Unable to express himself in the way he’s accustomed, John Galliano made up for his tumultuous absence from the runway with a dramatic debut at Maison Martin Margiela today in London. The couture show, which the house calls Artisanal, was a strident yet cautious comeback, a heartfelt embrace of expression and expressionism. The designer unleashed his pent-up imagination with an enthusiastic tribute to other art-world radicals: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian artist who painted portraits out of fruit, seashells, and other inanimate objects; Matisse, in the bold use of amorphous color, particularly a princely red; and perhaps even Basquiat, in the way the crowned mask of the last look smiled through a pile of metal bits. And let’s not forget Galliano’s friend and muse, Kate Moss, who was not only in the audience but could be spotted throughout the show — in, for example, a reproduction of the feather headdress she wore on the cover of The Face back in 1990, an iconic image immortalized by Corinne Day.
Galliano’s commitment to artistry, with all its vagaries and vulnerabilities, didn’t mean an abandonment of the house’s codes. In fact, the blend of the two strong, enduring visions meshed seamlessly. The label’s longstanding experiments in deconstruction, process, asymmetry, anonymity, found objects, and humor found safe harbor in the designer’s own penchant for romanticism and theatricality — even if those trademarks are somewhat subdued, for now. That Galliano didn’t take a slow, protracted strut down the runway for his bow, dressed as a pirate, matador or Southern dandy, is enough to signal a whole new era.