A star has fallen.
The iconic fashion house of Christian Dior has begun procedures to dismiss John Galliano, its provocative and famous chief designer who has now allegedly taken provocation too far. The flamboyant designer was filmed appearing to ridicule a group of bar patrons with outrageously anti-Semitic remarks. The video surfaced Monday, just days after another couple accused the designer of making similar comments, which Galliano's lawyer has denied.
In the comments captured on video, Galliano appears to tell the people he's speaking to, in a slurred voice, that he loves Hitler, that "people like you would be dead," and "your mothers, your forefathers" would all be "gassed."
Just days before the Paris fashion season is set to begin, Galliano's firing is sure to put the fashion industry on edge. But not so much as it will the house of Dior and the luxury goods empire LVMH, of which Dior is a part. It now must find a worthy replacement for the designer, who is credited with energizing the musty Dior brand when he came on board in 1996, and distance itself from a headline-generating scandal that could become a nightmare in the image-obsessed world of haute couture.
Perhaps the creative bench at Christian Dior boasts a long line of talented designers just waiting to take Galliano's place. But the designer's "odious" comments, as Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano described them, underscore the dangers of tying an organization too closely to any one name or star talent, no matter how much they may do for your brand.
It should be a warning sign to LVMH, which has made something of a business model out of hiring talented but controversial designers, having them dust off old brands with modern styling and develop followings among young celebrities who wear and promote the designer--sometimes even at expense of the brand. How often do you now hear red carpet hosts ask "Who are you wearing?" rather than "What label are you wearing?"
While this approach may work well when the designer is loved and adored, it will only backfire if he or she does something as scandalous as what Galliano is alleged to have done. The designer becomes inextricably tied to the brand's success, making him or her that much harder to replace. And the same image-conscious celebrities who helped promote the label could begin to shun it, prompting the style-obsessed masses to do so too. Natalie Portman, who recently signed a celebrity endorsement deal for a Dior perfume, issued a statement Monday evening saying she "will not be associated with Mr. Galliano in any way."
Imagine, for a moment, that Dior's chief designer was someone who shunned media attention, toiled behind the scenes without his own eponymous line and always promoted the brand over the creative mastermind. The clothing would have to speak for itself, but that hardly means it would end up being less distinctive, less innovative or less beautiful. One would have to assume that if that same designer made anti-Semitic remarks in a crowded bar, it might never have been filmed. If it had, and if the designed was fired, the resulting fallout would likely be short-lived.
Showcasing celebrated talent can be a formula for astonishing success, particularly in an industry as image- and personality-driven as fashion. But it is all too easy for leaders to forget the equally astonishing rate at which such high-flying stars can fall from grace--and can have a negative impact on the brand as they fall.