Two of the largest news stories in fashion of late—John Galliano’s 2011 racist meltdown and his since-then baby steps towards rehabilitation. and Nicolas Ghesquière leaving the house of Balenciaga—have been illuminated this past week with the publication of a series of lengthy interviews with the aforementioned designers. In his first-ever sober interview, John Galliano defends and atones in a piece by Ingrid Sischy from this month’s Vanity Fair. The incomparable Charlie Rose followed up on Sischy’s expose, interrogating the shamed designer in a 53-minute video interview, which aired last Wednesday. While Galliano had to explain his fall from grace, Nicolas Ghesquière voluntarily spoke out on his graceful departure from Balenciaga in two generous interviews—one for 032c and the other with the new System magazine—which address why he left (he left) and what might be next.
Both Galliano and Ghesquière had been mum until now and both stories roused a great deal of speculation. So, what did we learn?
First, Galliano. His story, like most mediated tales of atonement, is rehearsed. What he gives Sischy and Rose is the same careful telling of his childhood and career and the pressures that led him to alcoholism and drug abuse, which climaxed when he was videotaped slurring a louche anti-Semitic rant at his local Paris bistro. After that video went viral, he was fired from both his posts at Dior and his own label of John Galliano. Now, he is two years and three months sober and is claiming that he doesn’t remember the incident or any like it (witnesses stated they’d heard such profanities from him before), as he was, at that time, a “blackout drunk.”
On Charlie Rose, Galliano is uncharacteristically underdressed and visibly nervous. He apologizes for his violent prejudiced words and claims that “he knows” that he is neither a racist nor an anti-Semite. He reaches for reasons to why he behaved like he did. One explanation, which is also offered in Vanity Fair, is that, when one is in the kind of prolonged state of intoxication he was (mixing alcohol with prescription meds), the brain can go “haywire” and bring together ideas from the unconscious. In this case, he may have been recalling the harsh language of his childhood, growing up in the mixed-culture of South London, or perhaps he was channeling Rudolf Nureyev, a pronounced anti-Semite, who Galliano was researching at the time. Galliano does not proffer such explanations as an excuse; he admits there is no excuse. He is searching for explanations “for himself,” as much as the for the public he offended.
Galliano’s vocabulary is that of a recovering addict. He speaks of “atonement,” his “disease,” and “the work” of rehabilitation. He speaks of then: “I was going to end up in a mental asylum or six feet under.” And the now—it’s “one day at a time”:
That was part of my problem before. I was so worried about what had happened yesterday and my head was in 2018. And having done the work I’ve done I’ve realized that that wasn’t living. Living is now, the present, being connected… I’m alive and grateful.
Though their stories and their styles are quite different, there are many parallels between the Galliano and Ghesquière interviews, particularly when it comes to the luxury fashion industry and the demands it places on its designers. Galliano was always pushing forward and trying to outdo himself: his “head was in 2018,” he was designing “32 collections a year,” and so he used until he crashed and burned. Ghesquière experienced a similar temporal stress: “When I started, there were only two seasons,” he tells Pierre-Alexandre de Looz for 032c, “but by the end there were 15 collections per season, which is more than 30 per year.” The accelerated fashion calendar was one of the reasons he wanted to stop designing for Balenciaga:
As long as the production scheduled kept sight of the creative side, it felt human. Then it accelerated to such a degree that at a certain point I was totally miserable. I simply didn’t have enough time to search for new, sufficiently interesting ideas and I had to keep churning out proposals, meeting deadlines, taking up gigantic studios that required interacting with greater numbers of people and in the process I realized I would lose what defined me… I created many things but it can’t last. It’s unhealthy. You lose your identity, which is priceless and I didn’t want to jeopardize it.
Ghesquière felt he didn’t have enough time to “innovate” at Balenciaga, which is his definition of luxury: “I’m here to evolve and hopefully innovate; that’s my role as a designer: to move forward, to take risks, and generate commercial incentives.” He connects the current speed of luxury fashion to fashion’s profitability (“you feel better if you own a luxury group than a steel group”), to its entry into pop culture (“fashion has never been so in fashion”), and to the luxury market’s parallel industry of “fast fashion” (“they have the big bosses of luxury drooling because everyone fantasizes about achieving that level of efficiency”). Ghesquière suggests that as “fast fashion” entities like H&M and Zara edge into the luxury market with designer collaborations, they may become “the next multinational luxury goods groups.” Asked what he will miss most about Balenciaga, Ghesquière tells System:
I will definitely miss the studio and the atelier, but the rest not at all. Quite the opposite in fact. I really do feel as though I am no longer being sucked dry. No one is asking me things endlessly, asking for ideas all the time: what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?
A person can be addicted to many things: to drugs, to alcohol, to love and/or sex. To shopping. From Galliano’s interviews, one gets the sense that he was as addicted to the gratification of the forward-march fashion schedule as he was to the drugs and alcohol that helped him meet its demands. The industry wanted his industry and so they kept him in it. “I lived in a bubble,” he tells Vanity Fair, “I would be backstage and there would be a queue of five people to help me. One person would have a cigarette for me. The next person would have the lighter. I did not know how to use the A.T.M.” Ghesquière felt similar pressures but instead of using, as many in the industry end up doing, he worked hard and gorgeously and then took a break.
Right now, Ghesquière is working to try and imagine new modes of production that will enable greater creative experimentation. “The system has become totally saturated,” he says in System, “but there is nothing better than a saturated system for reinventing yourself and finding new ways of operating.” Both Galliano and Ghesquière want to continue working in fashion. Galliano, having offended a market share with his racist remarks, will have to find a new means; he can no longer be the flamboyant face of a multinational brand. Ghesquière may offer some inspiring alternatives. “I don’t want to sound pretentious and say that I am going to invent an entirely new model of operating in fashion,” he explains, “but that’s my ambition. In terms of rhythm, in terms of seasons, in terms of what I offer.” I look forward to seeing more from both of them.