The announcement Monday morning that designer John Galliano has been hired as creative director of Maison Martin Margiela raised questions about forgiveness, contrition, the role of publicity in the fashion industry — and whether a celebrated partnership with a local retailer will come to an abrupt end.
Galliano was dismissed from his role as creative director at Christian Dior — as well as his signature brand — in 2011 after making drunken anti-Semitic comments in a Paris bistro. After going through rehab and doing a series of confessional interviews, he has been roaming in the fashion wilderness. He worked briefly at Oscar de la Renta and recently became creative director of L’Etoile, a Russian beauty chain. But with his new role at Maison Margiela, he will once again be at the center of the fashion world. He will oversee the brand’s ready-to-wear collections, as well as its haute couture line, and will make his debut in January during the couture shows in Paris.
“Margiela is ready for a new charismatic creative soul,” said Renzo Rosso, President of OTB, the parent company of Maison Martin Margiela, in a statement. “John Galliano is one of the greatest, undisputed talents of all time. A unique, exceptional couturier for a Maison that always challenged and innovated the world of fashion. I look forward to his return to create that Fashion Dream that only he can create, and wish him, to here find, his new home.”
The choice of Galliano is a jarring one. Maison Margiela, established in 1988, has operated under the philosophy that the clothes tell the story, not the designer. Its founder and namesake stepped away from the spotlight in the 1990s as fashion became enamored with the cult of personality. Even after he departed the company in 2009, that philosophy endured. The design team remained anonymous. The hiring of Galliano upends that history. He is one of fashion’s most famous and distinctive personalities. He cannot move anonymously through the fashion world — nor does his history give any indication that he would want to.
His dramatic runway bows often overshadowed the collection he’d just presented. He would emerge on stage to swelling music and flashing lights. It was not uncommon for him to be dressed as a 19th century dandy or a swashbuckling, shirtless pirate. He enjoyed strutting down the runway, soaking in the applause and posing for the photographers.
Galliano’s design sensibility is also fundamentally different from that of Maison Margiela. Galliano is a wild romantic, known for his bias cut gowns and whimsical flourishes. He weaves fairy tales and parables on his runway and indulges in elaborate sets of Bacchanalian feasts and mysterious castles. In contrast, Maison Margiela is rooted in classical tailoring and readily explores the avant-garde, pushing the boundaries of what defines beauty, femininity and even clothes. How Galliano will merge his personal aesthetic with the roots of Maison Margiela poses one of fashion’s must daunting design challenges.
But the greater challenge for the industry — and for potential customers — is untangling the web of emotions that remain after Galliano’s sordid comments and his attempts at redemption. “As a person, I find John Galliano disgusting. As a Jew, I find him disgusting. … I would find him disgusting if he said things like that about anyone,” said Nancy Pearlstein, owner of Georgetown’s Relish, which sells Maison Margiela. “But if I’m Jewish, I should also be able to forgive and give someone a second chance.”
“I love this line,” Pearlstein added. “The last two seasons especially. And this season, it’s been selling fantastically. … But I don’t want to promote his behavior.”
A spokesman for Maison Margiela notes that people should distinguish between the man and the company for which he now works. The anti-Semitic remarks were the words of someone who has since been on “a personal journey of recovery,” said Nicolas Frontiere, director of communications for Maison Margiela. “It’s a personal thing that happened to John, and it happened in his past.”
In September, Pearlstein celebrated the opening of a Maison Martin Margiela pop-up shop at Relish. The design house transformed the lower level of Relish, draping its walls, shelves and furniture in the brand’s signature white muslin and installing an exhibition of the house’s Tabi shoe — divided-toe footwear that is distinct to Maison Margiela. The pop-up is a collaboration between Relish and the Paris-based company. “This project was developed a long time ago,” Frontiere said. “It’s related to the values of the house of Margiela.”
Still, Pearlstein is uneasy and unhappy. For the time being, she plans to continue carrying the line. But hosting the pop-up, which was to run for an entire year and takes up significant real estate in her store, is too much of an endorsement of the brand. Upon learning about Galliano’s hiring —not from the company, but through news reports — she has reconsidered the relationship. And in a conversation with the folks at Maison Margiela, she made her feelings about the pop-up clear: “I told them I want to take it down,” Pearlstein says. “I told them I wanted it out of here.”
The design house did not argue with her decision.