Made in Streatham, made it in Paris

John Galliano (left), plumber's son, born in Gibraltar, and raised in dreary south London, is truly one of us. He is the darling of the French, but as English as an illegal rave
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John Galliano's triumph this week, in his first haute couture presentation for Dior, is an opportunity for that most delicious of journalistic enquiries: why oh why are we so wonderful?

John Galliano, "son of a Streatham plumber" in the usual characterisation, is, after all, utterly one of us: the foreign-sounding name and the fact that he was born in Gibraltar, as well as the dreary south London provenance of his upbringing, actually render him more typically of this place and age than if he had English genes stretching back to the 'Domesday Book' and was raised in Tunbridge Wells.

Nor is he English in some apologetic, trans-Channel, Julian Barnes manner, more French than the French themselves and palpitating at the prospect of winning the Goncourt or translation to the Academie or some such apotheosis. Galliano is as English as Camden High Street, as English as an illegal rave, as English as a capital city shorn of its own government these 13 years past.

His strengths sprout from the weaknesses and wildnesses of where he comes from; or, more accurately, from a combination of weaknesses and strengths that is peculiarly and induplicably English. The strength: a brilliant art school education, whether at St Martin's (Galliano's college) or Goldsmiths' or the Royal College; the weakness: a fashion business that has never amounted to a hill of beans compared to its competitors abroad, that has never been able to put that carefully nurtured talent to use.

It is the weakness of a nation which, proverbially, has lost an empire and failed to find a role but, in that sad process, has experienced an implosion of races and languages and cultures. And while it has never done anything dramatic like embrace these huddled masses, let alone provide them with the wherewithal of a decent education, it has, passively, tolerated them. It has manifested that strength. It has allowed them to take their surly and benighted place alongside our own benighted native proletariat, allowed them to form a sort of multicultural mulch out of which a wonderful exotic bloom such as Galliano can sprout.

So let's be frank: as an opportunity for national preening, Galliano's latest triumph is way up there with Brenda Blethyn at the Golden Globes and London on the cover of Newsweek as the trendiest town in the planet, not to mention Bruce and Demi mulling over a move to Berkshire. But more so than those stories, Galliano's gives us pause to think a little harder about the national face that stares back at us from the mirror, warts and all.

John Galliano's is a deceptive personality because his extreme visual flamboyance - with his pistachio saris and bleached dreadlocks and brocade waistcoats and biker's leathers, he often upstages his own models and collections - masks genuine shyness. Likewise, his notoriously wild, party- loving lifestyle coexists with an extraordinary dedication to his craft, without which he could not have survived five minutes in the snobbish hell-hole of a Parisian couturier.

In a South Bank Show documentary about him, he compared what he does to his father's trade as a plumber, working out of sight on the hidden systems that underpin what appears on the surface. It seems a bizarre, perhaps sentimental analogy, yet when one sees Galliano entering the atelier flou (soft fabrics workroom) of Givenchy's headquarters in Paris, his eyes ablaze with anticipation, it rings true.

His rise to fame began in 1984 with his degree show at St Martin's; one observer remembers the "mad, hobo-ish woman clothes, a woman with clogs on with a tree coming out of her hair ..." It was the first resounding yodel of a voice that has been distinctive and unmistakable ever since, and Joan Burstein of Browns, the fashion business in South Molton Street, immediately took the wild, tiny, frail-looking, hirsute figure under her wing and nurtured his development. She did so to such good effect that in 1987 he was named British Designer of the Year, the first of three occasions on which he has been given the award (1996 was the most recent).

But as many other designers discovered before him, London may be a brilliant crucible for young talent, but it's also a miserably inadequate marketplace for what that talent produces. London fashion week may continue to snap bravely at the heels of Paris, Milan and New York, but the industry it represents remains a fraction of the size of its rivals. So in 1992, like many others before and since, Galliano headed for the bright lights of Paris.

His first three years were hard going; he arrived in town practically penniless, slept on friends' floors and had to beg or borrow everything he needed to get started, including the services of his models (but they all loved him, so that was okay). Critical acclaim continued to surround his work, but more than once he came close to financial disaster.

Then in autumn 1995 came the big, unprecedented break. It was announced from the company's elegant headquarters in the Avenue George V that Hubert de Givenchy, founder and chief designer of the eponymous haute couturier, was retiring from the house he had founded in 1952. Givenchy was now owned by the conglomerate LVMH (standing for Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) and the urbane, formal, precise founder, always immaculately besuited, was being replaced by a figure as drastically different as one could imagine. Galliano, the English wild man.

The canniness of this eccentric-seeming choice became apparent one year ago, in January 1996, when Galliano showed his first collection for the house, to great acclaim. Although no Englishman had ever headed an haute couturier before, this strange, anachronistic pinnacle of the fashion business is one for which a British fashion training is in fact, it transpires, a pretty good preparation.

Houses like Givenchy and Dior have a worldwide clientele of no more than 1,000 inordinately wealthy women, who are willing to spend up to pounds 20,000 on a single outfit; the nightie-like creation the Princess of Wales wore to New York in December, for example, designed by Galliano, is said to have cost pounds 15,000.

Despite the price tags on the clothes, so vast are the resources of skill and fabrics and time poured into each dress that no haute couturier makes a profit from the core business: it is merely the most elaborate and gorgeous way of hyping the commercial products bearing the house's name: the lipsticks and scent and hair grips and the rest, by which it makes its money.

Haute couture therefore has to answer two somewhat contradictory imperatives: for the 1,000 wealthiest women, the clothes must be beautifully made, intensely alluring and (within certain rigidly prescribed contexts) wearable. For the rest of the world, meanwhile, for the mere onlookers (people like the cash-strapped Duchess of York, for example, gawping along with the rest in Paris this week), they must be so stunning and brilliant and remarkable that, despite their irrelevance to one's own life and style, they are hypnotically interesting. They must be at the same time both an act of homage to wealth and taste, and a fireworks display.

What the French spotted in Galliano was that he was capable of homage as well as fireworks. His work, like most of the best new London work of the past 15 years, whether in fine art or architecture or fashion, as well as being a gut response to the present is intensely involved with the past. Its inspiration is flea markets and the Victoria and Albert Museum and dusty books as much as in the work of contemporaries. So when Galliano buried himself in the Givenchy archive - and latterly, since his promotion last October within LVMH to head Dior, in Dior's, too - it was not out of inadequacy or nerves; it was doing one of the things he loves best: immersing himself in a fantastic conversation with the past.

For Galliano, all times and all places coincide in the here and now: the France of the belle epoque, opium era China, premodern Japan, the Africa of the Masai tribesmen, all permed and frothed together in intensely romantic confections. But underpinning it and sometimes undermining it, lending it at times a lethal edge of irony, at other times merely a whiff of reality, is the grunge and grime of the streets of Streatham, where the whole thing started.