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

McQueen, a fellow working-class Londoner with a wild streak and an artistic gift, did the same at Givenchy. The pair launched an era of excess that, even for the ever-indulgent world of fashion, was unmatched. Tales of studio all-nighters, last-minute sewing marathons, tantrums and drug and alcohol abuse hounded not only Galliano and McQueen, but other designers hired to similarly renovate old luxury houses.

This excess produced creative wonders on the runway - particularly at Dior - that company executives and fashion followers alike loved. With each season that passed, Galliano grew more provocative: He based collections on the homeless along the Seine River, on S&M culture - replete with soundtrack of whipping and moaning - and most shockingly, of mental institution patients, with models hobbling down the catwalk in binding straitjacket gowns. "A gust of genius blew through the room," Arnault said at the time.

As the luxury industry grew exponentially - today, there are nearly $200 billion a year in sales - the workload equally increased. The designers were redubbed "artistic directors" and not only designed womenswear and couture, but sometimes also oversaw menswear, children's clothing, secondary lines, accessories, jeans lines, perfume launches, cosmetics lines, advertising campaigns, as well as made personal appearances and orchestrated over-the-top shows several times a year. They managed to sustain the interest. But many couldn't sustain themselves.

Galliano has been known throughout his career to overindulge. His best friend, DJ Jeremy Healy, told The Post in the mid-1990s, that Galliano would go on "binges." In recent months, according to sources, Galliano had been in a depressive state, his drinking increased voluminously and his work habits became increasingly erratic. Friends and colleagues reportedly urged him to seek help, but he refused. No one staged an intervention. Many in the fashion industry now wonder why.

While fashion may be disgusted with the man, it is not rejecting his designs. Retailers maintained their rendezvous with chez Dior and Galliano and are placing orders. Galliano's spokesman said, "It's business as usual." Dior reported the same.

Neiman Marcus Fashion Director Ken Downing said: "We do not carry Galliano, but we carry Dior and we will continue to do so. Was Galliano's behavior acceptable? No. But we haven't had the sense that the collection itself has been tainted. We came to the European shows to buy clothes that will be in the store in six months, and we haven't lost that focus. It's our business."

Perhaps. But some designers have decided they no longer want to be a part of it - they don't want to be flung in the manure. Steele, who made headlines a decade ago by designing Jennifer Aniston's wedding dress and was heralded as an up-and-coming star, found that the fashion industry was becoming too all-consuming and closed his eponymous brand.

"When I started, I wanted to have one line and make the things that I loved," he said. "But then you are forced by your backers to grow and, at a certain point, it never stops. I wanted freedom. So I took a break."

Steele now designs for the Italian ready-to-wear brand Aspesi. "I have a wonderful life," he said. "I have time and I make beautiful clothes. They aren't in the limelight but they are in beautiful stores and people adore them, buy them and come back for more."

Tom Ford, after leaving Gucci, quietly started a much smaller company, and eschews the fashion show formula, preferring to present his offerings in a showroom.

"I wanted to make clothes for the customer," he said from his ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., this week. "Sometimes beautiful clothes are just simply beautiful clothes and not necessarily 'news.' I am doing what I feel is right for my design house and for my customer." Vogue's Talley calls Ford's business model a "new template for fashion."

Today, only a handful of star artistic-directors-for-hire remains at the helm of big luxury brands, including Jacobs at Vuitton and Lagerfeld at Chanel. Instead, fashion executives are hiring young, unknown and inexpensive designers with shorter contracts and a business background to churn out big-selling products season after season, and are reaping the fame and fortune for themselves.

While Galliano spent this week in detox, Arnault made headlines again by buying the Bulgari jewelry company and by being named the fourth-richest man in the world by Forbes magazine - up from his previous ranking of seventh. The 20-year-long battle between art and commerce in fashion has officially come to an end and commerce as has won. As Galliano learned swiftly and the rest of fashion confirmed as it carried on as scheduled, it's just business.

Thomas is a freelance writer.

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