Why John Galliano at Maison Martin Margiela Is a Good Thing

“I’d buy everything / Clean out Vivienne Westwood / In my Galliano gown,” Gwen Stefani sang, as her arms held on anxiously to a swinging anchor. I was eleven years old when she released Rich Girl, a catchy, gloriously choreographed video with lyrics written in the counterfactual conditional. Stefani, of course, had just embarked on what would become a hugely successful solo career. The subtext of those lyrics flew straight over my head, her culturally appropriative art direction becoming clear only in hindsight.

This was my introduction to John Galliano, and by extension, Dior. I spent the next few years researching and trying to make sense of this couturier, whose tinged, stately accent and manicured moustache became a trademark. Galliano, to me, was the most magnificent, charismatic man in the world. Shameless about it, too. His flamboyant flair wasn’t limited to the theater of his runways; theater built itself around him. Promise was mistaken for prestige and mixed with alcohol, sleeping pills, and stress, which Galliano claims contributed to his downward spiral so memorably and offensively acted out with anti-Semitic vitriol — not just offensive, but cause for criminal conviction in France. Galliano’s departure from Dior has been well documented. No summary, and certainly no apologies, will be offered here. But since then, he’s undergone drug and alcohol rehabilitation; extended formal apologies to, and received welcome from, the Anti-Defamation League; and partaken in a brief residency at Oscar de la Renta’s studio.

Dior fall 2004, Maison Martin Margiela fall 2007

Now Galliano is headed to Maison Martin Margiela, a label that, quite the contrary to the disgraced designer, has held up a strict code of anonymity as a lucrative form of cultural cool. The color white was used to enforce uniformity, to erase individuality and authorship. It was the lack of hierarchy that distinguished the house. When its collaboration with H&M launched, purists dropped their jaw. Yet, it wasn’t the first time the avant-garde had lifted the smokescreen. Comme des Garçons and Viktor & Rolf — majority-owned, along with MMM, by the Italian holding company Only The Brave (OTB) — had already partnered with H&M. The difference this time, though, was that Martin Margiela himself had no say, having departed from his namesake company in 2009. The founder would surely have detested the collection, the bastardization of his genius watered down and hyped up for profit. (All conjecture, of course — Margiela doesn’t do interviews.)

This is precisely the current complaint. Certainly, there must be some referential nod to founding designers, but there comes a point where retrospection turns reactionary. Alexander McQueen famously despised Givenchy, or at least the aristocratic aestheticism that kept the house and its licenses buoyant. He later stated that his contract “was not conducive to creativity” — unsurprising for a brash Englishman at a company founded by French nobility. There was also controversy when Raf Simons (whose own creative epiphany struck when he attended his first Maison Martin Margiela show in 1989) joined Jil Sander. A men’s designer, the Belgian had never formally designed women’s ready-to-wear. Poetry, punk, and pragmatism united beautifully.

John Galliano spring 2003, Maison Martin Margiela spring 2009

Maison Martin Margiela, bereft of its democratic spirit and conceptual frisson, simply wasn’t what it used to be. Eric Wilson, fashion news director at InStyle and former fashion critic for the New York Times, describes being banned by the company for reporting on Martin Margiela’s departure. “As an example of just how seriously the company took its policy of anonymity, after reporting on Margiela’s departure, I found myself banned from its presentations,” he wrote. “When I returned after a few seasons in the penalty box…the mood had shifted,” Wilson writes. “Before, there had been no seating assignments, so the lowliest assistant could be in the front row, and editors in chief gladly sat in the back to witness whatever Margiela’s team had dreamed up…Now editors sit in assigned seats.”

It’s a stubborn allegiance to the DNA of a house that makes much of what we see on the runways look familiar, at times tedious. Change is good, especially if it comes in the gliding form of Galliano, who fuses social history with nuances of sartorial heresy. His work is layered and jagged and introspective — creative origami realized. Nothing good, or at the very least interesting, comes together because it ‘makes sense.’ And really, if rationality were fashion’s guiding metric, there’d be empty seats and empty ideas at the shows.

The DNA of a house is often only a relic of its early success, imagery immortalized in reference books — Dior’s New Look, Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking. In basic biology, though, DNA is the genetic encryption that allows organisms to be self-regulating and self-healing. Same goes in fashion. MMM needed new blood.

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