John Galliano

John Galliano (1960- ) is widely considered one of the most innovative and influential fashion designers of the early twenty-first century. Known for a relentless stream of historical and ethnic appropriations, he mingled his references in often surprising juxtapositions to create extravagant yet intricately engineered and meticulously tailored clothes. His continual interest in presenting fashion shows as highly theatricalized spectacles, with models as characters in a drama and clothes at times verging on costumes, won him applause as well as criticism. With his respective appointments at Givenchy and Christian Dior, Galliano rose to international celebrity status as the first British designer since Charles Frederick Worth to front a French couture house. He has been a member of France’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture since 1993 and is the winner of many prestigious awards, most notably British Designer of the Year in 1987, 1994, 1995, and 1997, and International Designer of the Year in 1997.

Education and Early Career

Galliano, christened Juan Carlos Antonio, was born in Gibraltar in 1960. He moved to Streatham, South London, with his Gibraltan father and Spanish mother at the age of six. Galliano had a brief period of work experience with Tommy Nutter, the Savile Row tailor, during his studies at St. Martins School of Art in London (since renamed Central St. Martin’s), as well as a part-time position as a dresser at the National Theatre. He graduated from St. Martins with first class honors in fashion design in 1984. His hugely successful final collection, Les Incroyables, was based on fashion motifs of the French Revolution and was immediately bought by the London boutique Browns, where it was featured in the entire window display. Galliano launched his label in the same year and has designed in his own name ever since.

Despite Galliano’s rapid securing of a cult following and critical acclaim with such collections as Afghanistan Repudiates Western Ideals, The Ludic Game, Fallen Angels, or Forgotten Innocents, the business part of his early design career was most challenging. With inadequate and unstable financial backing—the Danish businessmen Jo-han Brun and Peder Bertelsen were among his first backers—Galliano had to produce several collections on a limited budget; some seasons he was not able to show at all. Galliano’s shows of this period sometimes relied on last-minute improvisations for the final effect—as in his Fallen Angels show when he splashed buckets of cold water over the models just before the finale. Galliano began to work with the stylist Amanda Harlech, who worked closely with him until 1997. Other long-term associates include the DJ Jeremy Healy, the milliner Stephen Jones, and the shoemaker Manolo Blahnik.

In 1990 Galliano designed the costumes for Ashley Page’s ballet Currulao, performed by the Rambert Dance Company. In 1991 he launched two less expensive, youth-oriented diffusion lines, Galliano’s Girl and Galliano

Genes. By the early 1990s, Galliano had become firmly rooted in London’s club scene. This, combined with his first-hand knowledge of the theater, channeled his interests toward experimentation and rarefied eccentricity, while it also fed the self-styled reinventions of his personal image. Both remain Galliano trademarks.

From London to Paris

Galliano moved to Paris in 1990, hoping for better work prospects. His acclaimed 1994 spring-summer collection, inspired by his personalized fairy-tale version of Princess Lucretia’s escape from Russia, opened with models rushing down the catwalk, tripping over their giant crinolines supported by collapsible telephone cables. Thanks to the support of (U.S.) Vogue’s creative director Anna Win-tour and the fashion editor Andre Leon Talley, Galliano’s breakthrough 1994-1995 autumn-winter collection was staged in an hôtel particulier, the eighteenth-century mansion of the Portuguese socialite Säo Schlumberger. The show re-created the intimate mood of a couture salon, with models walking through different rooms in the house that held small groups of guests. The interior of the house was transformed into a film set, evoking an aura of romantic decadence, with unmade beds and rose petals scattered about. Despite being composed of a mere seventeen outfits, the show used choreography and its exotic location to mark a momentous mid-1990s shift toward fashion shows as spectacles. A comparable mode of presentation was developed by Martin Margiela and Alexander McQueen around the same time.

In 1995 the president of the French luxury conglomerate LVMH, Bernard Arnault, appointed Galliano as Hubert de Givenchy’s replacement as principal designer at Givenchy. Here Galliano had an excellent opportunity to study the archives of a major Parisian couture house. He developed his skill for merging—within one collection or a single outfit—traditional feminine glamour with a distinctly contemporary element of playfulness. He was also able to do justice to the breadth of his vision as one of fashion’s most spectacular showmen. During and after Galliano’s brief tenure at Givenchy, the house acquired an air of “Cool Britannia,” and received unparalleled publicity. Alexander McQueen took over at Givenchy in 1996, while Galliano was installed as chief designer at another LVMH label, Christian Dior, as Gianfranco Ferré’s successor. Four years later, Galliano’s creative control over Dior’s clothes was extended to the house’s accessories, shop design, and advertising. Meanwhile, Galliano has continued to design under his own label. In 2003 he opened his first flagship store on the corner of the rue Duphot and the rue du Faubourg-Saint Honoré in Paris. The building’s interior was designed by the architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Galliano launched his first signature men’s wear collection since 1986 for autumn-winter 2004.

Galliano creates eclectic clothes, which are based on sources from fashion, film, art, and popular culture, and modernizes his borrowings to varying degrees. Inspired by extensive travel experiences as well as thorough research in libraries, museum exhibitions, and archives, Galliano interprets not only exotic and historical looks but also construction techniques—most significantly the body-flattering elastic bias cut popularized by Madeleine Vionnet in the 1920s. His approach has been described variously as magpie-like, history-book-plundering, romantic escapism, and postmodern pastiche. Galliano’s first haute couture Dior collection for spring-summer 1997, which coincided with Dior’s fiftieth anniversary, juxtaposed quasi-Masai jewelery and quasi-Dinka beaded corsets with hourglass silhouettes reminiscent of the Edwardian era and Dior’s own New Look. In the same collection, innocent white leather doily-like dresses and hats were shown alongside 1920s Chinese-inspired dresses styled with a menacing edge.

John Galliano. Bold and imaginative, Galliano often presents his fashion shows as highly theatrical affairs, with models playing characters and clothing inspired by historical costumes.

John Galliano. Bold and imaginative, Galliano often presents his fashion shows as highly theatrical affairs, with models playing characters and clothing inspired by historical costumes.

Unlike the androgynous creatures who paraded avant-garde shapes in Galliano’s London shows of the 1980s, the heroines of his 1990s Paris period were luxurious icy divas by day and exotic opium-fueled seduc-tresses by night—as represented in his Haute Bohemia collection for spring-summer 1998. For most of the decade he found inspiration in mysterious and sexually ambiguous women, ranging from real historical aristocrats, showgirls, and actresses to imagined characters and female stereotypes: Indian princess Pocahontas, Lolita (stemming from Vladimir Nabokov’s fictional character), Edwardian demimondaines, the actress Theda Bara as Cleopatra, the artist and model Kiki de Montparnasse, the Russian princess Anastasia Nicholaevna, the Duchess of Windsor, the film character Suzie Wong, other prostitutes, and trapeze artists. Galliano’s real clients in this period included Béatrice de Rothschild, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, and Cate Blanchett.

Since around 2000, in addition to Galliano’s multicultural cross-referencing, he has placed new emphasis on shaking up the high and low of fashion. He has returned to the excesses of his earlier work and “dirtied” traditional elegance with over-the-top chaotic mixes of punk and grunge trashiness, 1980s-1990s street culture, clown-like infantilism, and spoofs of “rock’n’roll chic.” While the designer maximized the concepts of couture and ready-to-wear alike as a masquerade and “laboratory of ideas,” with clothes as “showpieces,” he has reinforced the identities of Givenchy and particularly Dior as leading luxury brands with a tongue-in-cheek twist. The creative identity of his own label, which makes up for two of the six collections he produces yearly, has been closely linked to that of Dior.

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