It is important to establish the significance of John Galliano’s work in relation to this exceptional collection of photographs, taken from the thousands of images by Robert Fairer. His book is a perfect encapsulation of a giant of a genius in haute couture and ready-to-wear. There are no normal ways to talk about Galliano; his work provokes an emotional experience that exalts the senses. Yes, I can imagine you could imagine tasting the looks … Every sensory perception is built up to sustained moments of sheer wonder.
Galliano, with his St. Martin’s School of Art education, took fashion by storm when he presented his degree collection, “Les Incroyables,” in 1984. However, by the time I renewed our friendship in 1993, after a long hiatus (he lived in London; I lived in Paris and New York), he was literally homeless and desperate, sleeping on parquet floors in his best friend’s Paris apartment. After seasons of brilliance, his French business partners simply pulled the financial rug from under his feet. But, as they say, there is always light at the end of a dark tunnel.
With his gifted mind and his passionate dedication to inventing a new form of romantic fashion through extensive and academic research, Galliano found his way, in March 1994, in Paris. That autumn-winter presentation is now considered by leading experts to have been the show that redefined modern fashion.
The collection was staged at the former residence of São Schlumberger, the art patron and style icon who could name among her friends the Rothschilds, Andy Warhol, the comte de Paris, and Sylvester Stallone. She had lived at the incredibly beautiful Hôtel de Luzy, the former home of Talleyrand’s mistress, but the entire house had been emptied of its furniture and art, as she moved across town to Avenue Charles Floquet. There were 10 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms, which served as dressing rooms for the models. (Legend has it that an American model and her husband conceived their firstborn in one of the empty bedrooms.)
São was a client of Galliano’s, and he had been to her new residence to fit her for a Chinese kilt cut from vintage ceremonial silks. Now, on that brisk March morning—under the guidance of his then creative director and friend, Lady Amanda Harlech, and his right-hand man, the late Steven Robinson—he poured out a collection that had as elements the very essence and templates that make him a modern designer: his ability to align such diverse sources of inspiration, coupled with high technique, results in high fashion that borders on art.
There are no normal ways to talk about Galliano. Yes, I can imagine you could imagine tasting his looks.
The show was one of those great fashion moments: 18 looks on supermodels including Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Kate Moss, all of whom worked for free; shoes by Manolo Blahnik, also provided for free; and the contribution of Julien d’Ys, outstanding in his modernistic hairstyles. Embedded in the magic was, of course, excellent detail in tailoring and bombastic flourishes, sustained by the drama of the entire show slowly snaking through the empty hôtel particulier on three floors.
I was living in Paris at the time and served as the impresario of the show, having engineered a lunch with São and John to secure the location. There was organizing the important seating charts on every floor. São, naturally, was center stage. Georgina Brandolini d’Adda, Béatrice de Rothschild, and Countess Isabelle d’Ornano were among the social-Paris members in attendance. The late Gianfranco Ferré, who had designed Dior ready-to-wear and haute couture, was also there to see the Galliano dream achieved. It was a moment that eventually led Galliano himself to Dior—he was appointed to take over the house of Givenchy a year after this collection, in 1995; a year after that, when Ferré left Dior, Galliano took over.
The Dior Galliano
Galliano’s first couture show for Dior—spring-summer 1997—was held at the Grand Hotel in Paris, in a scaled-up reconstruction of the beautiful Dior salons on Avenue Montaigne. Soon, however, the soaring romance of his work demanded a larger stage. Galliano’s autumn-winter 1997–98 collection, based on Mata Hari, for example, was held in the romantic Bagatelle gardens, just outside of Paris. John’s gray flannel tweeds, inspired by his research of Christian Dior’s great Bar suits, were shown with long—long to the floor—thin skirts in matching tweed. The exaggeration of the collars; the small, nipped waists; and the hourglass effect of his peplum jackets, mixed with towering Edward S. Curtis inspirations in hair, were breathtaking. The diamanté sautoirs and giant earrings, inspired by African jewelry: they were never seen in haute couture. Stella Tennant wore extreme, yet refined, thin braids. Shalom Harlow brought the show to a climax when she came out completely nude but for a golden thong, under a long column of deft floral-embroidered silk.
The mix, it’s all in the mix—of research, conception, and tailoring. That is what makes John Galliano unique, and this show signaled his meteoric rise in the world of fashion. In one show, he had researched the great lines inspired by the decade of Christian Dior, yet he pushed the respect and reverence required of the venerable house to its limits. He decimated the surety of Dior’s legend by smashing through his own standards.
It’s as if, when Galliano designs, he pushes himself to the edge of the cliff. He fuses everything he loves, be it paintings by Boldini or the iconic figure of the Marchesa Casati. (She showed up many times in that “Bagatelle” collection; models were even selected on the basis of their hair resembling that of Casati, who traveled with her pet boa constrictor, named Anaxagartus, and who loved to take midnight strolls, nude under her flowing fur coats, accompanied by her black male escort who lit the way with huge torches.) Dior would never have thought like this, inspired by a woman so bent on herself, yet at the same time a universal symbol of individualism.
When Galliano designs, he pushes himself to the edge of the cliff.
The brand Dior and Galliano’s magnificent talent aligned in perfect union. John took his research seriously, but with great originality he invented his own distinct style. In his “From Granville and Beyond” collection (autumn-winter 2005-6), he developed transparency and the “New Look” silhouette in ways that suggested sensuality and refinement, all in one look. Galliano throws everything into the saucepan, and the scrambled yet brilliant looks come out as fashion. He cooks up deliciousness! But the process is very serious, like a great writer who organizes his plots: he is Dickensian, Flaubertian, Proustian, Orwellian. Each dress must tell a story within the larger context of the novel or literature. Each dress, as it glides along, is part of a decided whole. Themes are mentally devoured, turned upside down, re-invented, and come out dazzling. Unique. Extraordinary. Outstanding.
Austria, Japan, the World
One of Galliano’s greatest shows, “Empress Sisi” (autumn-winter 2004–5), was a masterly moment that, to the beat of Elvis Presley, achieved a real sense of the power of couture to push fashion to new heights. The strapless evening gowns, built up to layer upon layer of exaggerated shapes, in embroidered-jewel tones as well as white, made for one of the best moments in his entire career. I cherish that show, with the models all made up in white faces and Clara Bow mouths, gilt crowns worn lopsided on curly hair, striking dramatic poses. Galliano followed every single detail, from the initial toile to the color of the runway. Even the nails were done with a seriousness akin to that of Josef von Sternberg or Alfred Hitchcock when approaching a film.
Melania Trump was in the audience at the “Empress Sisi” show, and she selected Galliano’s white strapless satin gown for her wedding dress. I escorted her to Paris, where she went to all the major houses. But when she saw that dress, she had found her wedding moment. She fitted the dress in New York, one day at the Plaza Athénée—patiently, quietly, with no drama-queen fits—for eight hours. Robert Fairer caught the dress just as it was about to make its catwalk debut.
Cut to “Madame Butterfly,” a spring-summer 2007 novel on the great romance of Japan. A white exercise in origami as a huge semi-strapless frigate of a gown; an amazing homage to Dior dresses in the museum of Christian Dior at Granville (see the great Avedon photograph of Dovima with the elephants, in a black dress with a white satin high-waisted obi sash); modern geishas in slim pencil skirts slashed over the signature Dior peplum silhouette; the magic of a beautiful white empire-waisted coat, illustrating in its full sweeping folds Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, topped with a gigantic collar that hid the face of the mannequin. All of this was done in a way that suggested the quiet, dramatic elegance of Japanese art.
Galliano followed every single detail—even the nails were done with a seriousness akin to that of Alfred Hitchcock approaching a film.
Everything in Galliano’s world is a poem, a story, in his tribute to the inspiration of the season. The “H” line, established by Dior in 1954, became the “H-line Pharaohs,” the models sporting Veruschka-like hair and bold scarabs—Dame Pat McGrath and her army of assistants should have received an award for the makeup alone. Again, the respect for Dior language and couture grammar, peplums, exaggeration: Galliano was ideal for Dior.
There was Marlene Dietrich, in the great spring-summer 2004 ready-to-wear: simply dashing two-piece black bikinis, accessorized with white fur foxes slung over the shoulder. Then, of course, Carmen as the cigarette-factory worker in sportswear conceits, with huge flamenco skirts swooshing along, creating their own music in fabric. It’s utter femininity, it’s blast-you-in-the-face, with proportions that seem at first not to be centered in the reality of a garment, yet turn out to be when tried on by individuals who have loved the collections. The Dior Galliano was high spectacle, it was the moment of grandeur, and it has permanence in Robert Fairer’s extraordinary photographs.
Everything in Galliano’s world is a poem.
In his memoirs, first published in 1956, Dior wrote: “Haute couture dresses have the unique and extraordinary character of art objects. They are among the last remaining things to be made by hand, by human hands whose value remains irreplaceable, for they endow everything they create with qualities that a machine could never give them: poetry and life.” And in the beautiful words of the great French novelist George Sand: “I feel sorry for you if you have never heard what roses say. I long for this time, when I could hear them. It is a faculty of childhood.” This is John Galliano. He created his own roses. They speak their own musicality. They are aligned to every sense. I am to this very day, this very moment, heady with the hothouse roses, the Galliano-Dior hybrids, cultivated by one of the greatest names in high fashion. Galliano’s couture garden shall endure … throughout time!
André Leon Talley is the subject of The Gospel According to André, directed by Kate Novack, Magnolia Pictures. His upcoming memoir, Chiffon Trenches, will be published by Random House next spring