Fashion designer crackups raise question: Is industry’s pace too relentless?
By Dana Thomas,
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.
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.
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.