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'High & Low - John Galliano' explores the fashion designer's journey from stardom to turmoil

Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Anna Wintour speak candidly about one of fashion's most successful and controversial fashion designers

Galliano in the doorway of his home
Becky Donaldson
Feature Director
March 6, 2024
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During the early 2000s, at the height of John Galliano’s fashion career, I would attend international fashion shows to file news for the London Evening Standard.

In an era preceding the ubiquity of smartphones, documenting these spectacles required a more analogue approach, relying on handwritten notes and sketches, rather than video recordings. Notepad pages from Galliano’s shows, for both his own brand and Dior, were by far the most elaborate.

Everything was to the extreme and never failed to become a talking point. I remember at one show the models wore huge criss-crossing false eyelashes. One of the newspaper photographers picked up a pair a model had discarded as she ran from the show, rushing to the next. He wore them to dinner at Café Ruc that evening. 

And then there were the end-of-show bows he would take, always dressed in a themed costume. The audience would erupt in applause and laughter - people left his shows with a smile on their faces. One of my favourites was when he appeared dressed as an astronaut, helmet in hand. 

John Galliano pictured with models wearing his creations for Dior© Getty
John Galliano pictured with models wearing his creations for Dior

But, the career of fashion’s greatest showman came to an abrupt end in 2011, when LVMH dropped him as artistic director of Dior, following an incident where Galliano insulted a group of Italian women with antisemitic slurs, at a bar in Paris. “It was a disgusting thing,” the designer tells Academy Award-winning director and producer Kevin Macdonald in an opening scene of the documentary High & Low - John Galliano, which is released on Friday.

Before this subject is touched on again, the documentary proceeds to go back to the beginning, chronicling the designer's meteoric rise to fashion fame. When the New Romantics era was first rumbling, Galliano received a grant to attend Central Saint Martins School of Art. In 1984 he presented his final year collection, which was based on the French Revolution and titled ‘Les Incroyables’.

Barry Marsden archive shot of Galliano © Barry Marsden
Barry Marsden archive shot of Galliano

Ahead of his time, his graduate show, which was described by journalist and editor Hamish Bowles as “One of the top five fashion shows I’ve ever seen,” was entirely genderless. 

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After initially showing on the official London Fashion Week schedule, SS94 saw ‘Princess Lucretia’ his first show in Paris, it was also Kate Moss’s first modelling job in the French capital. “I was so nervous,” she says, adding that Galliano taught her to catwalk: “He said put your hips and your pelvis forwards…and lean back,” she laughs hysterically. 

Kate Moss at John Galliano's 'Princess Lucretia' Paris Fashion show© Getty Images
Kate Moss at John Galliano's 'Princess Lucretia' Paris Fashion Week show

“No one gives you direction like John, there was always a story in every show. It's fantasy, and that’s what fashion should be,” she tells the camera, adding with a whisper, “He’d say, ‘You’re a princess and you’ve just escaped the castle…and the walls are after you. You’ve got to run Kate, run!’”

Edward Enninful is also interviewed for the documentary. “For other designers, they were just models. But with John, they became actresses. He would take them on a journey, through countries, through time. And they would come up feeling so enthused, so excited.”

During this time, for Galliano, the hype was great, but commercially...not so much. “That time it was creatively exciting, financially unstable. I thought my dreams weren’t going to be realised,” he says. Without backing it was impossible for him to produce collections, there simply wasn’t enough money to stage a show, let alone purchase fabrics. But then, offering a lifeline, was the late Andre Leon Talley, editor-at-large at American Vogue. Taking a stand he referred to him as “an endangered species” and “top talent” who needed help. 

John Galliano with Anna Wintour in Paris, 1993
© Getty
John Galliano with Anna Wintour in Paris, 1993

This brought him to the attention of Anna Wintour: “Of course, I’d heard of him. But it really wasn’t until Andre and I started to help him with his shows in Paris that he and I became…friends.“It isn’t often you meet a great designer. If you think of the Brit designers that have really changed the way women dress, or look, or how we think about fashion…but immediately when you saw what John was doing, you realised that he was one of them, so we had to help him.”

Anna Wintour Speaks on documentary, High & Low - John Galliano
Anna Wintour Speaks on documentary, High & Low - John Galliano

Critically, and with little time to play with, the formidable duo managed to find Galliano a venue and the funds to buy a heap of ‘off the shelf’ black fabric. Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss all modelled in the show for free.

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“By hook, by crook, this show happened,” Naomi Campbell says. “We all flew in, we had little things to bring. I think I brought over stockings and shoes. That show was more sentimental than any, because of how much we wanted it to happen for him. We wanted to be part of that creativity, magic, that dream, that fantasy, that story he was going to tell next.”

Naomi Campbell speak on documentary High & Low - John Galliano
Naomi Campbell speak on documentary High & Low - John Galliano

Ergo: ‘The Black Show’, of which Anna Wintour comments, “He put a lot of the girls into those incredibly sexy black slip dresses and for the next ten years women went out in a slip dress.” 

Catching the attention of Bernard Arnault the founder, chairman and CEO of LVMH, Galliano was appointed artistic director at the House of Givenchy. The first British person to become the head of a French haute couture house in 100 years. Despite reservations from some of the more traditionalists in the industry, following his inaugural show ‘Princess and the Pea’, Bernard offered Galliano the significantly more prestigious role of artistic director at the House of Dior. “Something evoked in me, I felt like Rocky,” Galliano enthuses. “I thought I'm really going to go for this.” 

Derek Ridgers archive shot of Galliano© @derekridgers
Derek Ridgers archive shot of Galliano

Towards the end of the documentary, we are led back to Galliano’s arrest for a hate crime that ended his career. Again he says that he is, “Horrified, ashamed and embarrassed.” Natalie Portman, a face of Miss Dior Cherie perfume, came out to say how, as a Jewish woman, she was "deeply shocked and disgusted" and wanted nothing to do with Galliano.

Natalie Portman distanced herself from the designer© Getty Images
Natalie Portman distanced herself from the designer

But others rallied around him, “This is a person that I’ve grown up with, that I love, that opened my mind, in this world I knew nothing about,” Naomi Campbell says. “And I wasn’t going to see him go down that way.” 

In 2011, following a two-month stay at the Cottonwood Rehab Clinic in Arizona, Galliano appeared in court in Paris, avoiding a potential prison term. His lawyer cited his struggles with three addictions: drugs, alcohol, and work, noting that he was overseeing the production of up to 32 collections per year.

Seeking atonement, Galliano again sought the help of Condé Nast, this time it's chairman Jonathan Newhouse. He tells us that he called him to express his “remorse and deep regret.” They met, and Galliano said how sorry he was and how he wanted to stay in the industry. Newhouse took it upon himself to help. After encountering several closed doors without success, Newhouse reached out to Rabbi Barry Marcus, a Holocaust educator. With Marcus' guidance, John delved into literature and connected with Holocaust survivors, broadening his understanding of this historical tragedy.

In 2016, Galliano received a call from his friend Kate Moss, who requested him to design her wedding dress for her marriage to Jamie Hince. Reflecting on Moss's persistence, Galliano remarked, "Kate never gave up. "And, of course, he gave her a character to go down the aisle. “Before she came out, she held my hand, she was shaking and said, ‘Who am I?’ “I said, ‘You’re fabulous and he’s about to discover your want past’. And the rest was just Kate.”

Kate Moss and Jamie Hince at wedding, 2011© Getty
Kate Moss and Jamie Hince at their wedding, 2011

Since 2014, Galliano has been the creative director of Paris-based fashion house Maison Margiela.

Director Kevin Macdonald's 'High & Low - John Galliano' is released on 8 March, 2024. 

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