Posted by Moarts51 on:
Author Dana Thomas will be in Santa Barbara on
Saturday, April 11 at The Book Den, 2 p.m.
Reading, signing, Q+A
Speaking with Dana Thomas
Author of GODS AND KINGS: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano
Your book traces dramatic changes in the fashion world over the last three decades. Why was this a momentous period for fashion?
In the late 1980s, the luxury fashion business entered a new era: a generation of ambitious business executives saw the growth potential of classic fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Gucci and Prada—most still owned and run by founders or heirs—and took control through straightforward acquisitions and hostile takeovers, listed them on the stock market and turned them into multi-billion-dollar global brands. I reported and wrote about that transition as it happened—for the Washington Post, Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine—and along the way noted the soul crushing sacrifices that the creative side had to make to accommodate business demands, sustain growth and generate profits for shareholders. For me, that period came to a two-step close with the suicide of Alexander McQueen in February 2010 and the public implosion of John Galliano in February 2011. Today, the creative is wholly subservient to the corporate side’s demands. And, not surprisingly, critics now regularly complain that the whole machine—the shows, the clothes, the stores, the ads—are boring, safe and predictable.
Why focus on Galliano and McQueen?
I focused on these two men for several reasons: they came from the same sort of background, attended the same art school, worked for the same corporation, and shook up fashion with similarly theatrical shows and rule-breaking designs. But also because their careers rose and crashed in step with the corporatization of fashion: they pushed the brands for which they worked into the global spotlight and gave all the creative juice that they could to make it happen, until they were both sucked dry, exhausted and depressed. Their self-destruction came within a year of each other—and not by chance, I believe.
The book provides many new details on the lives of these two influential designers. Tell us about a few of the discoveries that were particularly enlightening.
I didn’t know that John Galliano never came out of the closet officially—at least not with his family. Throughout the 1980s in London, when he was in long-term, serious homosexual relationships, he never told his parents, and he never brought his boyfriends home to South London to meet his family; he utterly compartmentalized his life. As a former model who lived and worked in Europe in the 1980s—the age of AIDS and the rise of gay activism—I found this sad on many levels and wondered if this was the root of Galliano’s apparent self-loathing that evolved into abusive addictions.
I was also surprised to learn that McQueen’s suicidal thoughts dated back to the mid-1990s, when he was in his early twenties, and that his self-harm was far more disturbing than his well-known drug abuse: he was a cutter and a habitué at hard S&M clubs. In fact, McQueen didn’t try cocaine until the mid-1990s, when he was 24 or 25 years old. Sadly, it took over his life, to the point of mad paranoia and acute anxiety.
The biggest revelation, however, came after two years of reporting the book: I learned that McQueen was HIV positive. Incredibly, he contracted the virus not in the 1980s when it was raging and little was known about it, or in the 1990s, when he regularly went to leather bars and cruised parks for sex with strangers, but in the early 2000s, when he was in a committed relationship—he told friends he was infected by his “husband.” I was heartbroken when I learned this, but I suddenly understood him and his work from that point onward. And, sadly, his suicide seemed to make more sense.
Tell us about the title of your book.
After Galliano was fired from Dior, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post about his downfall, and how it came almost exactly one year after McQueen’s death. As I wrote the piece, I realized that the tale was more than a story: it was a book. In fashion, top designers are often referred to as kings—in fact, at Galliano’s last Dior show, a fan carried a sign that read “The King is Gone.” But designers, like kings, come and go, and in this new luxury fashion corporate environment, their bosses—the owners—remain like gods, omnipotent. I remembered the reference in the Old Testament to gods and kings, and read it, and it seemed like a good fit. A few months later, I learned that LVMH (Louis Vuitton) owner Bernard Arnault’s employees, including his most trusted lieutenants, refer to him as “God,” as in “What would God think?” or “I shall talk to God about this.” That’s when I realized the title was perfect.
Both Galliano and McQueen were sensitive, complicated men under enormous pressure to produce more and more collections. Were there warning signs that they were buckling under the pressure?
Yes, there were plenty of warning signs—overdoses, benders, many missed days at work, violent outbursts—but nearly everyone looked the other way. Galliano’s drinking was long known, and there were times he did not show up for work for days—his employees and bosses assumed he was on a bender. McQueen’s drug addiction was obvious at work—he did cocaine in front of everyone, had attempted rehab on his own several times, was seeing a psychotherapist and was supposed to take anti-depressants but didn’t because he didn’t like the side effects. Unfortunately, as one French boss told me, the corporate team—particularly the French executives—believed it was not their place to say anything. In France, there is a distinct and deeply respected division between professional and personal life—a colleague or boss will never ask about your personal life, and you will never discuss it at work—so there was a serious and damaging cultural disconnect between McQueen and Galliano and their French chiefs. It only changed for Galliano at the very end, when he was sinking quickly into the abyss: his Dior bosses Bernard Arnault and Sidney Toledano confronted him and told them they would support him if he took off a few weeks and went to rehab. Defiant, Galliano brushed them off, and they backed down, and four weeks later, he was arrested for a drunken brawl at a café where he spouted anti-Semitic slurs—an act considered a hate crime in France. Only then was he forced to confront his addictions. He says now that had that not happened, he too would be dead.
Commerce has done in art across so many fields; in your book you show how it affected fashion and the careers of two of the greatest designers of this era. Is it a battle that is still playing out?
I believe throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the conflict between art and commerce peaked in all the creative businesses: film, art, theater, fashion… Movie studios, theaters, operas, fashion houses, and art galleries needed superstar artists to generate international headlines and take the businesses global. But once that had occurred—when Louis Vuitton and Gucci became as recognizable and desirable as Nike, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola—the artists were expendable, replaceable, and practically anonymous. Today, commerce is 100 percent in charge.
Your book comes out as Galliano re-enters the fashion world as creative director of Maison Martin Margiela. What are your thoughts on his appointment?
I don’t understand why Galliano finds it necessary to go work for someone else—for another house, with another name, and a storied history and defined look. He no longer owns his name—unwisely and against the advice of others, he sold it to Bernard Arnault years ago—but he surely could have come up with something new, like Hervé Leger did when he was ousted from his own house; he now designs under the name Hervé Leroux—Leroux meaning redhead, which he is. The Maison Martin Margiela is known for minimalism—the exact opposite of Galliano’s work, which is baroque and romantic. Also, it is owned by someone else—Galliano could be fired again if it doesn’t go as well as his employer desires. The designer Martin Margiela was and is fashion’s enigma: he has only been photographed once, surreptitiously; never took a bow at the end of his shows; never sat for an interview—in other words, the exact opposite of fame-loving Galliano. I thought what Tom Ford did after his firing from Gucci—using his own money to launch a new namesake brand, starting small, growing slowly, maintaining control, being true to his creative voice rather than beholden to an established brand’s codes and history—was exactly the right move. I wish Galliano had the courage to do that—and had done so quietly, discreetly. Then it would be about his voice and his talent, and it would be at his own pace; he wouldn’t be returning to the corporate machine, stepping back on the relentless, soulless treadmill from which he was already violently flung.
In addition to Galliano and McQueen, who are some of the more interesting figures in your book?
Oh, there are so many! Of course, there is Isabella Blow, the British fashion editor who was McQueen’s early champion and longtime friend and who sadly committed suicide in 2007 after a horrible descent into depression. There is Steven Robinson, John Galliano’s right hand man, described by many who had worked with him over the years as “Machiavellian,” maneuvering behind the scenes to maintain total control over Galliano. He died in 2007 too, of a cocaine-overdose-induced heart attack. There is Philip Treacy, the delightful Irish milliner also championed by Blow, who at first wasn’t sure he liked or trusted McQueen but eventually became McQueen’s chief hat maker, creative foil and great friend. There is the English milliner Stephen Jones, who met Steven Robinson back when Robinson was a student and knew Galliano in the 1980s London nightclub scene. Jones went on to work for them when Galliano moved to Paris, and remained on the studio staff through all of Galliano's triumphs and his downfall. There is Simon Ungless, the textile designer who was McQueen’s best friend at Central Saint Martins art school and helped McQueen launch his career and company. At the end, as the head of the fashion department at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, Ungless tried to help McQueen extricate himself from the fashion business to begin a second career teaching—such a good soul, Simon. Alas, that did not happen. There is Sibylle de Saint Phalle, the French aristocratic-born 1980s It Girl, who swirled in the London nightclub scene and became Galliano’s first muse, inspiring his early work. There is Annabelle Neilson, another London social butterfly, who was briefly married to scion Nate Rothschild and served as a McQueen muse from his early collections onward; she was the last to see him alive.
There is McQueen’s mother Joyce, a strong East End matriarch, who pushed her son into the tailoring business on Savile Row, which eventually lead to his career in fashion. She was unquestionably supportive. It was after her death from cancer that McQueen finally decided it was time to end his own life. There is Anna Wintour, the indomitable editor-in-chief of American Vogue, who championed both designers—Galliano in particular—despite their bad behavior toward her, because she truly believed in their extraordinary talent. And there is Amanda Harlech, an English blueblood who helped Galliano launch his career and served as his muse as well as sounding board and creative force. After ten years of unquestioned dedication to him for very little money—they regularly described each other as “best friend”—Harlech was brutally castoff by Galliano when he signed with Christian Dior. Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld wisely stepped in and hired her to be his creative assistant and there she has remained and flourished for nearly twenty years. Amanda Harlech has many fans and rightly so: she is elegance incarnate and remade her life beautifully after Galliano’s profound and public betrayal of her.
February 11, 2015 is the fifth anniversary of McQueen’s death. How is his influence still felt today?
Many young designers turn to McQueen’s archives and past shows for inspiration—sometimes too literally: last year, Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing sent down his runway a white women’s pant suit that was nearly identical to one from McQueen’s first Givenchy haute couture show in January 1997. McQueen’s Bumster silhouette—suits with the pants and skirts slung so low they reveal the top of the derriere—still dominates fashion 20 years on. His love of the strong suit, with sharp shoulder pads, has come back to the forefront. But no one comes close to his boundless and courageous creativity—the way he was always trying to push the boundaries, to break the rules of fashion, in design and in presentation—or his arch commentary through clothes of the fashion industry, history and society today. He added an intellectual and soul-searching dimension to fashion design that no one else dares to explore, mainly because it is the antithesis of commercial work, and today—thanks to the gods—commerciality reigns.