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John Galliano: Fashion’s Greatest Showman Turns Ciné-Auteur

The master of make-believe insists, ‘I would feel lame to just go back to a white runway and a white box,’ as he tells Tim Blanks about his latest film.
Editor at large Tim Blanks speaks with Maison Margiela creative director John Galliano
Editor at large Tim Blanks speaks with Maison Margiela creative director John Galliano. BoF.

PARIS — When the pandemic first began to bite fashion hard in March 2020, John Galliano and his partner Alexis Roche were sequestered on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. As people left in a hurry, their hotel became more and more like the Overlook. The duo eventually joined the exodus, barely making the last Paris flight out of Mexico City. John fancied a little retail therapy before takeoff but the airport was shut down, desolate. “It was then and there that I came to terms with the fact that fashion the way we knew it would never be the same,” he recalls, “and once I embraced that idea, I became more resourceful.”

The results of this resourcefulness are the reason why the designer and I are hunkering down in his studio in Maison Margiela’s Paris headquarters to watch the film he has made with director Olivier Dahan for the launch of the label’s Spring 2022 Co-Ed collection. He’s wearing a huge tweed coat over skater shorts, feet shod in massive trainers, hair held back by an Alice band, cigarettes never far away. His energy level is ebulliently skittish, which suits the glitchiness of the film itself.

Film has become Galliano’s fascination over the past twenty months. The designer who was responsible for some of the grandest live spectacles fashion has ever seen in the glory days of the Nineties and Noughties was seduced by the idea that, with all the restrictions of the pandemic, he could still make memorable, even startling visual co-relatives for his clothes. “There was no way I was not going to create, even if it was with a small team,” Galliano says. “This idea that through film we could reinforce the ethics of house took on a great appeal for me.”

The first film he made at the beginning of the pandemic was with long-time collaborator Nick Knight. It was a literal revelation, as close as anyone will ever get to a fly on the wall (even Galliano’s dogs were wearing Go-Pros). It opened up his creative process to the world in a way that artfully deconstructed the mystique that has surrounded, maybe even dogged, him for decades. Since then, a handful of films have continued to expand his universe, to the point where he insists “I would feel lame to just go back to a white runway and a white box.” Inevitably, there are people baying for his return to the live experience. “If all you’re doing is watching films in that format, I guess it creates an anguish or hankering for the physical,” he acknowledges. “People miss the buzz. Well, personally I can live without that.”

It’s quite an admission, given the scale of his shows in the past, but you hardly need something like that as a reminder that John Galliano is a changed man, personally and professionally, with his fall from grace at Dior, his subsequent rehab in Arizona and exile as constant reminders for him that his struggle was real — and ongoing. “I can only be honest to survive,” he admits. “I never want to be lost in the layers that one was fabricating for whatever reason, and fearful, and walking on eggshells every day of my life.”

“I still doubt myself,” Galliano says. “That doubt never disappears. I wonder if it’s the doubt that releases certain chemicals in your body that make you react in a certain way.” There are even times when he wonders if he can’t live without the drama that still shadows him like a wraith. “Emotions come from memories, so unless you’re going to change that memory and deal with it …” He trails off. “I really think that we’re addicted to the way we behave, and when the body doesn’t get that in certain situations, it hankers for it.”

Still, he claims film-making has liberated him. “After doing those [live] shows, I’d have to detox, to just get away. Taking that excess of adrenaline away from your adrenal glands keeps one a little bit more focused.” Though it’s still not easy. For the last Co-Ed film, the team had three days to shoot 73 outfits, “like the constant quick change backstage at a fashion show.”

I’ve always fancied Galliano as an impresario, someone who gathers a creative team around him to make theatrical magic. My pet analogy was always Sergei Diaghilev with his Ballets Russes in the first decades of the 20th century. The cast of dancers, composers, artists and glittering hangers-on which revolved around Diaghilev has inspired Galliano in the past. Now he has a new set of inspirations: boys and girls in their late teens who, like a repertory company, act out his vision. He enjoys something he calls “a shorthand of feelings” with them.

“They’re my muses,” he clarifies. “They bring so much to the equation. I spend so much time with them as well. It’s quite magical when you have that gang around you, because either side of filming, or shooting, or fittings, one has the time to chat and just listen to them.” And, as he’s eavesdropping while they share their confidences and their problems, Galliano hears echoes of his own young self, and he’ll dive in, reassure them that whatever is bugging them is really not a problem. “When you look at them and you see the hope to succeed, that hunger, that passion, how can I not be drawn to it? And I think they dévoile (reveal) even more to me because they can see the authenticity. I listen to them; I went through that myself.”

John Galliano has always loved his gang around him. Watching the new Co-Ed film and the film that preceded it for Maison Margiela’s couture-like Artisanal collection, it feels like a re-investment in his polymorphous past, the heady days of Central St Martins and Taboo and the early collections — “Fallen Angels” and “The Forgotten Innocents,” both from 1986 — that first flayed his mark on fashion. Others have apparently picked up on the connection between those extravagant, idiosyncratic celebrations of wanton youth and the stories that Galliano is telling now, with his cast of techno-teens dressed in collections he calls post-men’s and -women’s. “Honestly, I wasn’t aware,” he insists, “and then at the end I was, ‘Oh yeah, I guess it was at the time when I was being my most youthful and deconstructed’. And why shouldn’t one consciously or subconsciously take inspiration from what one’s done? But I do have to be honest, it didn’t occur to me. I guess I was channeling something that just seemed very right for the moment, as much as Maison Margiela is so right now with everything that’s going on. What our founding father set out to do, all his concepts are just so relevant today.”

Galliano says he has three collections “lined up like some kind of airport waiting to take off.” At the pinnacle is Artisanal. Co-Ed takes its inspiration from this collection, in the same way that Galliano’s ready-to-wear at Dior was always informed by his couture. Then there is the Icon line.

Artisanal’s last celluloid manifestation was a 40-minute occult fascinator called “A Folk Horror Tale” which received a proper cinema premiere in Paris. It was again directed by Olivier Dahan, who is best-known for his Oscar-nominated “La Vie En Rose.” According to Galliano, the fashion and the script were inextricably intertwined. As the narrative evolved, so did the clothes. He was drawn to the horror aspect as a way to reflect the intensity when he is putting together a collection. “It just helped me emotionally connect and explain what it feels like.” The folk horror element alchemised strands of the arcane research that Galliano was always famous — even notorious — for: the stories sailors told with their Guernsey knits, legible only to other members of their clan; the gold earrings they wore, to be melted down when they drowned to pay for their funeral pyre; the fabrics distressed “to wring out their truth,” as Galliano put it. “The idea was that was what I was feeling. I’d been wrung out and I wanted to express that through the clothes.” The subtext of human sacrifice that tickled the edges of the screen might be something he’d like to take up with his therapist.

Given that, there was a sense that the last Artisanal collection had a special degree of intensity for him. The darkness of the pandemic, the awesome mystery of nature weighed on him. As an industrialised expression of that intensity (“clothes you’ll be able to buy and wear,” in other words), Co-Ed is necessarily diluted. But the new film and the clothes have a peculiar ritualised, ragged beauty. Glitchy, I said earlier. Unnerving, too. What are the muses doing fly-fishing? Because that’s what the kids are doing on the Canal Saint Martin in Paris, fly-fishing with magnets to clear away the metal trash in the water. “The storytelling, the narrative, it’s quite magical when the kids click in,” Galliano rhapsodises. “Sometimes I get quite teary.” The make-believe is on the screen, like the ability to convert base materials into the stuff of dreams. Galliano was always fashion’s arch-alchemist, and film has taken him to different heights. “I’ll have a thunderous pink cloud for three hours instead of two seconds, or a full lunar eclipse for four hours,” he marvels.

He shares the credit with Olivier Dahan. “Olivier gave the kids the space to make-believe. To see those kids get lost in the story … it’s make-believe. It’s what we all did. I’ve always been make-believe in my head.”

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