Is the fashion good enough to ignore a checkered past?
Fashion has been missing fantasy for far too long. Viewers are tired of “interesting” clothes worn by dour models stomping down a stark, white runway.
That is precisely why Maison Margiela’s Spring 2024 Couture collection made such a big splash. It was a return to theatrics. It was gorgeous clothes in a gorgeous setting worn by gorgeous models with gorgeous makeup. It was extravagance, it was excellence, it was what we want in our fashion shows.
There is, however, a thorn in this rose: the creative director of Maison Margiela, John Galliano.
Galliano is a controversial figure and has long been a mainstay in the fashion industry. His career started in 1984 after he graduated from Central Saint Martins with a degree in Fashion Design. Since then, he has worked at his own eponymous label, Givenchy, Dior, Oscar de la Renta, and, since 2014, Maison Margiela.
Caroline Kloster writes for CR Fashion Book, “Under Galliano, each [of] Dior[‘s] ... shows weren’t presentations of clothing, but rather elaborate and theatrical experiences similar to seeing a live play or going to the movies… He equated high fashion with the spectacular in a way that the industry had never seen before.”
To this day, images from John Galliano for Christian Dior Fall/Winter 1998 and John Galliano Fall/Winter 2007 remain some of the most reposted fashion editorials on the Internet. They show a level of romantic set design, technical precision, and theatrical environmentalism that is all but lost in today’s runways.
He is a creative genius — no doubt about that. Unfortunately, like a lot of artists, he has a more prurient side to him that can be hateful and disgusting. The largest controversy surrounding John Galliano stems from three instances that occurred between 2010 and 2011.
During the first incident in September 2011, the BBC reported that he “harangued museum curator Geraldine Bloch about being Jewish… He also hurled racist insults at her friend, who is of South Asian origin, for 45 minutes before police came to break up the argument.” Galliano blamed drug and alcohol addiction for his outburst.
The third incident refers to an earlier video that resurfaced around the time of the arrest, in February of 2011, wherein Galliano proclaims his love for Hitler. In the video, Galliano tells a woman at the table next to him: “I love Hitler. People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be fucking gassed.”
Following these incidents, Galliano was brought to court and convicted of hate crimes in Paris. Now, whether or not justice was served is up for debate. He was fired from his position at Christian Dior and ordered by the Parisian courts to pay a €6,000 fine — although People Magazine reports that the “fine [was] suspended on a conditional term, according to legal sources, that Galliano not be found guilty of any crime in France for five years.” I was unable to find any arrest records for Galliano during that time, so I think it is safe to assume those fines were eventually waived.
I feel a great deal of trepidation mentioning his name. But I think it is important, in these times of intense praise for his work, that both these sides of him live in the conversation. Yes, he has a sharp eye for design and a deft ability to realize a fantasy in his head — but he can also be deeply troubled. He can, and has, very publicly, spewed rhetoric that is harmful and alienating to a large population of fashion enjoyers.
Archival fashion, like many prisms of history, can be a difficult thing to appreciate through the lens of our current cultural climate. Oftentimes, the appreciation of work made by figures who do not represent the moral ideals of today can be seen as an approval of their immoral behavior. The clothes are pretty, so let’s just sweep all this other nasty stuff under the rug.
Usually, this predicament can be easily dismissed, because the offending figure in question is long dead. It feels more comfortable to appreciate their art because you know there is no way your participation in their practice would be supporting them; your clicks aren’t building them a platform or giving them ad dollars.
But John Galliano is very much alive. The support we give him and his work directly translates into supporting his lifestyle.
I don’t believe that humans are entitled to a life in the public eye. After Louis C.K.’s controversy during the Me Too movement, a common sentiment among those in the comedy scene was: “He served his time, he apologized, and now he can get back to his career.”
No — now he can go get a job at Best Buy like the rest of us. If you abuse and exploit the power you are entrusted with in your industry, especially one so deeply connected to public opinion, you have forfeited the right to participate. No one is entitled to a “dream job.”
The fashion industry is famously a world mired by exploitation, ladder-stepping, and a willingness to throw colleagues under the bus for even the slightest chance of getting ahead.
Chico Felitti, writing for Buzzfeed News about the working conditions in Vogue Brazil, states: “Nearly all described witnessing their colleagues being berated or insulted … sometimes while being asked to work 24 hours or more without leaving the office, and being obliged to take on responsibilities and tasks outside their job description for which they were not compensated. One producer was so afraid of being accused of slacking off that she snuck out at lunchtime to get cancer treatments rather than tell her boss she was sick.
This points to a culture wherein workers are so terrified of losing their jobs (read: losing their chance at “living the dream”) that they won’t speak up for themselves — let alone speak out about the poor behavior of a major figurehead in the industry.
This causes a chilling effect whenever scandals involving high-powered individuals occur. You don’t know who knows who, who feels what, and how your statement will be received by those in charge.
Following Galliano’s controversy in 2011, Natalie Portman was one of the only celebrities who directly condemned the designer’s behavior. She released a statement denouncing her affiliation with Galliano and made a last-minute swap from a Dior gown to a Rodarte dress for the Oscars that year.
On the other end of the spectrum, supermodel Kate Moss was one of the only public figures to stand by Galliano’s side, commissioning her wedding dress from the designer only a couple of months following the incident.
Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that John Galliano is a Haute Couture designer. Most people will never be able to afford his garments. Galliano designs for celebrities and the 1%, not the general public. As a result, he doesn’t rely on global sales in the same way that, say, De Sarno does at Gucci. This further insulates him from criticism and offers a veil of protection in the fashion world. As long as he operates in a culture that is too afraid to speak out about unacceptable behavior, he will have a long and prosperous career.
Of course, there are layers to this shit. Humans are inherently flawed creatures. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone says a weird thing at the wrong time, everyone tends to be selfish — add substance abuse, fame, unchecked power, and an extreme amount of wealth to the situation, and you have a recipe for disaster.
But there is a distinct difference between typical human foibles and hate speech, rape, and abuse. So, the question we have to ask ourselves is: what exactly is the tipping point where a career is destroyed? Should Aziz Ansari receive the same level of vitriol as Louis C.K.? Should Galliano be placed on the same level as Alexander Wang?
This is the big problem we’re currently grappling with in a post—cancel culture society. As members of a creative culture, we have a responsibility to hold people accountable —to set standards for behavior and uphold them. But it can be tough to enforce these standards when we have to negotiate with the reality that people, especially artists, aren’t paragons of morality. They are often sad, desperate, lonely people prone to destruction, addiction, and greed.
Judith Thurman writes for the New Yorker, “Fashion is big business, but it is also an art… Galliano’s story raises the old question of how one should regard the work of artists who have espoused vile or murderous views.”
So, at what point can we separate the art from the artist? And who are we harming by doing so? Is the appreciation of that art worth the harm we cause?
Ultimately, I hope the Margiela Spring 2024 Couture show sparks a revolution in the aesthetics of Fashion — that it inspires other designers to be bold with the world they create in their collections. I hope this reveals the desperate hunger capital-FL Fashion Lovers have for fantasy. I want to be enveloped in the worlds of J.W. Anderson or Christopher John Rogers or Dilara Findikoglu in the same way that I was with Galliano.
We want to buy the dream — we just want to be discerning about who we’re buying it from. 🌀
Kaitlin Owens is a vintage fashion writer, movie buff, lover of good eats, and a women’s size 7.5 (if any shoe brands are reading). She is the Editor-in-Chief of Dilettante Magazine. You can find her on socials @magdilettante.