Fashion designer crackups raise question: Is industry's pace too relentless?

By Dana Thomas
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 12:40 PM

PARIS - Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld must have had an inkling of the impending doom that was to overtake the fall 2011 womenswear shows here this week. For the Chanel show at the Grand Palais on Monday, which Lagerfeld started planning months ago, he sent out a stream of dark, almost menacing post-punk gray suits and gowns down a runway surrounded by smoking black rocks and gravel. Had a meteor struck, laying waste to Earth? Was it the Fashion Apocalypse?

For designer John Galliano, who is cooling off and drying out in rehab in Arizona, it surely was. To recap: The Paris fashion community was busily putting the final touches on next season's ready-to-wear collections two weeks ago when news broke that Galliano, the longtime artistic director for Christian Dior, was drinking alone in a cafe, got into a brawl, and allegedly spewed anti-Semitic epithets, a crime in France. He was arrested, and his boss Sidney Toledano, who is Jewish, suspended him pending the police investigation.

Then a cellphone video of a similar incident at the same cafe, in which a profoundly drunk Galliano slurred that he loved Hitler, went viral on the Internet; 24 hours later, Galliano was fired.

Galliano wasn't the only designer to suffer a meltdown during the fashion shows. Balmain designer Christophe Decarnin was not at his show of sparkly, woven minidresses and Saint Laurent-style suits with cropped pants at the Grand Hotel here last week, because he was reportedly recovering from nervous exhaustion. "Doctors orders," the couture house said of its missing designer.

This comes after Alexander McQueen's suicide a year ago, shortly before his planned womenswear show. And after Louis Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs doing another tour at rehab a few years back.

This spate of designer crackups is making fashion veterans wonder if the relentless pace of the industry - a pace demanded by executives to meet profit forecasts - isn't taking its toll on creative talents.

"Fashion is fast forward, frenetic," said Vogue Contributing Editor Andre Leon Talley. "There are too many collections, too many seasons. How can designers keep up?"

Milan-based American designer Lawrence Steele agrees. "It's become a treadmill," he said from his studio this week. "You look at somebody like John on that treadmill - he slowed down and flew off into the manure."

It wasn't always like this. Steele said that, in the old days, there were only a dozen or so major fashion companies and the house designers "used to jet off for three weeks to Morocco to find their inspiration and come back with a color palette, some fabric swatches and a stack of ideas." Today, "there are thousands of companies. You are on a very, very tight schedule. It's like a factory putting out an aesthetic. There is no space for imperfection."

The shift occurred during the past two decades, when business tycoons took over established family-run houses and - with the help of bright, young talents - transformed them into publicly traded billion-dollar global luxury brands. Lagerfeld kicked off this rejuvenation in 1983, when he joined Chanel and gave the fading couture house a much-needed shot of adrenaline.

Bernard Arnault, chief executive of Christian Dior as well as LVMH - a luxury group of more than 50 brands including Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Celine - had the same plan for his properties, and Galliano - a Bad Boy Brit who loved the nightclub scene - would be his catalyst. When Galliano met Arnault in the mid-1990s, Galliano told The Washington Post at the time, Arnault's "main concern was: How would I sustain the interest? We talked about that and that it would be like asking Beethoven to play Mozart. Could I do it?"

Galliano did, and then some. With his exaggerated, cartoonlike gowns, his eccentric get-ups and his million-dollar fashion shows, he made headlines and soaring profits for the house.

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