shy, to have to endure such a demanding and very public ordeal. In reality, however, Galliano is rather more than a puppet. Although it is hardly news that the designer has recently, and for the first time in over a decade, been facing something of a backlash - his clothes rely too heavily on the history books, his detractors say, the spectacle is threatening to overshadow the clothes - Dior executives are unlikely to be disappointed with sales figures, which continue to rise.

No, this was more likely to be Galliano's way of answering his critics and ensuring they understand this current collection more fully. His eccentric appearance - particularly to non-fashion-trained eyes - and seemingly fragile disposition belie his steely motivation as a designer. Let's not forget, that this is the man who, back in the Eighties and not long after his career started, felt that one collection in particular had been unfairly received and so took it upon himself to contact every fashion editor of note, invite them back to his showroom and talk each one through it individually. Criticism, as far as Galliano is concerned, is fine just so long as it's constructive, but it will not be tolerated if it is misinformed. Even his long-time collaborator Amanda Harlech (the two parted business company two years ago and she now works with Karl Lagerfeld) has described daring to doubt her friend thus: "I did only once - it was a very long time ago - and I can only compare it to being hit by a massive surfing wave. His indifference is absolute."

And now it's my turn to confront him. Over lunch at a restaurant located close to the designer's Paris atelier, I ask John Galliano if he thinks there is any possibility that the theatrical nature of his shows might, just might, detract attention away from the clothes which are, in the end, the point. (Even at the aforementioned haute couture collection there were male models painted to look like statues, Magritte lookalikes and lobsters for handbags.)

"I know it's a fine line," he snaps, "and some people think I don't need to do it, but it's the backdrop to the collection. It's the way I like to design." For Galliano, the invitations to the show - a crimson ballet slipper, a faded love letter, a charm bracelet hidden in a Russian doll - are an intrinsic, carefully executed part of the experience. Even the hangers the clothes are displayed on once they make the rails - plum-coloured velvet with John Galliano stamped on them in bright sky-blue - are beautiful. The designer, similarly, changes his look to tie in with each collection, from swashbuckling pirate to handsome Don Juan; from besuited grand gentleman to bleached blond rastafarian. It's all part of the message he is passionately commited to communicating to the humble likes of you and me.

"The venue is part of the whole story," he explains. "I don't have to put my name up at the back of the runway to remind people - they know where they are. I often dream of doing a show where I could give people the choice - I might do that one day - have two shows running simultaneously. One would be white light, white runway, ordinary fashion show. The other would be John Galliano. You can bet your bottom dollar that everyone would choose the theatrical presentation. There would be no one at that other show. They'd be offended to be there, call it a second-rate show."

It's true that Galliano is responsible for much of the most powerful imagery in fashion today - that is just one reason why the powers that be at Dior were wise to invest in him. There are those who might argue it would be dangerous to become too accustomed to the extraordinary world he creates, disrespectful to take it for granted. Taking a deep breath, I continue, nonetheless, to brave discussing the possibility of a backlash with Galliano, citing accusations that his clothes are no longer modern.

"What's modern?" he asks, clearly incredulous. "I believe what I do is modern if you want to call it that. It's just such an overused word. Modern to most people in this game is ... what? Gucci? Or Prada? That's just their interpretation of modern, but it's still an historical take."

In Prada's case, that take has had its roots in the Fifties (Formica prints and American diner chic) and, more recently, the Sixties (Courreges and Paco Rabanne). Gucci, meanwhile, has reinvented the Seventies (Mr Freedom, Halston) and the Eighties (from Miss Selfridge - at a price - to Alaia). Perhaps, then, it's more that in our proud-to-be-minimal, functional times, Galliano's often hugely elaborate designs might seem a little out of kilter. Sportswear, admittedly, is not part of this particular designer's vocabulary. Utilitarian fashion is not on the agenda.

"Minimalism is a term that comes from the Sixties, too, actually," Galliano's press officer not unreasonably points out.

"I think reinterpreting things with today's influences, today's fabric technology, is what it's all about," adds Galliano. "You know, when I first did the bias cut, yeah, people said, `Oh, it's vintage', but then you could only get it in flea markets, even though it's the most comfortable thing you can buy. The bias-cut is the most modern form of elasticity. You're cutting the fabric on the cross so it stretches without having Lycra in it. Everyone's doing it now, you can buy it in Marks & Spencer." The reworking of the bias cut dress (think Jean Harlow in sleek silver satin) and, more impressive still, bias-cut jacket is one of John Galliano's great contributions to contemporary fashion. Far from being unkind to women, it liberates them and, contrary to popular mythology, is not only suited to the most slender of forms.

John Galliano, 38, was born Juan Carlos, in Gibraltar - his father's homeland. His mother is Spanish. "I lived in Gibraltar until I was six," he tells me, "so I travelled a lot." To go to school in Spain, for example, the designer passed through Tangiers: the hot, Mediterranean influence and the near exoticism comes, then, not from any fashion archive, but from his earliest experiences. "I think all that - the souks, the markets, woven fabrics, the carpets, the smells, the herbs, the Mediterranean colour, is where my love of textiles comes from," he says.

The family moved to Streatham, south London, in the mid-Sixties, where his father worked as a plumber, then later to Dulwich, which remains the Galliano family homestead to this day. Galliano considers himself to be a Londoner. But Gibraltar remains very proud of its most famous export: at the end of 1997, its post office issued a set of Galliano stamps printed with everything from a Belle Epoque-inspired walking suit to a signature curvy jacket worn with a skirt so short it barely grazes the thigh.

In England, Galliano attended Wilson's Grammar School for Boys, where his academic performance was, by all accounts, unremarkable. But neither did he spend his time doodling fairytale princesses in maths class or dressing up dolls and teddy bears. His mother was passionate about her children's appearance and used to dress the young Galliano and his sisters, Rosemary and Immacula, in beautifully starched clothes, if only to take them to the corner shop.

"I don't think people here understood where I was coming from," he says of his early days in the UK. "And I certainly didn't understand where 0they were coming from. It was quite a shock coming from that sort of family, that sort of colour. My mother brought it with her on the plane, though. You know, the religious aspect and all that was still with us when we were at home."

The fact that the designer was brought up a practising Catholic, in particular, set him apart from his contemporaries, he says.

"They were Church of England. I was Roman Catholic. That's a big difference, you know. I was an altar boy, a choir boy. I did my confirmation in England. I am still religious. I believe in God. I don't go to church regularly any more. The last time I went was last Christmas. I went there with my trainer. We jogged there. Jogged to Notre Dame and then out again. It was really cool - really beautiful."

It wasn't until he moved to the City of East London College, aged 16, to study for his "O" and "A" levels that John Galliano discovered the arts and met people "a bit more like me". From there, he went to Central Saint Martins and, as they say, a star was born.

"I was a very good student," says John Galliano, modestly enough. "Sheridan Barnett was my tutor. I worked very hard. I was always in the library, sketching endlessly." He also did placements with Stephen Marks - now the brains behind French Connection and one of the most influential men in commercial British fashion - and the late Savile Row tailor Tommy Nutter, and he worked in the evenings as a dresser at the National Theatre.

John Galliano's degree collection at Saint Martins was the stuff fashion dreams are made of. Les Incroyables, it was called, and Galliano says that dressing a production of Danton at the National planted the seed. There were jackets worn upside down and inside out - this was 1984, deconstruction wasn't even part of the fashion lexicon - and hugely romantic organdie shirts that wouldn't look out of place on the designer's runway to this day. And Galliano worked on every detail - from accessories, including magnifying glasses smashed to pieces by the designer himself, to the ribbons sewn on to the insides of coats.

"I was just so into that collection," Galliano says. "It completely overtook me. I still love it. I love the romance, you know, charging through cobbled streets in all that amazing organdie. There are a lot of things in that collection that still haunt me. Afterwards, of course, I realised that something had gone down."

Sally Brampton, then fashion editor of the Observer, was there to witness Galliano's degree show. "The entire audience got to its feet," she says. "The talent was just so obvious. You know when you see something - and it's very rare - where the talent is just shining through."

Joan Burstein, proprietress at the Bond Street boutique Browns agreed, so much so that she immediately gave a window of the store over to the designer.

"I mean everything happened so quickly," says John Galliano. "She cleared the window that afternoon, I think. Then she invited me to come down to the boutique to meet the customers and sell the collection. Diana Ross walked in, everything was just flying off the rails." Burstein forwarded Galliano money to go out and buy fabric to make more, and meet increasing demand. "I went to Notting Hill Gate and bought some furnishing fabrics. Luckily, my parents were away, so it was all right to turn their sitting room into a mini-factory."

Of course, the downside of being the Next Big Thing - and it would not be unfair to say that John Galliano was, well, the biggest Next Big Thing of them all - is that you are forced into the limelight when not yet ready for it.

"It put an enormous amount of pressure on me," he admits today. "You have to do all your growing up in public. You make a fool of yourself in front of people you still have to work with today. So what? I'm human. It was all part of growing up."

People still bemoan the lack of support for young designers in this country. John Galliano's story is the classic example: an award-winning designer - for what it's worth - uniquely talented, unanimously revered, but unable, nonetheless, to secure long- term financial backing. In the 10 years following his graduation, two backers withdrew their support, and there were several seasons when he couldn't afford to show at all. For a man who lives for his work, this must have been particularly galling.

"You know, I've always had good friends," he says. "And in my darkest moments they would take me out; look after me a bit. But, no, I've always seen it as a positive challenge. I had to do it, after all. I had no choice. I love what I'm doing. I love the very act of creating. Then and now, it was all I could do."

In the early Nineties, Galliano, disillusioned by the difficulties of running a fashion business in this country, moved to Paris. There, almost penniless, he slept on friends' floors, cobbling together a first collection by calling in favours, only to find that, despite critical acclaim, he was so broke by the time the next one came round that he was in trouble once again. Help came in the form of American Vogue's hugely powerful editor, Anna Wintour, who, in an unprecedented attachment between editor and designer, took Galliano under her wing. The next time it looked like he was heading for financial difficulty, Wintour used her considerable influence to both find him a backer (investment bank Paine Webber International) and a venue (the crumbling mansion of the legendary socialite Sao Schlumberger). Still it was a scramble: perhaps the most lovely scramble of all time. The invitation was a rusty key. Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell worked the show for love rather than sackloads of money. There were only 17 outfits put together at the last minute and entirely in black - several bolts of black fabric were all that John Galliano could afford. But what outfits. The show was a monumental success - John Galliano's reputation as one of the great designers of his time was sealed.

"I don't think John has changed one iota since then," says Brampton. "There's only ever been one thing important to him and that is his work. Firstly, there's the technical aspect - he's always been obsessed with getting things right technically. Second, there's the show - he's a truly great showman, the greatest 3-D image-maker alive. It is very important that people understand that."

One man who clearly understood was Bernard Arnault, president of the mighty fashion conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton). It was a brave move on Arnault's part - if, in retrospect, an obvious one - when he decided, in October 1995, to install John Galliano as designer-in-chief at Givenchy. Galliano might have seemed to the largely archaic French fashion establishment like a young upstart but French fashion - and haute couture in particular - was in need of young blood. Galliano's grasp of what was happening on the street, coupled with his technical virtuosity, made him more than man enough to exploit the skills of the most accomplished craftspeople in the world, more than man enough to reinterpret their handiwork, dragging it, albeit kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

The appointment of John Galliano to Givenchy was one of the greatest fashion publicity coups of all time. Rumours began circulating months before anything was announced. By the time it actually happened, the media had reached such a frenzy that before Galliano had designed a single outfit, Givenchy was back in the headlines once more.

"I really couldn't tell anyone about it," Galliano says. "Not even my mum and dad. If I told one person, that was it. It's like, you always tell your best friend, don't you. But then your best friend tells their best friend. It was just too scary."

With Galliano installed at Givenchy, it wasn't long before still more rumours came to the fore. Alexander McQueen was to take over there, leaving Galliano free to move across to Christian Dior - perhaps the most auspicious fashion house of them all. Fashion apoplexy ensued.

John Galliano is dressed today in chunky knit sweater and dark denim jeans. On his feet he's wearing oversized trainers, on his head a jaunty black beret, off-set by a large pair of hoop earrings. He was, he says, dressed in a similar vein when he received the phone call from Monsieur Arnault one Friday night, almost a year to the day after taking over at Givenchy.

"It was amazing," he says, clearly still overwhelmed. "I nearly fell off my chair. I thought I'd fucked up - thought I'd done something really bad at Givenchy. I got this phone call on Friday at six o'clock asking me to go to Monsieur Arnault's office. I thought, `Oh shit.' I was totally unprepared. I had the wrong shade of of toenail polish. I was wearing Scholls. Clack, clack, clack. There was no way I could get out of it, though. I had to go. And that was when he offered me the job, and, I mean, I nearly fell off my chair." He laughs and almost punches the air. "Yes!"

John Galliano now designs no less than 12 collections a year. The Dior boutique - it's not unlike a John Galliano superstore - is packed full with everything from Christian Dior wedding dresses to petticoats, shoes, bags and, of course cosmetics and fragrances. I visited just before Christmas to find the place positively heaving with people of all ages queuing to buy into the image that John Galliano has created. The designer is now, as he always has been, a man possessed. And it shows.

Going back to his studio after lunch, he takes time out to give me a guided tour of the garden, located in the forecourt. Even this bears his signature. "Look at this little fountain," says John Galliano. "And over here, where we've planted these bulbs." Lush greenery, tinkling fountain and even a gazebo - and all in a not particularly salubrious area of central Paris. "We wanted it to have a Midsummer Night's Dream feel," says the designer.

I ask Galliano how he would like to be remembered. "I suppose as a romantic," he says. And John Galliano is fashion's great romantic - from the clothes he designs and his colour-rich background to his charmed rise to fame which reads not unlike the finest of fairytales. But this is one designer determined not to retreat into his ivory tower, determined not to be dismissed as a mere producer of costume. That, perhaps, is why recent criticism has irked him.

"There's still so much to do," he tells me as I make to leave. "So much to work on. There's the perfume, the stores. I'd like to do menswear ... "

Rest assured, Galliano is a powerhouse. If he sets his mind to it, anything is possible. It will all be done - beautifully.

Photographer's assistant Boris

Stylist's assistants Holly Wood and Felix

Hair Jennie Roberts for Aveda at Public

Make-up Cathy Ackermann

Model Georgina Cooper at Premier

Studio Red Earth, EC1, enquiries 0171-689 6161.

All clothes are from John Galliano's spring/summer 1999 collection, available from Browns, 23-27 South Molton Street, London W1, enquiries 0171-491 7833; Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1, enquiries 0171-730 1234; Joseph, 77 Fulham Road, London SW3, enquiries 0171-823 9500; John Galliano to order, enquiries 00331-55251111