‘You can be a romantic and be successful’

There’s a funny thing about fashion designers. Although we may be as familiar with their names as we are with those of other celebrities we rarely know much about them. Perhaps this is because they are unpromising tabloid fodder – no brawls outside nightclubs at 3am – or maybe it’s because their work speaks for them, so we may have a notion of what an Armani suit looks like without having the faintest idea about the personal circumstances of its creator.

Whatever the reason, as I sit in the back of the Parisian taxi snaking its way to the photographer’s studio where I am due to meet John Galliano, I consider that my relative ignorance about the man could be an advantage – how nice to interview someone without bringing any baggage to bear on the experience. On the other hand, there is a danger – especially in a theatrical arena such as fashion design – that preconception and cliché will rule the day.

As I step out into a sunny residential street in the 14th arrondissement, I rehearse what little knowledge I have about my subject. I know John Galliano is a revered fashion designer, who creates not only a collection that bears his own name (for men and women) but works as women’s wear designer for Christian Dior. I know he told Vogue: “I always polish my shoes including the underside, as Gloria Swanson used to do.”

I know he dressed Princess Diana and once designed a collection based on the look of the homeless. And I know that last night I spent far too long watching episodes of his Miss Galliano cartoon, which can be found on his website, featuring the adventures of a dog called “Puppy” and a game girl who rides motorbikes in nothing but a white bikini and knee-high boots, attending various Galliano store openings and events.

Frankly I am expecting Galliano to be something of a cartoon character himself – a flamboyant fashion luvvie. But when I enter the studio he is nowhere to be found. Instead, I walk in on a naked supermodel.

Stella Tennant, a Galliano favourite, is modelling outfits and accessories from the new Spring/Summer 2006 Dior collection. At present she is standing with nothing but a washed white leather bag over her shoulder, while an Italian photographer fixes her with his lens. I take a seat and wait.

A wedge shoe (Stella holds it by the strap), a pair of sunglasses (Stella looks into the middle distance) and a travel bag later (Stella on the floor, curled behind it like a vulnerable swan), and I realise that John Galliano is, as they say, fashionably late. So in a lull in the proceedings I corner Stella Tennant and ask her how long she has known the designer?

“Ten years . . . a bit longer.” And what does she think of him? “He’s a complete genius.”

At last the complete genius arrives and my expect­ations seem to be met. Totally. John Galliano looks like he has just stepped off a stage or a ship, a kind of cross between Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean and Ron Moody’s Fagin. He sports a thin Errol Flynn moustache and some chin topiary, and wears a grey frock coat with white handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket, studded and frayed jeans, chisel-toed boots, which curl up at the toes, a linen knit, a white silk scarf, a big brown leather belt, silver rings on his fingers and a towering, crumpled, fur top hat, from under which his long, blond locks flow down his back. In his hand he carries a cane.

Before we can talk he has to ready himself for his close-up – apparently we are here because as well as shooting the Dior collection, Mr Italian Photographer has to get a portrait of its creator. So Stella steps out and John takes her place, raising an inquisitive eyebrow like a pro. After looking at a Polaroid he says: “Don’t let too many people see the teethy one,” and giggles.

Ten minutes later we are sitting in a quiet room on a sofa. Galliano was born in Gibraltar in 1960. His father was from Gib but his mother was Spanish and sounds like a flamboyant character. “I was taught wild flamenco, from the soul, by my mother,” he says. She also seems to have sown the fashion seed in the young John: “I loved dressing up – that was part of our culture at home; obviously, with a Spanish mother, we were dressed up for any occasion.” He was also an altar boy and says that as a practising Catholic he loves “all that pomp and sense of occasion”. He jokes: “Holy Communion, that was a number. Confirmation, that was another number.”

The family moved to south London when John was six and he attended Wilson’s Grammar School for Boys. As soon as he could specialise, he dabbled in textiles and art and got in to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where his preferred area was illustration – “I loved drawing . . . that love of design came through illustration.” In his final year a “great professor” encouraged him to realise his sketches – inspired at the time by the French Revolution – as a collection (called “Les Incroyables”). “Once I got my head around that I was a demon,” says Galliano, “I was obsessed – I was an Incroyable until the day of the show.”

It was a lavish affair by any standards but at art school it must have jumped right out. The catwalk was turned into a street in 18th-century France. It certainly attracted the attention of retailer Joan Burstein, of Browns in South Molton Street, who offered the young student the windows of her prestigious store. He remembers how “my first coat from the collection was sold to Diana Ross. I was in business.”

“Les Incroyables” set the tone for the Galliano style – theatrical, dramatic, taking in historical influences. He is also, clearly, a romantic. This is him on Paris: “I love it. I love, love, love – the architecture, the layers, the history.” Certainly when you look at the work he has done (collections based on Princess Lucretia’s escape from Russia and the bohemian artist’s model Kiki de Montparnasse) and his choice of show venues (Versailles, the Paris Opera) you can see the romantic at work. And yet as he talks of his methods, of taking the team on trips abroad to fill sketchbooks with ideas gleaned from museums, markets, galleries, of how his new Dior collection was inspired in part by the experimental work “of a wonderful photographer called Lillian Bassman” and “these fantastic Peruvian petroglyphs, paintings on caves”, you start to get a glimpse of the rigour and drive that lies behind the easy manner and pantomime outfit. (I am also surprised to find he is a fitness fanatic who boxes – “English boxing” – and that he takes his sports doctor and “equipe of trainers” with him everywhere, even on holiday.)

There are plenty of clues to Galliano’s ambitious professional side. At one point I ask him why he moved to Paris in 1993, only to be told the “international buyers and press come here. It made commercial sense”. It is dawning on me that John Galliano is so much more than the fashion bunny I assumed I was meeting. Someone else who evidently thinks so is Bernard Arnault, the big cheese at fashion group LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), who in 1995 appointed him head of design at Givenchy, the first Brit to hold such a position at a French house. Galliano remembers: “I was a young English punk and struck the fear of God into the whole of bourgeois France. They love me now.”

After a year, Arnault (whom Galliano calls respectfully “Monsieur Arnault”, and dubs “a visionary”) moved the young punk to Dior, where he lost no time in modernising the brand: “My mission was to take the house of Dior into the 21st century.” He talks of how sales improved, of how they opened more stores, of how the spirit of the haute couture inspires the ready-to-wear, of advertising campaigns, of merchandising and of how the whole house now has a “coherence”.

This is grown-up stuff. He even seems offended when I suggest his aesthetic is “theatrical”. “Look at some of the old Galliano dresses and they are almost classics. When I first did the bias cut, that was considered theatrical. They said it wouldn’t be able to sell, they wouldn’t be able to produce it.” He adds: “You can be both – you can be a romantic and have an incredibly successful business.”

I am glad it has worked out for John Galliano. In the early days, like many British fashion figures, he faced bankruptcy a couple of times, and it is a credit both to his vision and savviness that he made it through. I felt vaguely foolish that I’d assumed this passionate and creative man might be like something out of the fashion world spoof Absolutely Fabulous. You don’t get to run 12 collections a year for two different houses and reshape and revive a global brand unless you have talent and a serious work ethic.

In the end it is I who come across like a luvvie and not the man in the frock coat. At the end of our meeting I ask him about “Puppy” on the website, suspecting he must have a dog and expecting a eulogy to the little critter. “Puppy was inspired by my dog, Cheyenne,” he replies. And what does she do, I persist? John Galliano looks puzzled. “She does normal doggy things.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.