Susannah Frankel: A sad end to the most glittering of careers


Susannah Frankel
Wednesday 02 March 2011 01:00

The first show I ever saw as fashion editor of a national newspaper was John Galliano's debut haute couture collection for Givenchy.

Staged in January 1996, in a massive sports arena in the suburbs of Paris – the designer was always frowned upon for dragging his audience to the ends of the earth purely for the privilege of witnessing his work – it overturned every pre-conception of a traditional runway presentation and was so breathtakingly beautiful one could only marvel at the sheer imagination of the man behind it.

I was, until that point, unaware of the ethereal loveliness of a silk, bias-cut John Galliano gown, or the languid grace of his tailoring. Minimally minded and hopefully at least somewhat emancipated, I never thought I might long for frosty lilac, or that vivid flame could possibly make my heart beat faster. Models, their faces painted like china dolls, came at the audience from all directions, finally arriving at the centrepiece – a Brobdignagian bed, on to which Galliano's princess for that season clambered wearing the most excessive and overblown gown of them all. It was a fairy-tale ending, to a fairy-tale experience, as clichéd as it was lovely – at once ridiculous and sublime. Most remarkable of all, though, was the fact that its creator was capable of casting a spell over even the most sceptical onlooker. Like only very few others before or since, Galliano persuaded the world that, really, it was fine for a woman to need an escort – her heels were that insanely high – or that a skirt so huge it threatened to gather the entire front row into its folds was the height of fashionable good taste. He is a dream-maker, and fashion is built on dreams, which is why, only a year after his appointment, Bernard Arnault, founder, president and CEO of France's largest luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH, moved him across to the far bigger and more important Christian Dior.

Fifteen years on and by now responsible for many of the most spectacular moments in fashion history, termination proceedings have been commenced against the designer following three separate incidents of alleged anti-Semitism. "We unequivocally condemn the statements made by John Galliano," said Dior chairman and CEO Sidney Toledano, "which are in total contradiction to the long-standing core values of Christian Dior."

For anyone who has ever met the designer, perhaps the most peculiar part of this story is that they also appear to be in total contradiction to John Galliano himself. Fashion has its fair share of intolerable snobs and even bullies. Galliano, though, is gentle and shy in person, and never came across that way. Instead, here was a man driven to the point of obsession, to communicate his ideas, on the catwalk first and foremost, but also, and unusually, taking the trouble to talk journalists through rails of clothing back in the showroom and even inspiration books. Everything from painstakingly collaged reference pictures to drawings to swatches of fabrics was gathered here, and they are precious objects in their own right.

Much has already been written about the unreasonable demands made on today's designers, who are forced to create not only upwards of 10 collections each year but also to conceive advertising campaigns and attend everything from a store opening to the launch of a lipstick. Galliano, clearly a fragile human being, is not the first to find himself buckling under such pressure and it is a great sadness that he is now compromised, both personally and professionally, to the point, perhaps, of no return.

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