WRITER: Claudia Croft / the interview people PHOTOGRAPHER: Patrick Demarchelier
As one of the fashion world’s most respected creative geniuses, John Galliano’s fall from grace sent shockwaves through the industry. Many wondered whether he could ever rise again. But he has.
We’ve come to London to meet John Galliano and his long-term boyfriend, the celebrity stylist Alexis Roche, has left us alone to talk, although he smiles anxiously as he closes the door to the hotel suite. Galliano, 55, hasn’t given an interview in years, but today he’s ready.
The former Dior designer has a new job, and a new approach to life, at Maison Margiela, where he has been creative director for 18 months. The avant-garde Paris label is owned by the Italian billionaire Renzo Rosso, whose company OTB also owns the Diesel group.
Dressed in a dark Prada suit, with his long hair falling over one eye, the most flamboyant thing about him today is his vintage gold cigarette case and lighter. Smoking is his last vice. He’s been sober for five years, ever since a video of him hurling anti-semitic abuse at customers in a Paris bar became public in 2011. That incident spectacularly crashed his career. Galliano was branded a bigot and banished from fashion. “Before, work was the most important thing in my life, not my health, which is insanity,” he says as we sip on water and green tea.
The fact that he is sitting here, sober and happily talking about his role at Maison Margiela, where sales have risen 30 per cent since he took over, is a personal and professional triumph. Many believed he would never survive the shame of his downfall. The day Dior announced it had sacked him, March 1st, 2011, he checked himself into an Arizona rehab facility, where they took everything away from him. Afterwards, he continued his recuperation at his country house in France, emerging briefly in July 2011 to make Kate Moss’s wedding dress.
It was the worst of times, which Galliano has said was a culmination of years of drink and drug abuse, aggravated by the pressure to create. He was a “slave” to his success, but admits his approach to work also has a self-destructive edge.
“The creative process is all-consuming, and that’s something in me – one of my many character defects – that I have to keep in check.” He describes himself as almost going into a trance when in work mode. “When I’m fitting and draping, the house could burn down and I wouldn’t be aware. You can get to five o’clock in the morning and I’m still there.” These days, he strives for balance. “Friends ring me about 8pm and say, ‘Are you still there?’” he laughs. “The world is not going to stop spinning if you go home – but that’s how I used to think.”
In his Dior pomp – when backstage at shows one assistant would hold his cigarettes, another his lighter – he’d become so cut off from reality that ordinary tasks were beyond him. “When I left my previous day job, I didn’t know how to write emails or use a mobile phone because everything was done for me.”
Post Dior and post rehab, Galliano pursued his recovery from addiction with verve, even consulting Shaolin monks. “I wanted to learn to meditate,” he says. “I just needed to learn how to stop the voices in my head. And they said to me that the creative process was my form of meditation, so I’ve been meditating since I was at Saint Martin’s School of Art.”
Part of his cure was to revisit his childhood. He was born Juan Carlos in Gibraltar on November 28, 1960, the middle child of three (he has two sisters). The family came to England in 1967, when he was six. His father, John Joseph, was a plumber and his mother, Anita, was a dinner lady. The family were devout Catholics and Galliano would sometimes serve as an altar boy. He attended a grammar school where he was bullied. He says he retreated into his imagination before finding his creative outlet at St Martin’s.
But Galliano is a new man now. He now wakes early and hits the gym. “It keeps me in the present,” he says, “which is so important, because for so long I wasn’t.” Breakfast involves green tea, fruits of the season, and porridge with almond milk. He’s in the office early. “I now understand why people start work at 9am. That used to be when I was finishing,” he chuckles.
The new Galliano spends his days doing fittings and researching, surrounded by his design team (many of whom worked with him at Dior) and lots of interns. “Before they were always in another room,” he says, referencing his hierarchical days at Dior. They’ve switched him on to Instagram and he follows kids whose dress sense catches his eye, plastering their pictures on his studio walls and referencing them for styling ideas. “It’s a reality check, because it’s what’s going on today,” he says. Many are wearing the Saddle bag he designed at Dior. “It’s a cult thing now,” he says, delighted.
When three of his interns were caught up in the mass shootings in Paris in November, he counselled them, helping them come to terms with the horror they witnessed. Paris now is a much more edgy place to live, he says, but it’s home. He gave up his small London party pad as part of his recovery, but still sees all his old friends – “Kate, Fran, Jeremy Healy”.
He has also made efforts to atone for his misdeeds with the Jewish community, although the French rabbis he first approached shunned him. Through the Anti-Defamation League in New York and Jonathan Newhouse, the CEO of Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, Galliano was introduced to the London-based Rabbi Barry Marcus, who has mentored and educated him (and whom Galliano invited to his debut Margiela show back in January 2015).
Some people will never forgive the things he said (“I love Hitler”); others are eager to give him a second chance. When Rosso first offered Galliano the opportunity of a new start at Martin Margiela, the designer refused. He was about take his first steps back into fashion with a three-week “designer in residence” role with his friend Oscar de la Renta, brokered by his great supporter Anna Wintour. The elderly king of American society dressing was dying of cancer and looking for a successor. Many saw this as a trial run, but although Galliano’s work at the house was well received, he returned to Paris.
Rosso kept the conversation going. “Martin created something that is innovative, iconic, unique to this very day,” he says. “We couldn’t think of bringing in just anyone, we needed another strong visionary.” One weekend, he suggested Galliano visit the Margiela headquarters, a crumbling former convent on Rue Saint-Maur. “I walked through those doors and I saw the decayed paint and it had such a soul, and St Joseph’s bells were peeling out,” he says. “Alexi [his boyfriend] must have sensed something. He said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said yes. He said, ‘You are ready, aren’t you,’ and I said, ‘I feel really good here. I feel really good.’ It’s got emotion everywhere. It’s got the fingerprints of time and emotion and dust — all the things I like. Heaven!”
Many in the industry questioned whether Galliano was an appropriate fit for Margiela, where the codes of anonymity run deep. The founder, Martin Margiela, who left the label in 2009, refused to give interviews or be photographed. But Margiela gave Galliano his blessing. Their paths had crossed several times during Galliano’s career. They both partied at Taboo, the infamous 1980s club, and when Galliano first showed his eponymous brand in Paris, Margiela lent him a salon at the back of his building. “But he was so paranoid, he taped up all around the door and keyhole so I couldn’t look into his studio to copy,” Galliano says. “The queue for fittings was major. You’d have all these intellectual girls on one side of the stairs, and Christy, Naomi and Linda on the other queuing up for you know who.”
They met up again shortly after Galliano got the job. “He came to tea. I’d forgotten all the questions I wanted to ask.” Instead the pair talked for hours. Margiela shared his love of 17th century literature, 18th century costume and kitsch. “At the end he said, ‘John, take what you will from the DNA of the house, protect yourself and then make it your own.’”
Now, just like Margiela himself, Galliano doesn’t come out at the end of his shows and rarely speaks to the press. “I want to put the focus on the clothes,” he says. Also like his predecessor, he’s obsessed with linings and the insides of garments, making coats that can hang off the shoulders with straps to show the inner workings. The new bag he has created for the house even comes with a detachable lining that can be used on its own. He’s raving about a new wool that he can cut on the bias for daywear as opposed to the slinky robe sirene he was so well known for. He’s resisted doing too many of those for Margiela, even though his couture clients beg him to, because, he whispers, they’re “too John Galliano”.
He hasn’t changed his methods. Just as he did at Dior, he uses the couture atelier as a design lab to create new lines, silhouettes and volumes that then trickle down to the ready-to-wear. “It’s always been driven by an emotion,” he says of his approach. “I’ve always been inspired by periods of history. It might not be as relevant today, but it’s that backstage thing of trying to understand how things were put together and how they could possibly be put together for the future, for tomorrow.” He still researches each collection with academic rigour, but no longer wants to tell the fantastical stories he once did about his clothes (Princess Lucretia escaping the castle to go on a journey of discovery, for example). “I thought long and hard about it. When I was putting those stories out there, they didn’t exactly help portray a sane image of myself,” he says, breaking into his characterful laugh.
“People want authenticity, whether that is an emotion of cut or drape, or how clothes are put together. It’s just what I feel.” Luxury, he says, is having the time to lie in the bath. His young interns are interested in sustainability and Galliano admires the founder of Patagonia, who called for people to stop buying his products. “There’s more soul-searching in fashion now.” He knows all about that.