Clothes can remake John Galliano

Image of Vanessa Friedman

It’s graduate fashion season, that time of year when art schools celebrate their students’ work and show it to the world – and I have atonement on my mind. The connection is less obscure than you might think.

See, next week is the Parsons graduate show and if all had gone to plan, John Galliano might have been in the audience, cheering the kids. Galliano had been booked to teach a “masterclass” at Parsons this spring: a four-day seminar to seniors entitled “Show Me Emotion”. If he had done so, it would have been his second attempt at rehabilitating his image since he was fired by Dior in March 2011 for an anti-Semitic outburst in a Paris bar.

In this context, the teaching stint wasn’t a bad idea: you know, working with the stars of tomorrow, imparting lessons learnt, all that good stuff. Especially because his first try at reinventing his public persona didn’t go so well.

That took place earlier this year when Galliano was given a three-week “designer in residence” berth in Oscar de la Renta’s New York atelier. Though Galliano had taken care to stay mostly behind the scenes, he made the mistake of leaving his temporary residence in the city shortly after the de la Renta show wearing his classic Olde English hobo garb (striped trousers, black frock coat, black hat, long curls) and was snapped by paparazzi. The photographs found their way to the tabloids, which seized on his costume as quasi-Hasidic, accusing him of insensitivity. So much for that.

The Parsons class also sparked controversy when it was announced. However, the school held firm until about a week ago, when it cancelled the seminar because “an important element of the planned workshop with John Galliano was a candid conversation about the connection between his professional work and his actions in the world at large. Unfortunately, we could not reach consensus with Mr Galliano on the conditions of this conversation, and the program could not move forward.”

Thus, another attempt at a fresh start was scrapped. As I wrote in a blog at the time, on one level I think this is too bad because for students the value of learning from others’ mistakes is at least as valuable, if not more so, than learning from their cutting skills. The decision also deprives those of us who are students of the subject of “how to manage oneself in the world”; of a real-life lesson on how to appear to the public. Or not.

Galliano’s appearance itself has been a lightning rod, first good, then bad, but always wholly and entirely associated with his own identity and fame. He was the original character designer; the man who, at the end of his show every season, would appear in a new guise, be it as toreador, pirate or even astronaut. If anyone should understand the importance of dressing as a penitent, it’s him. I don’t mean in hair shirts or even sackcloth, but it’s all relative: compared with his usual look, jeans and a T-shirt would seem like a statement of contrition.

Consider the lessons of two non-fashion figures also climbing back from the depths: former Congressman Anthony Weiner (who tweeted embarrassing pictures of his boxer-clad nether regions to the world) and Bob Diamond, the Barclays chief who resigned last year in the wake of the Libor scandal. Both have been edging out into the world in the past few weeks, in part by telling their own story to the New York Times and, in part, via carefully orchestrated photo shoots of them looking like normal folks: Diamond on the train reading a newspaper; Weiner sitting on the floor of his house in jeans and shirtsleeves, playing with his child. In both cases, they are playing the role of the average guy, not the high-flying success story whose hubris led to – well, you know.

And while I’m sure many people read these long newspaper profiles, I bet exponentially more people saw those pictures of them looking humbled. Which is, let’s be frank, what we want from our penitents. We want them to look, and I repeat that word consciously, abashed.

There’s no question that, in the public mind, Galliano’s costumes are associated with his increasingly rarefied life as the head of Dior, a life that ultimately led to his implosion and downfall, or so he said in court, blaming his behaviour on the pressure that led to drink and drugs. To demonstrate a break with the past and that sort of behaviour, the designer should demonstrate a break with the dress. If he is repudiating that life and constructing a new one, as friends have said, he should also repudiate that garb.

Imagine the shock if Galliano had shown up for his Parsons class, and for the graduate show, not in a three-piece tweed suit with elbow patches and a pipe, caricaturing a professor, but in short hair (or ponytail), jeans and a jacket, much like any other teacher at the school. It would have been a paparazzi shot sent round the world: not Clapton unplugged but Galliano laid bare.

Maybe next time.

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