There is a certain irony to the fact that of all the shows that took place during couture last week, the one designed to be the most off-line — the one conceived as an in-person experience rather than as a simple catwalk — is the one that ended up going the most viral.
The one that no one seems to be able to stop talking about — not the fashion world, nor its millions of followers.
I am speaking of the Maison Margiela Artisanal show by John Galliano. It has sent the watching hordes into ecstasies of praise and adoration, and inspired talk of “history” and “genius” and “the sublime.”
The show, held under the Pont Alexandre III bridge in a jury-rigged nightclub straight from Paris’s romantic old underbelly as a cold wind blew in off the Seine and waiters offered hot toddies and candied violets, was everything the fashion world once seemed to promise. It was sumptuous, excessive, rife with roiling emotion communicated in cloth, with models vamping, skittering and otherwise willing to sacrifice themselves on the pyre of unfettered imagination. It was the sort of immersive show that hasn’t been seen in more than a decade. Maybe two.
Exactly that sort of show. Which is why, almost a week later, I feel a lingering sense of déjà vu. And why, scrolling through the continuing paeans in the digisphere, I can’t help but wonder if the outsize reaction has less to do with Mr. Galliano and more with our own fears about the contemporary creative condition.
Fears that, as Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino told me in Paris, “the money has won,” no matter what the form of artistic expression. “Producers are stronger than musicians,” he said. “Galleries are stronger than painters. And big groups are stronger than designers.” Fears that along the way to super-brands, billions and globalization, we lost something essential and we don’t know how to get it back.
The Margiela show, with its distortions and theater, its lack of obvious commercial intent, represented a riposte to all that (even if a big group — Only the Brave, the conglomerate run by Renzo Rosso that owns Margiela and employs Mr. Galliano — actually paid for it). And if it could be greeted with such an ecstatic embrace … well, perhaps redemption was possible. Not just for Mr. Galliano, with all his talent and his transgressions, but for anyone complicit in the corporatization of inspiration.
Yet it seems to me that viewing this particular show as a solution rather than a symptom may be more wishful thinking than reality.
This March a documentary on his life, “High & Low: John Galliano,” by the director Kevin Macdonald, will open in theaters. (Full disclosure: I am a talking head in the film.) Mr. Galliano sees himself, he said during our couture preview, as one of fashion’s earliest victims of cancel culture, even though there is a significant difference between being convicted in an actual court and being convicted in the court of public opinion.
Also, the period of Mr. Galliano’s greatest triumphs is having a nostalgic moment among millennials and Gen Z-ers, who view the age before smartphones as a halcyon time, before factionalism became an epidemic and everyone was isolated in the echo chamber of their own toxic beliefs.
As Tara Gonzalez wrote in Harper’s Bazaar after the Margiela show: “I grew up watching Galliano’s wildly theatrical shows years after the fact on YouTube, always with a tinge of bitterness. They made me feel like I’d been born into the wrong generation — what I wouldn’t have given to have been there, witnessing those scenes in real time, nothing but a notebook on my lap.”
Still, you can understand it. No designer has been as symbolic of fashion’s modern arc than Mr. Galliano, the lonely kid born in Gibraltar and raised in South London who found himself in the fantasies of fashion at Central Saint Martins and ultimately got the keys to the luxury kingdom as creative director of Dior before collapsing under the pressure of the globalizing industry that demanded more and more collections.
When I first started going to shows, back in the early part of the millennium, the Galliano shows, both his signature label and Dior, were the hottest tickets in Paris. People would trek to abandoned warehouses on the outskirts of the city for Galliano and wait outside in the cold for an hour to be let in and transported to whatever realm the designer had dreamed up. (The neighborhoods were so sketchy that the Saks team once had its car broken into.)
Then, over the seasons, he went from being the darling of the fashion scene to its pampered dauphin, increasingly isolated in a gilded cage, taking his Dior bows with hair dyed to match the collections and in evermore elaborate costumes — now Napoleon, now an astronaut — that seemed evermore ridiculous. Ultimately he descended into drug and alcohol addiction and lost it all after an antisemitic rant in a Paris bar.
He was fired from Dior, lost his namesake label (which was owned by LVMH), convicted of a hate crime (albeit with a reduced fine) in a Paris court and spent a few years in the wilderness. He went to rehab, offered reparations, studied with a rabbi and gradually began his return. In 2014, Mr. Rosso named him creative director of Maison Margiela, and he humbly took the job, continuing the founder Martin Margiela’s practice of never taking a bow at the end of a show.
In any case, it turned out Mr. Galliano had something new and relevant to say: exploring ways of cutting old garments and upcycling that brought the house’s explorations of used materials to an exquisite new level. Now, almost a decade later, he has fully made it his own, bringing the story full circle, writing his own happy ending.
How did he know it was time? Perhaps he sensed there was a Galliano revival brewing. Vintage dresses by the designer keep popping up on the red carpet. Jennifer Aniston wore a white bias-cut Galliano for Dior from 1999 to the 2020 SAG awards; Amal Clooney wore a mint-green beaded Galliano slip dress from 2009 to the London premiere of “Ticket to Paradise” in 2022; and Laverne Cox wore a periwinkle blue and silver draped Galliano gown to the Golden Globes in 2023. When I saw Mr. Galliano in Paris before the show, he was marveling at the prices his old work fetched in the auction market.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Mark Guiducci of Vogue, who wrote on Instagram: “The John Galliano show that my generation has been waiting for. The fashion fantasy that ’90s kids were promised.”
While I can understand the desire for something you think you missed, I wonder if, in celebrating Mr. Galliano’s “return to his roots,” we haven’t somehow missed the point. That era was also full of abuses (as the #MeToo movement uncovered) and self-destructive behavior.
The truly mind-blowing aspect of Mr. Galliano’s gift is his singular ability to invent new ways to shape material and through that, the body and sense of self. That goes far beyond the obvious use of extreme corsetry out of which the flesh spills, in all its meaty glory.
When I saw him at the preview, he was chortling over the silver swallows on a black chiffon dress, which he had finally figured out how to bead on the bias to remain square rather than twisting with the cut. Seams disappeared into embroideries as if they didn’t exist. Those models — or “muses,” as he calls them — in his show weren’t hunched over with their arms protecting their guts because they were acting. The wool coats were cut to create that effect, to give the gift of gesture without effort.
And the coats weren’t wool anyway. They were layers of organza and tulle crushed together, printed to resemble men’s wear fabric, and shrouded in a veil of chiffon like a shadow.
It’s easy to miss amid all the illusory drama, but it’s also a reminder: We’ve moved beyond the idea of suffering for fashion — and that’s a good thing. The dream of fashion ought to move forward, too.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.