The collection that John Galliano presented in the first month of the new millenium provided me with my very first hit of a wondrous drug known as Dior Haute Couture. I don't know how, why or where I first heard of this collection, a collection that has since gained a level of infamy within the industry, but I do remember hearing about it and after all, that's the most important thing. Even so, at my age and having not yet fully immersed myself into the world of fashion I didn't realize just how big a deal this collection was. The collection was inspired mainly by the homeless population that John frequently saw during his morning runs along the Seine, with inspiration also pulled from Charlie Chaplin's iconic "Tramp" character, Diane Arbus' photography of social outsiders and oddballs, mental patients, and the artist Egon Schiele. Pretty intense stuff, huh. But keep in mind that Galliano is nothing if not a romantic. From the earliest part of his career he has loved to concoct stories built around an impoverished, eccentric muse, whether real or imagined. As I've heard it explained by him in many an interview, including one for SHOWstudio.com back in 2001, he imagined that these people had chosen to live outside of society, to retreat from their lives and that out of their need they inadvertently created a kind of style all their own. Also brewing in John's head was a desire to expose the inner workings of haute couture garments, while also chipping away at the elegant, respectable image that Dior had always maintained.
The clothes themselves drew heavily on the deconstruction and reconstruction techniques championed by the Japanese and Belgian avant garde designers who first gained noteriety in the early 80s, as well as his own experiments with deconstruction from his days at Central Saint Martins. With his penchant for drama and romance, as well as the expertise of Dior's atelier's, Galliano managed to make deconstruction, something which had been firmly established as an aesthetic unto itself, all his own. Probably the most interesting thing about this collection, and for me the real genius of it, is the dichotomy between the impeccable craftsmanship and the worn, destroyed look of the clothes. That the garments were painstakingly crafted by hand using the finest materials and most precise handwork, and yet look as though they've been ripped to pieces and are libel to fall apart at the seams is probably the most brilliant bit of "high/low" fashion I can think of. Another thing is that this collection was shown to an audience that included some of the worlds most well-off women, with the hope being that they might buy the clothing, and yet the clothes themselves were inspired by poverty. I mean think about it, many of these haute couture clients give donations to or throw benefits for various charities. It's not unlikely that somewhere along the line they've done something towards helping those in need, and yet they're being offered a selection of incredibly expensive fashion to buy from that looks like the clothes worn by the very people they've worked to help. It's completely perverse really, a fashion mind-fuck for the ages. The controversy that resulted from this collection was so great that it was being discussed heavily outside of fashion circles. While I can understand some of the sensitivity that the public felt about the topic, I think that Galliano was dead on in that SHOWstudio interview when he pointed out how hypocritical it was for people to attack him for his perceived insensitivity and vulgarity in using poverty as an inspiration, given how so many of the go-to cultures and destinations that designers look to for ideas are completely poverty striken themselves. Besides, other artists have found inspiration in povery, but since fashion is often derided as vapid, useless and shallow it's a much easier target for criticism than contemporary photography or painting.
By far my favorite pieces in the collection were the four closing looks, inspired by Egon Schiele. The gowns were entirely de-and-re-constructed, featuring fans of fabric held up by exposed boning, asymmetrically sliced slits bound with lacing, angled seams traced with a shadow of black tulle and trains with lopped-off hems. Each of the gowns were streaked with paint in faded colors taken directly from Schiele's work, and the illustrative quality was enhanced by the aforementioned tulle, which was veiled over the fabric. That little trick gave the seams the look of dashed off brushstrokes, as well as making the creamy silk taffeta look a bit like canvas that had been ripped off of it's frame.
That was the real beauty of the collection, the romantic little details, from belts of twine strung with objet trouves (broken jewelry, books, miniature liquor bottles, love letters) to the raw edges on the fabric which had been delicately frayed by hand, one thread at a time.
To this day I think that this collection was one of Galliano's best, and certainly most thought provoking. It was such a huge departure from the elegance, drama and overt glamour that he built his reputation on and which had characterized his work at Dior up until that point; that alone was risky. Combined with the subject matter and the inherent social commentary within it you have to at least respect just how far out on a limb John went. Even though I don't believe he was deliberately trying to push buttons (that just doesn't seem his style) he had to have known that there would be some reaction to this collection. The fact that he stuck to his guns and did what he felt without hesitation is proof, to me anyway, that he is one of the few fashion designers who truly is an artist.
all photos from Corbis.com