John Galliano found success at the tender age of 24, when his degree collection “Les Incroyables”, inspired by the fashion of the French revolution, was snapped up by the owner of Brown’s, a London boutique. His designs were flamboyantly theatrical, inspired by his student job as a dresser at the National Theatre. “It helped shape my view of drama, of theatre and costume”, he said. Galliano’s work was widely admired by the fashion industry and in 1996, when he was 35, he was appointed chief designer at Givenchy, becoming the first British designer to head a French fashion house. A year later, he was appointed creative director of Christian Dior. He continued to produce two collections a year for his own brand, John Galliano, for which he saved his most whimsical and outlandish ideas.
Robert Fairer, a photographer for Vogue, began taking photographs at Galliano’s shows in the mid-1990s. He documented the evolution of his style over 30 collections until 2011, when Galliano was sacked from both Christian Dior and his own label after he was filmed making an anti-Semitic rant at a Paris bar. Galliano apologised, blaming his actions on barbiturate poisoning and alcoholism, and spent a while in rehab before relaunching his career as creative director of Maison Margiela, a French fashion house, in 2014. His collections have been successful and his designs are still otherworldly, but looking at Fairer’s images, which have been elegantly compiled by Thames and Hudson in a lavish book, you can’t help being nostalgic for the Galliano of old. As the shows become increasingly elaborate, you get a sense of why Galliano burnt out: he could only operate at this high-octane level for so long.
A highlight is the “Welcome to Our Playground” collection from autum/winter 2000, where freckle-faced models with feathered eyebrows hold teddy bears and wear sheer tent dresses and tutus over trousers. Another is the autumn/winter 2004 collection, called “Mapping the World”, which was inspired by the idea of colliding cultures. Galliano imagined Victorian travellers arriving in Yemen: his models had cans of Coca-Cola sewn into their large woollen wigs, were wrapped in Russian headscarves and wore fur gloves. His shows were as theatrical as his clothes: once he sent a dozen sword-swinging Shaolin monks down the catwalk, having flown them to Paris from China.
Fairer was drawn to what was happening behind the scenes, and you can see why. It must have been like going backstage at a bizarre play, watching costumes flung off between scenes and actors pace up and down learning their lines. Galliano was a showman who saw his models as performers rather than mannequins, and here we get to watch them rehearse. Fairer specialises in juxtapositions of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Models dressed in full costume grin and pose in a lift, and a girl smiles regally in an extravagant white gown amid messily strewn clothes and makeup. It’s in these in-between moments, where the clothes transcend their mundane surroundings, that the magic of Galliano’s work really speaks.
“In the mood” (2003)
For Galliano, hair and make-up mattered just as much as the clothes. It helped his models get into character. For his autumn/winter 2003 show, where he said he wanted a “granny from hell” look, the make-up artist Pat McGrath stuck eyebrows made from black card above flurries of false eye-lashes and applied generous amounts of pink blusher and beauty-marks the size of a 50-pence piece. The exaggerated, doll-like result echoed the flirtatious mood of the 1940s-inspired clothes, which included bustiers, corsets and cherry-patterned silk dresses.
Stephen Jones (pictured, right) worked closely with Galliano, making many of the hats for his shows. For Galliano’s “Esquimaux” collection (autumn/winter 2002) he created large tasselled headdresses, turbans and fur-lined pillows that were strapped to the models’ heads. Scottish tartans were mixed with Peruvian pom-poms and Chinese dragon motifs. Before the models strode out, Galliano gave them the following instructions: “Eskimo and Mongolian hotties! Keep the fur flying!”
“Everyone is Beautiful” (2006)
Galliano had originally intended to call his spring/summer 2006 collection “Freaks”, after Tod Browning’s infamous film from 1932 about carnival performers. After a change of heart, he changed the title to “Everyone is Beautiful”. The collection, worn by models of all ages and sizes, featured snakeskin prints, wooden canes, beaded dresses and top hats. There were fur-clad elderly women, sets of twins that held hands as they walked down the runway, a bearded wizard and a sailor. Here, Fairer can be seen in the mirror photographing a creepy trinket from the set.
“Too Rich Too Walk” (2005)
All of Galliano’s shows were cheeky and playful. For his “Too Rich Too [sic] Walk” collection (spring/summer 2005), models carried large cartoon balloons, wore inflatable pink lips as hats and walked to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The idea behind the show, said Galliano, was “sixty billion-dollar heiresses take Glastonbury festival by storm”. While he had the extravagant Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton in mind, the models evoked a noughties Paris Hilton, posing and preening in ruffles and violent hues of pink. Yet this image, where a model sits quietly among the chaos, perhaps best captures Galliano’s sugar-coated world at its peak: glamorous but lonely.
John Galliano Unseen by Robert Fairer is published by Thames and Hudson