Trench Couture



I trucked across the pebbled grounds of Versailles, slipped past the bulk of the security guards, and snapped on my hospital-style All-Access badge and went into the backstage at Dior. To my left was a table of drinks and small food (many grapes, many cheese cubes) and in front of me, the long tables and mirrors of the makeup and hair teams. I saw Pat McGrath in the thick of models and assistants, and the milliner Stephen Jones. John Galliano at the Dior show on July 2. The place was enormous — in keeping, I suppose, with the general expectations of Chez Dior’s 60th anniversary, where the runway and its lavish gray-and-white set ran more than 300 feet through the Orangerie. John Galliano had been in Spain this spring, after the death of his assistant Steven Robinson, and he had been deeply moved, he told me in June, by the ritual of the bullfights and how the matadors prepared themselves before going into the ring. From the way he described meeting one matador, I got the idea he took the whole thing very seriously. He said the bullfighter wanted to know about Kate Moss. Galliano laughed. Then the bullfighter got himself dressed for the ring. There were going to be flamenco dancers at the show, as well as a choir and an orchestra. Galliano said it was in tribute to Robinson. “We’re going to give it up for Steven,” he told me. I went into the next room of the backstage, stopping to speak to Naomi Campbell, whose hair was up in rollers. The supers — Linda, Shalom, Amber, Gisele, Naomi — had their own dressing room, with security guards out front. Galliano’s dressing room was next door. He’d had a matador’s suit made for himself. The dresses were waiting on the rails, and the dressers next to them. I saw Rafael, the premier at Dior, and he told me the last fitting had been at 4 a.m. that day. Rafael hadn’t gone to bed. The dresses were beautiful, all based on different artists’ interpretations of Dior. One of the simplest dresses was in white silk with an open neckline and a swirling rose hand painted in red, as if hastily drawn by René Gruau. But the more lavish dresses, in pale green, Wedgwood blue, gray, violet, scarlet, were also good, and you could usually recognize the style of the artist. I don’t know that this show was as electrifying, as complete, as Galliano’s January couture show, and I don’t think it matters. This was the show he had to do this season. It represents the changes and conditions in Galliano’s life at the time, as each of his shows does. And I think, in the end, that’s the importance of the artists theme. You can say that it’s a surface thing, and that the clothes are costumes, but that seems one dimensional, closing you off to the whole creative process and the progress of a genius. The next morning I went with my driver Bernard Alloux to a park at Saint Cloud for the Chanel show. If my French was any good, I would have said we were a long way from Kansas, Mr. Alloux. The place was misty with rain and then it really began to pour. I crossed a gravel path to the top of some stone steps. Below, illuminated like a space ship, were the white canopies over two parallel garden paths. They were flanked by white cosmos. I went to the backstage and headed immediately for the “traiteur.” I must say the food at Chanel is better than Dior. I grabbed a handful of walnuts and some dried apricots, and then tucked into a fruit cocktail. I was eating when Lagerfeld arrived. He was in a great mood. He is having a party at his home tonight, maybe the last before he moves into his new place. It’s around the corner. In all the years that Lagerfeld has lived in Paris, more than 50, he has had maybe 20 different addresses, but they’ve all been in the 7th. He hasn’t gone far, but, then, neither did Irving Berlin, as E.B. White pointed out. By the time the show started, the audience was pretty moist from the rain. I loved the clothes — the shapes and details realized from the perspective of a woman’s profile. Sometimes this was very obvious, as with a black coat dress with a grid of gold pailletes down the sides and continuing down the suede boots. Or a gorgeous black silk dress with silvery panels and an asymmetrical hem. But some of the best work was in the cut or drape of a dress or coat, like a creamy white gown that Sasha wore with her black lace cap. It looks simple, but of course it’s not. #mce_temp_url#

Galliano Plays His Hand Smartly

IF John Galliano, the designer at Dior, were not so recognizably talented, he might be considered a joke. For every show he changes his look, and his guises are as varied as Cindy Sherman’s. On the day of the recent Costume Institute gala at the Met, he slipped into a booth at the Four Seasons wearing a well cut, if severe, brown pinstripe suit and a snap-brim cap. Four hours later, materially transformed by sequins and golden curls, Juan Carlos Antonio Galliano looked like Davy Crockett in drag. The bloggers went to town.


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Joe Fornabaio for The New York Times
John Galliano’s collection balances easiness and technical finesse.
But there is the fact of his talent, which rises up to greet you like a brick wall. It is unavoidably great. In two decades, he has staged at least half a dozen shows that people still vividly remember.

These include the 1993 Princess Lucretia show in which he used electrical wire to give his skirts swing; a 1994 show in an empty Paris mansion in which all the dresses were made from black satin-backed crepe (it was a fabric he could afford and it could be used on both sides); the 1999 Matrix show, at Versailles, in which he offended Dior’s old clients and established the house’s modernity; and the 2000 hobo show that put fashion on the front page.

He is one of the few designers working today who actually knows how to cut cloth. If your daughter is wearing a bias-cut prom dress this spring, it is largely because years ago Mr. Galliano pushed manufacturers to try the technique on an industrial scale. His clothes have been judged unwearable and, more recently, overly commercial and safe. But as with all far-sighted talent, the judgments are eventually reversed. What once looked unwearable now seems ordinary, and what once seemed banal now looks right.

Last Tuesday Mr. Galliano was in New York to present Dior’s resort collection. Though resort clothes don’t get (or deserve) the news media attention of couture and ready-to-wear, Dior decided to make an event of it, inviting fashionistas as well as movie people, like Spike Lee and the producer Harvey Weinstein, and feeding them baked potatoes with caviar and Champagne at a dinner afterward. Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which owns Dior, flew from Paris with his wife, Hélène, as did the editors of French Vogue and Le Figaro.

To the Hollywood guests, the scene at the show must have had an ancien régime quality despite the modern setting of the LVMH Tower on East 57 Street. “I don’t know how you do it,” a Hollywood guest said with a grin to a journalist. “You’re always looking at the same people at these shows. They never change!”

Well, in a way this is also Mr. Galliano’s problem. How does a maverick at age 46 perform magic when those judging him remember the old tricks, and even occasionally complain he was better then? And how does Mr. Galliano satisfy his own creativity when he has to feed a global business, its annual sales approaching $1 billion, with more than 200 stores and new customers who suddenly and perceptibly don’t care about what a glamorous windbag in New York thinks about his genius cutting?

Like the Artful Dodger, whose sense of freedom he transmits in both his own style and his runway collections, Mr. Galliano has an instinct for survival. A couple of years ago, when he started showing more conventional-looking clothes, along with handbags, many people took this as a sign that, at least in his ready-to-wear shows, he had finally been reined in by Dior executives.

But over lunch recently, Mr. Galliano said: “That was me. I decided to do that. Very odd to see a girl walking down the runway with a bag, I agree. But, at the same time, I knew that a certain girl with a certain shaped bag would get the image out there.” And of course, increasingly the image is the message.

“It’s also a question of time as well,” he said. “Gone are the days of the great Balenciaga and M. Dior, when you had six months to create a line, a silhouette. That’s what I try to do in haute couture. But the timing is very different today.”

Does he feel he has time to be creative? “It’s programmed,” he said. “I mean, you can’t come into the studio one day and say, ‘I’m really feeling this design.’ ” He laughed. “It’s more programmed than that. No, it doesn’t bother me. I need it.”

At almost every turn in his 10 years at Dior, beginning with the Matrix show, which included clothes that had been taken apart and put together backward or upside down, Mr. Galliano has demonstrated a greater ability to change than his audience. I know: in a review of the Matrix show, I wrote, “Even if there was something believably modern here, the sort of world Mr. Galliano was envisioning hardly needs haute couture.”

I took the clients’ side. Wrong move. In haute couture, at least as it’s practiced by Mr. Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld, you trust the designer. The modernity of Mr. Galliano’s torn-apart approach was eventually borne out in the imitations.

In the late 80’s, in a small Italian magazine called Westuff, Mr. Galliano said he considered himself part of the establishment. Given his circumstances at the time — near poverty, no regular source of financing and serious amounts of clubbing — this may have been a case of telling a journalist what he wanted to hear. Yet despite his working-class upbringing and the outlaw poses, Mr. Galliano’s understanding of fashion and business does lie with the establishment.

Reminded of the article, he said: “I was a baby. How bold of me to say I want to be an international designer and have a house in Paris! But there you go. There’s no point fighting it. Embrace it. Work within it, and then do things.”

He acknowledged the front-row complaints that Dior has gone too commercial without addressing them. “Um, can it ever be too commercial?” he said. “I think what we’re doing is right for the time. I don’t want Dior to rest as a niche brand.”

It is a condition of fashion today that the top houses are run by businessmen and not by creators. Even the good businessman, as much as he understands the need for strong talent, still wants the look that sells. On his way into the postshow dinner on Tuesday, Mr. Arnault praised the direction Mr. Galliano has taken, saying it was necessary: “Our customers were saying, ‘We love what John does, but it’s not for me,’ ” he said.

The fact is, Mr. Galliano’s modest resort collection deserves attention, and for the only reason that has ever mattered. It looks right for now. This collection is better than Mr. Galliano’s last two Dior ready-to-wear shows — in its subtle use of cut (especially a flattering asymmetrical matte-gold dress with one soft sleeve), and in its balance of easiness and technical finesse. Right before everyone’s eyes, Mr. Galliano has changed. But can you see it?