John Galliano





Fashion designer

Born Juan Carlos Antonio Galliano-Guillen in 1960 in Gibraltar, Spain. Education: Earned design degree from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, 1984.

Addresses: Office —John Galliano, 60 Rue d'Avron, 75020 Paris, France.

Career

Galliano's 1984 design-school graduation collection, "Les Incroyables," sold to Brown's, a London retailer, in its entirety; established fashion house under his own name in London, 1984; worked with various financial backers to produce collections, 1985-95; haute couture and ready-to-wear designer at the House of Givenchy, Paris, France, 1995-96; haute couture and ready-to-wear designer at Christian Dior, Paris, 1996—; opened own shop in Bergdorf Goodman store, 1997; licensed fur line, 1998; opened shop in Saks Fifth Avenue, 2000; launched watch collection, 2001; a partial career retrospective, "John Galliano at Dior," was staged at the Design Museum of London, 2001-02.

Awards: British Designer of Year award 1986, 1994, 1995; International Fashion Group, Master of Fashion, 1997; Designer of the Year, Council of Fashion of America, 1998; Commander of Order of the British Empire, 2001.

John Galliano

Sidelights

British fashion designer John Galliano's intricate and provocative clothes, which sometimes teeter on the edge of absurd, have made him one of the leading names in an industry where very few succeed to the top echelon. Usually referred to as fashion's enfant terrible, the designer's quixotic vision, exuberant sense of style, and iconoclastic personality have earned him a devoted following among the fashionista set, especially after he took over at the House of Dior in 1996. In a lengthy New Yorker profile, journalist Michael Specter noted that some of Galliano's critics claim that "his outfits often seemed more suited to the pageantry of public relations than to profits. Yet his effect on the way women dress is almost impossible to overstate.... More than any other designer working today, Galliano is responsible for the sheer and sexually frank clothing so many women wear."

Galliano emerged from a new generation of daring British designers whose visionary styles began stirring up the somewhat-moribund realm of international haute couture in the 1990s. Along with Alexander McQueen, creative director of Gucci, and Stella McCartney of Chloe, Galliano was tapped to take over one of France's more venerable design houses, Dior, in the 1990s. Before this generation, few British names had ever had any lasting impact on the French- and Italian-centric world of fashion. But Galliano has continental roots that helped shape his fabulously eccentric vision: his mother was Spanish, and he was born in Gibraltar, an overseas territory of Britain located on the coast of Spain, in 1960. The family moved to London six years later, but Galliano grew up in a household where his mother taught him to flamenco dance and regularly dressed his two sisters and him in formal outfits for Sundays and special occasions.

The Gallianos were working-class, and Galliano's father was a plumber in South London, which is often mentioned in articles about the designer's swift rise in the haute-couture world. "I got so sick of seeing my father called a plumber in every article," he told Specter in the New Yorker article, just before his father passed away. "People are always talking about how I am a plumber's son. I am my father's son primarily. What he chose to do as a career was his choice and he did it very, very well."

Galliano was originally drawn to languages, but at school he discovered he had a talent for drawing. His teachers suggested he apply to a fashion college, and he won a slot at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London's top design school. While there, he worked as a dresser at Britain's National Theatre, the eminent theater company in London. As a dresser, it was his job to make sure that the wardrobe worn by some of Britain's most famous thespians was perfect, but Galliano also gained a wealth of experience in the art of spectacle. "That changed my life," he said of the job in the interview with Specter. "I was a good dresser. It helped shape my view of drama, of clothing, of costume--the way people dress."

As a design student, Galliano was often seized by fanciful ideas and schemes. While still in school, he began sketching images of bizarrely modern clothing based on the ideals of the French Revolution. True to form, he sketched them on period-style parchment paper and only by candlelight. When one of his teachers saw them, it was suggested that Galliano turn the sketches of quasi-androgynous gear into his graduation collection at St. Martins. He staged an elaborate spectacle that caused a London fashion-world sensation in 1984. Harper's Bazaar writer Colin McDowell was an instructor at the school at the time, and recalled "there was hysteria behind the scenes, with students in tears begging to model for him, and members of the audience, who had already heard the buzz, becoming increasingly excited in anticipation."

Galliano sold the entire collection to the one London retailer, Brown's, that offered forward-minded fashion at the time. "I had to literally wheel my collection up the street to their shop," he said in the New Yorker interview. "I couldn't even afford to put the clothes in a cab. And they put one of the coats in the window and it was bought by Diana Ross." Galliano went into business for himself that first year, but struggled financially for the next decade. His clothes remained exuberantly bizarre, often deploying arcane period detail. He liked to visit design museums to examine eighteenth-century frock coats to learn forgotten tailoring secrets, and his collections were staged with increasing theatricality. One 1985 show had a model coming down the runway waving a dead mackerel at the fashion buyers and journalists in the audience.

Galliano was recognized as the British Designer of Year in 1986, but the Danish financial backer he had been working with cut him loose that same year. He quickly found another, Aguecheek, which was a company that owned some of London's priciest designer boutiques. "My next collection will be much more disciplined—it has to be," he told WWD journalist James Fallon when Aguecheek agreed to produce his spring 1987 collection. But a year later, Galliano seemed back to his retro-quirk. A WWD report on the spring 1988 fashion collections in London described the novelties in his show as "high waists throughout, some over the bust; skirts that are long in front, short in back," and accessories that included "shoulder-length gloves, Twenties-style button-front shoes [and] snoods."

In 1990, Galliano took a leap of faith and moved to Paris. He struggled financially there, too, especially after Aguecheek severed its ties with him. After presenting collections only intermittently for a few years, he was living in reduced circumstances at his tiny atelier. He was known among the fashion-editrix and stylesetter set for his gorgeous and eccentric designs, but was thought to be too outré for the commercial world. That changed when Galliano was befriended by the creative director for the American edition of Vogue, Andre Leon Talley. After Talley convinced Vogue editor Anna Wintour to give Galliano's newest designs a look, it was decided that Galliano needed to stage a show for the fall 1994 Paris collections to secure some serious financial backing. He had no money to put on a show, but Talley asked Paris socialite Saõ Schlumberger to lend her house, and Galliano filled it with thousands of dead leaves and pumped in dry ice. A roster of top models of the day worked for free, and wore Galliano items cut from the sole bolt of fabric he could afford to buy: black satin-backed crepe, which had a shiny side and matte one.

The show was a sensation, and brought Galliano another British Designer of Year award. He showed an expanded line at Bergdorf Goodman that same year for his American retail debut, but the true turning point was around the corner: in July of 1995, he was announced as the next haute couture and ready-to-wear designer for Givenchy. The classic French house dated back to 1952 and was indelibly associated with actress Audrey Hepburn, the muse of designer Hubert de Givenchy, but in recent years the clothes had lacked excitement and de Givenchy announced he would retire. The parent company, French luxury-goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy (LVMH), launched a search to replace de Givenchy, and stunned the fashion world by installing Galliano in the post. He became the first British designer to head a French design house since Charles Frederick Worth dressed the Empress Eugenie and France's wealthiest women in the 1850s.

Galliano admitted it caused a bit of a stir. "Understandably, some of the ladies were very loyal to Monsieur de Givenchy," he told WWD writers Janet Ozzard and Katherine Weisman. "But we had a lovely tea party for some of them recently, and it was great. I got to talk to them and find out what their needs are, what they want, and they got to meet me." He also asserted he conducted his own method of market research. He began getting pedicures, complete with polish. "I went down to Revlon and lay on the table next to Mrs. So-and-So and had the whole treatment," he said in the same WWD interview. "I mean, if you're going to get to know your customer, you have to know what she does. So I went through all that."

Some media sources made much of Galliano's startling rise, and often invoked the "son of a plumber" phrase. Adding to that, Galliano was known as exuberantly, famously eccentric, often sporting long dreadlocks, a pencil mustache, and a roster of ever-changing get-ups that usually featured somewhat of a pirate theme. After a year on the job, Galliano's star rose even further at LVMH when he was named head of Christian Dior, assuredly the most prestigious and vital property in the LVMH stable. Now Galliano had the financial wherewithal to give his creative vision free rein, and LVMH chair Bernard Arnault seemed to let him do as he pleased. His Dior debut at the Paris haute-couture shows was famous for its train-station setting and the models alighting off an antique steam engine that came thundering down the track.

Other Dior shows under Galliano featured models dressed as nuns but also sporting fetish wear, or a theme centered around the idea of Russian aristocrats escaping the 1917 revolution. Critics seemed flummoxed at times to translate Galliano's ideas onto the page and distill what was important and new, but the clothes won their own fans and the Dior name enjoyed an impressive renaissance. The line was suddenly new, sexy, and hip, with its clothes fitting much closer to the body, which Galliano has said he worked diligently to convince its esteemed stable of fitters and seamstresses to do when he took over. Though his runway ideas were sometimes outrageous, in the end they trickled down to the mainstream, and Galliano is credited with bringing dirty denim, camouflage, and even the slip dress to the masses.

Although those priciest haute-couture concoctions remained the province of the immensely wealthy, the more accessible Dior ready-to-wear began to thrive. His dresses became the favorite of trendsetting celebrities, from singer Gwen Stefani to actress Nicole Kidman, and between 1997 and 2001, Dior sales doubled to $312 million. In 2004, he was named to Time magazine's 100 list of world trendsetters and visionaries, and while writer Kate Betts hailed him as an immense creative force, she claimed the larger significance of what he introduced was nothing less than "the very proportions of our clothes, cutting dresses and jackets on the bias—against the grain of the fabric—so that they spiral around the body and give women a sinuous, sexier shape."

Galliano still makes his own John Galliano line, and opened an expectedly grandiose retail space in Paris on the Rue Saint-Honore in 2003. He lives in the Marais district of Paris, and adheres to a strenuous fitness regime to keep him toned for the sometimes shirtless catwalk struts he likes to take after presenting his collections. His outrageous costumes are a drastic departure from the well-cut suits of Monsieur Dior, who died in 1957 after revolutionizing women's fashion in a mere decade of innovation. "I don't think if Mr. Dior were here today he'd still be doing what he did back then, redoing things from yesteryear," Galliano told W 's Miles Socha in 2002. "Don't forget, he was the first designer to set the standard for the modern fashion show. He was the first to license, the first to look to the United States for sales. He was a leader, and I think the house of Dior should continue to be."

Sources

Books

Contemporary Fashion, second ed., St. James Press, 2002.

Periodicals

Harper's Bazaar, March 2004, p. 304.

New Yorker, September 22, 2003, p. 161.

New York Times, October 11, 2000, p. B11; January 20, 2004, p. B8.

Time, April 26, 2004, p. 88.

W, April 2002, p. 210.

WWD, July 1, 1986, p. 6; October 12, 1987, p. 8; September 9, 1996, p. 8.

—Carol Brennan



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