Designer John Galliano showed his first “artisanal” collection for Maison Martin Margiela on Monday evening in London, as that city was wrapping up its fall 2015 menswear presentations. He did so in front of a small audience of friends, editors, retailers and fellow designers. Normally, a couture show would be presented in Paris, and so, in choosing to show in London, where the British designer’s career began, it was a bit like asking a judge for a change of venue before this, his second trial — an aesthetic one.
His first trial was in 2011, when he was convicted in a Paris court of using anti-Semitic vitriol in a Paris bistro. He was fired from his post as creative director at Dior and also at the house that, even now, bears his name. After spending time in rehab for substance abuse, going on an apology tour with stops at the ACLU, various synagogues and the “Charlie Rose” show, Galliano began looking for redemption. And the fashion world has been eagerly awaiting his return.
The first to give him another chance was the designer Oscar de la Renta, who, at the urging of fashion fixer Anna Wintour, allowed him to do a design stint in his atelier. What Galliano memorably brought to the experience was a great deal of debate within the industry about whether it was appropriate and a looser, more rakish sensibility to the collection.
Margiela has been Galliano’s professional home since fall 2014. It seemed to be an unlikely fit. After all, Galliano was a design exhibitionist, a flamboyant romantic who believed in mining history to weave contemporary fashion fairytales. Margiela focused on understatement, intellectualism and recycling. What would the match bring?
Ever since the curious pairing was announced, the fashion industry and those who follow it have been eager to see what Galliano would produce. Even those who have no interest in fashion were curious. To say that Galliano has any sort of relationship with the public at large is a reflection of the enormity of his transgressions. His slurs were so egregious that news of them filtered out beyond fashion’s inner circle and into the popular consciousness.
His first collection — spring 2015 couture — boasted his flair for the bold stroke and the Margiela history of deconstruction. The clothes, he said in his show notes, reflected “a process of discovery, returning to one’s roots. Piece by piece, deconstructing and constructing a new story for Margiela.”
But one wonders how much the clothes even matter in this story of redemption.
If the industry is looking for some sign in his work that forgiveness is (or was) justified, exactly how extraordinary does a frock have to be? And can any frock, no matter how lovely, make up for the hurt that he caused? The power of words and their ability to injure and inflame has been a topic that most everyone has been considering of late. Hollywood wrestled with it — sometimes awkwardly, sometimes eloquently — during the recent Golden Globes ceremony. The fashion industry, in its very modest way, has been grappling with this issue thanks to Galliano.
Embedded in the belief that he should be forgiven for his transgressions is the belief that his is a talent too wondrous to go missing. There is no question that Galliano had a tremendous imagination — and evidently still does. But it makes one wonder whether the industry would be as eager or even as willing to let the past go if Galliano were not so talented — if his graduation collection had not been snapped up by the influential London boutique Browns, if he had never produced the dazzling Sao Schlumberger collection in Paris and if he’d never made magic on the runway for Dior. If he were simply ordinary.
One could argue that a less-talented, less-famous designer would never have had his drunken insults captured on video. That his trial would not have been covered by the general media. And, perhaps, that is true. But one can’t help but wonder whether people are pulling for Galliano because they feel a moral obligation to believe that our better angels can always thrive if given the chance — or because they fear fashion will be less entertaining, less lucrative, less buzzy without him? Is forgiveness being given generously or selfishly?
What came down the runway in London certainly spoke to the imagination. It was a wild collection of embellished face masks, toy cars as decoration and denim short-shorts. One editor Tweeted “genius.” So it may be that Galliano gave his jury exactly what it needed: a moment — or a least a sense of possibility.
But with forgiveness comes responsibility — to those who give it and to oneself. With that in mind, perhaps a second chance can blossom into a new career.