Wednesday, February 10, 2010


From London’s club scene to Paris’s couture houses, John Galliano’s odyssey was hard-won. The designer recalls his defining moments. 

My journey began in Gibraltar, the peninsula in the strait that divides Spain from Morocco. I lived there until I was six. Even my walk to school would inspire me– past the souks, smells, herbs, and Mediterranean colors. It was so vivid, so vibrant. My curiosity stayed with me, blossomed, as I became a traveler through life.

We moved to London in 1966. I will never forget the change in colors, clothes, and culture: This seemed so much more important to me than the grayness and the climate– the idea that there was a whole new world out there that smelled like wet chalk. My taste for travel and adventure, my quest for beauty, had begun. The idea of cultures colliding is something that continues to inform the way I work, research, and create.I hadn’t been thinking about fashion in high school– at seventeen, I was studying languages. But somehow I ended up in textile classes, and on my teachers’ advice I got a portfolio together and went to Saint Martins, where they really encouraged you to express ourself, to throw buckets of blue paint all over the wall! I applied for the fashion course.

First collection, 'Les Incroyables', 1984

And then there was the nightlife. (I used to call it “research”– I still do!) Thursday nights would be the legendary club Taboo; you would start getting ready on Tuesday. Every week it had to be a different look. London was really rocking the spotlight. During this time I met people I still work with today– Jeremy Healy, the deejay, and the great milliner Stephen Jones.

In 1984, I had my graduation show, Les Incroyables– my first collection. I’d set out to conquer the world, and now everything clicked. Every piece had to have character, a sense that it had been lived in. So I used little magic techniques I’d learned in theatre, where I had worked as a dresser.

Kate Moss storming the runway

I had already been offered a contract in Manhattan as an illustrator for a fashion forecaster, and I was quite happy to go off and do that. But then all chaos broke out. Joan Burstein of Browns, London’s most important fashion boutique, took the whole collection. My first client was Diana Ross.

Amanda Harlech, a junior fashion editor at Harpers & Queen, had heard of the show, and I was invited to tea. The first shoot I ever did was with her and Mario Testino. She became an essential part of the posse. A lot of buyers were interested in my work, but I was totally unprepared. I was doing so much myself, it was crazy. I was pressing the shirts for the orders. And I didn’t really understand that the businesss– the importance of deliveries, for instance. I was heartbroken when an entire shipment was sent back from Bergdorf because it was late. But you learn. And I didn’t sink, I swam.

The I met Steven Robinson. He was just a teenager, but he was my first real assistant, and he became a soul brother. From counting buttons to measuring fabric, he loved the whole thing, and we set out on this great adventure. 

17 perfect girls walking at Sao Schlumberger's Hotel Particulier

Things started to go a little bit sour in London. It was like banging my head against a wall. If you didn’t have the cash, you couldn’t produce. So in 1992 I decided to go to Paris. We had nothing, no money. But I had a friend there who really believed in me– Faycal Amor, of the fashion company Plein Sud. He let me have a part of his building and allowed me to work with his team, which was really generous.

This was the Paris I had dreamed of, the Paris of the thirties. The buildings, the romance, the snow. We were hopeless romantics. We didn’t have money to eat. We were begging for cigarettes on the street. But sleeping on people’s floors was not a big issue; Sylvie Grumbach, a fashion publicist, would always have a pot au feu on the stove. I was hanging out with these great creative people, like the haridresser Julien D’Ys, and the makeup artist Stephane Marais. The collection that came out of this was Olivia the Philibustier. Shanghai Lils, voodoo witch doctors, rocker saris– the girls were marauders, like magpies, stealing from different cultures. The clothes were regal and street at the same time.

Creative director for Givenchy, the first French Couture House

The inspiration for my collections may come from a portrait I’ve seen. Or my imagination. It may be the Marchesa Luisa Casati. And then I want to know more about her, and I’m reading love letters to her from D’Annunzio, adn then she’s telling me what she wants to wear. It’s always great to have those muses. Now, more and more, I’m asking myself, How would Kate Moss wear this? Curiosity is the most important thing. 

Andre Leon Talley had come to see the Olivia the Philibustier show, and before I knew it, the collection was being shot by Steven Meisel with Grace Coddington, and Vogue was showing the world what it thought of of John Galliano. I was creating a bit of buzz in Paris.

For spring, I worked on my Princess Lucretia collection. Kate was Lucretia, fleeing Russia for the Outer Hebrides, and Christy Turlington was the Dotty Duchess. But the situation with Faycal was complicated because his fashion house had become a thing with two heads. And suddenly I didn’t have a way of producing a collection.

Dressing Princess Diana for the Met Ball

I was about to miss a season, but two weeks before the deadline, magic happened. Andre set up a lunch with Sao Schlumberger, the legendary socialite, and at the end Andre said, “By the way, you know that fantastic empty house you’ve got– would you allow John to do his show there?” Sao said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch, is there Andre!” But she said yes. So we were on! Now what?

Action. Focus. Fix it. At the studio we worked through the night to mix Kiki do Montparnasse and the Orient– an interlude between Lieutenant Pinkerton and Madame Butterfly. The erotic sensuality of the kimono with the fluidity of the bias. Everyone rallied, and we produced seventeen or eighteen outfits in two weeks. It was basically all black (with dashes of Kabuki pink and yellow), and we had to tear around Paris to find satin-black crepe– I could use both sides, and it would look like two different fabrics! For the show, Kate, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy– all the girls I had started with as a designer– modeled for next to nothing. Stephen Jones did the hats, Jeremy did the music, Julien and Stephane did the hair and the makeup, and together we produced the salon showat Sao Schlumberger’s empty eighteenth century hotel particulier. My mantra then and now is, If you’re going to do anything, do it to perfection and surround yourself with like-minded rebels.

Kirsten Dunst by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue, September 2006 via Fashion Vocabulary

The show caused quite a hoo-ha. I had a huge pile of orders and no way to produce them. But I was introduced to the investors John Bult and Mark Rice, and suddenly I had my first Paris atelier, and these fab couture ladies were ordering from this Dickensian building! Sao, Beatrice de Rothschild, Lee Radizwill, all loving the bias-cut dresses, the little jackets. The look then was very ragged and unfinished, but I was obsessed with couture-like finishing– I wanted the garments to look as beautiful on the inside as out. Like Oscar Wilde, I have the simplest taste: I am always satisfied with the best.  

The president of LVMH’s Givenchy heard about the grand ladies traipsing to a garret atelier in the Bastille. I think he found it quite amusing because I was invited to be the artistic and creative director of Givenchy– Hubert de Givenchy had just left. An Englishman taking over at Audrey Hepburn’s favorite couturier!

A Decade at Dior

One Friday night, after I’d been at Givenchy about a year and a half, I was wearing pajamas and bright-red nail polish and had my hair in dreadlocks when I got a phone call summoning me to meet Mr. Arnault, the CEO of the whole LVMH group. I thought, Oh, shoot, what have I done wrong? A car was sent with a security guard and black windows. It was all very James Bond. I was trembling like a leaf, and all I could think was, What a day to have on this color nail polish!

The elevator doors opened, and there was this incredibly elegant, calm man, dressed in gray, who spoke very softly. He mentioned the House of Dior– and would I like the job?

I just kind of screamed yes! I didn’t even think about it. He was a bit startled. It was a very emotional, groundbreaking moment for a kid form South London for whom Dior was a god. I loved the house immediately. It was more romantic than Givenchy– it was more like roses. It was another Incroyable moment. To have traveled from squat in London to Paris and the most prestigious couture house in the world. You couldn’t write a script like that in Hollywood!

The Madame Butterfly show finale

– As told to Hamish Bowles by John Galliano, American Vogue, March 2009

All other photos from Vogue UK's My Favourite Fashion Memories series

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