JOHN GALLIANO (1960-) is one of the most influential fashion designers of our time. Born in Gibraltar, he grew up in London and launched his own label before becoming chief designer of France's haute couture flagship, Christian Dior, in Paris.
John Galliano has created the most spectacular fashion shows of our time. Since his 1984 degree collection, Les Incroyables, which metamorphosed his London art school into a French Revolutionary street scene, he has transported his privileged audiences to more exotic and sartorially blessed places than they could possibly have imagined or experienced.
Whether he chooses to transform the Opéra Garnier in Paris into a party thrown by the Venetian socialite, Marchesa Luisa Casati, or the none-too salubrious platforms of Gare d’Austerlitz into a Moroccan souk - complete with guest appearance from a couture-clad Princess Pocohontas - Galliano never fails to convince. This despite the fact that his references come from a dizzying array of rarely connected times, people and places. But then, John Galliano’s life has been rather richer than most – more often than not, the vivid colour in his shows have been experienced at source first hand.
He was born in Juan Carlos in 1960 in Gibraltar, his father’s homeland. His mother is Spanish and he first went to school in Spain, reaching it via Tangiers. "I think all that – the souks, the markets, woven fabrics, the carpets, the smells, the herbs, the Mediterranean colour, is where my love of textiles comes from," Galliano has said. In 1966, the family moved to Streatham in South London, where John’s father worked as a plumber. They then moved to Dulwich, which remains the family home to this day. Galliano attended Wilson’s Grammar School for Boys where his academic performance was, by all accounts, unremarkable. The same cannot be said of his appearance. The young John and his sisters, Rosemary and Immacula, were always dressed in immaculately pressed and starched clothes, even for trips to the corner shop.
"I don’t think people here understood where I was coming from," he said of his early days in South London. "And I certainly didn’t understand where they were coming from. It was quite a shock coming from that sort of family, that sort of colour. My mother brought it with her on the plane. You know, the religious aspect and all that was still with us when we were at home." It wasn’t until the 16 year-old Galliano moved to City and East London College to study design, that he discovered the arts and people "a bit more like me". From there, he went on to Central Saint Martins art school and a star was born. "I worked very hard. I was always in the library - sketching endlessly."
The inspiration for his first collection came from Danton, a National Theatre production on which he worked part-time as a dresser. There were jackets worn upside down and inside out – this was the early 1980s, deconstruction wasn’t yet part of the fashion vernacular – and romantic organdie shirts, accessorised with everything from magnifying glasses, smashed and worn as jewellery to rainbow-coloured ribbons sewn onto the insides of coats. "I was just so into that collection. It completely overtook me. I still love it. I love the romance, you know, charging through cobbled streets in all that amazing organdie. There are a lot of things in that collection that still haunt me."
Fashion retailer Joan Burstein was so impressed that she immediately gave the window of Browns, her London store, to the fledgling designer. The clothes flew off the rails. Despite the universal acclaim – even hysteria –in the next decade, not one, but two backers pulled out on Galliano. For several seasons, he couldn’t afford to show. In the early 1990s, disillusioned by the difficulties of running a fashion business in Britain, he moved to Paris. There, Anna Wintour, powerful editor-in-chief of American Vogue, took him under her wing and used her influence to secure him a backer (PaineWebber International) and a venue (S?o Schlumberger’s chicly crumbling mansion).
The invitation was a rusty key. The supermodels of the day - Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell - modelled for friendship rather than their customary five-figure fees. There were only 17 outfits put together at the last minute - all in black. (A few bolts of black fabric was all Galliano could afford.) But what outfits. The show was a monumental success – John Galliano had sealed his reputation as one of the great designers of his time.
One man who clearly understood Galliano’s genius was Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury conglomerate LVMH. By the mid-1990s, Galliano had reinvented the 1930s-line bias-cut dress and made it modern, as well as creating narrow, very feminine tailoring which was the envy of those less gifted. Yet it was still brave of Arnault to decide, in October 1995, to install John Galliano as chief designer of Givenchy. To the French fashion establishment, he seemed like a young upstart. The media was apoplectic and Givenchy hit the headlines. "I really couldn’t tell anyone about it," recalls Galliano. "Not even my mum and dad. If I told one person, that was it."
It wasn’t long before more rumours surfaced. Fellow British designer, Alexander McQueen, was to take over at Givenchy, leaving Galliano to move to the much larger and wealthier house – also controlled by Arnault – Christian Dior. Today, John Galliano designs a dozen collections a year. Dior’s flagship boutique in Paris is a veritable superstore where customers queue for everything from couture wedding dresses to shoes, and fragrances: ever-anxious to buy into the image of the house that Galliano has re-created.
This is not surprising because John Galliano is fashion’s great romantic. From his fantastical clothes, to his colourful background, Galliano’s charmed rise to fame reads not unlike a fairy tale. His genius is his ability to communicate this through his clothes. He also has immense ambition. Behind his gentle aesthetic, John Galliano is a powerhouse, a man whose ambition to go down in history as one of fashion’s great is awesome, even intimidating. His long-time creative collaborator Amanda Harlech once described disagreeing with him thus: "I did only once and I can only compare it to being hit by a massive surfing wave. His indifference was absolute."
1960 Juan Carlos Antonio Galliano is born in Gibraltar.
1966 The family move to London: living in Streatham, then Dulwich. Attends Wilson’s Grammar School for Boys, then City and East London College.
1981 Enrols at St Martins School of Art to study fashion design. Discovers the Soho club scene. Works as a dresser at the National Theatre and as an assistant to the tailor Tommy Nutter.
1984 Graduates from St Martins with a first class degree. His degree show – inspired by Danton, a play he worked on at the National Theatre – is displayed in the windows of Browns. A friend, Jeremy Healy, DJed for the degree show and all subsequent Galliano shows.
1985 Starts making clothes with the cash Browns gives him for fabrics and trimmings. Collaborates with hat maker, Stephen Jones, after meeting him at the London club, Taboo. Fashion editor Amanda Grieve (later Harlech) becomes his stylist. Presents first collection, The Ludic Game, at London Fashion Week. That autumn, he shows the Fallen Angels line on which he works with cutter and long-time collaborator, Bill Gaytten.
1986 Peder Bertelsen, a Danish businessman, invests in the Galliano label.
1988 Steven Robinson comes to work for Galliano on a student placement. Galliano wins Designer of the Year for his Blanche Dubois collection.
1989 Peder Bertelsen withdraws his financial support. Galliano shows in Paris for the first time.
1991 Drained by the difficulty of funding and running a fashion business in London, Galliano moves to Paris. Still penniless, he sleeps on friends’ floors.
1993 Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, persuades Sa? Schlumberger, the Portuguese socialite, to lend Galliano her mansion for his fashion show. She flies him to New York and engineers a meeting with future backer, John Bult of the PaineWebber banking group. Galliano unveils the Princess Lucretia collection, inspired by the Russian princess, in the Schlumberger mansion with rose petals strewn on the floors and chandeliers.
1995 John Galliano is appointed chief designer of Givenchy, one of the fashion houses controlled by the LVMH luxury goods group.
1996 Unveils his first Givenchy couture collection at the Stade Fran?ais. After months of speculation, Galliano is named chief women’s wear designer of Christian Dior and is replaced by Alexander McQueen at Givenchy.
1997 Presents first haute couture collection for Dior at the Grand Hotel in Paris. The ground floor is a replica of Christian Dior’s late 1940s showroom on Avenue Montaigne with 791 gold chairs and 4,000 roses. "Among Couture Debuts, Galliano’s is the Stand Out" ran the headline in the New York Times.
1999 Coordinates Dior’s ready-to-wear advertising working with long-time collaborator, British photographer Nick Knight. The high profile ad campaigns, coupled with Dior’s new saddle bag, catalyses a sharp increase in sales.
2001 Awarded a CBE in Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Colin McDowell, John Galliano, Rizzoli International, 1998
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain