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Bridget Foley's Diary: Galliano, a Judgment Call

Wednesday’s conversation should have focused on what the designer's artistic residency brought to Oscar de la Renta’s fall collection. Instead, controversy.

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John Galliano RTW Fall 1994
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The shoestring stunner in Sao Schlumberger’s old hôtel particulier in 1994. The remarkable Japonica-inspired Dior couture collection in 2007.


Those were just two of the many magical moments John Galliano has given to fashion. At his remarkable best, he hasn’t just thrilled with his work, he has transported his audience to worlds of wonder.


Wednesday’s conversation about Galliano should have focused on what his artistic residency brought to Oscar de la Renta’s beautiful fall collection, shown on Tuesday evening. In short: a great deal, from the sculpted tailoring that opened the show to the several pushed beauty looks.


Instead, controversy. The buzz was about Galliano’s personal fashion look as featured on page one of the New York Post, and full-length inside. Though Galliano stayed backstage and out of sight at Oscar’s show, a photographer caught him earlier in the bright light of day, in the now-infamous ensemble that some people think resembled traditional Hasidic garb.


Anyone who knows Galliano at all, or for that matter, knows anything about him, would acknowledge that that look isn’t something he conjured yesterday morning; he has long worn frock coats, knee breeches, tall hats, etc. Still, it seemed an impolitic look for this particular moment in New York City. While his publicist Liz Rosenberg declined to make him available for a comment, she answered some questions posed in an e-mail.


“Regarding his attire yesterday: As you well know, John has worn big hats and long coats for many, many years,” Rosenberg wrote. “He indeed has long curly hair, and I can understand people/the NY Post misinterpreting his look at the show. But I can assure you there was no intent to dress in a Hasidic style, to present himself as an homage to the Hasidic community or to insult the Jewish culture or pay tribute to people in 17th century Poland on John’s part — consciously or unconsciously. His attire included a Steven Jones hat, Yohji Yamamoto trousers, Brooks Brothers shirt, Dolce & Gabbana vest. In other words — fashionable. The last thing on John’s mind would be to do anything that would offend the Jewish community.”


Rosenberg went onto discuss John’s educational efforts: “He has worked very hard these last two years with leaders of the Jewish community around the world, immersed himself in literature from Primo Levi to Elie Wiesel, has educated himself about the Holocaust. He is sorrowful and sincere in his efforts. Some people may never forgive him for his remarks two years ago and he understands that. But he will continue to work toward that goal and show by his actions his serious and heartfelt commitment and respect for the Jewish community.”


At least some people knowledgeable about traditional Hasidic clothing saw no derivation. “Anyone familiar with the dress of traditional Orthodox Jews should not mistake what Galliano is wearing in the photograph as ‘Hasidic garb,’” Abraham H. Foxman wrote in a statement posted yesterday on the Anti-Defamation League Web site. “Hasidim do not wear fedora hats, pinstripe pants, blue jackets or an ascot tie.”


I’m going to go with Foxman as knowing more about this particular sartorial subject than someone who just made a quick Ash Wednesday run to St. Agnes on East 43rd Street. But the Foxmans of the world are only a subset of the population. To many of the uninformed, Galliano’s getup, as captured by the Post, looked Hasidic-ish.


Since the news of Galliano’s Oscar gig broke last month, I’ve spoken with several designers — Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg among them — all of whom cited his fabulous talent and said he’s worked hard on his recovery and should be forgiven and allowed back to his life’s calling in a serious way. Yet the fact that the Post made a two-day deal, first of Galliano’s residency at Oscar, and then of his outfit, suggests that while fashion may be ready to forgive one of its own, the rest of the world may not.


Nor are the returns in on all of fashion. When I sought comment from retailers, most declined. That suggests a) moral outrage and/or b) tacit acknowledgment that, as retailers, their business is not forgiveness but selling. One noted that the evaluation of the customers’ mind-set would be an essential part of deciding whether to buy a future Galliano collection.


All of the retailers I contacted are American, and Americans are not the world. I’m not qualified to speak on the various global manifestations of anti-Semitism. Personally, while I can’t explain Galliano’s drunken words of two years ago, I don’t believe he’s an anti-Semite; I never have. Only he knows for sure what’s in his heart and mind. I do know that the chronicles of Galliano’s potential fashion redemption have focused on the Jewish angle, pushing aside other serious questions of the more mundane commercial sort. For starters, can Galliano design realistic daywear on a regular basis over the long haul? Other than in fantastical and sometimes controversial reveries (Matrix and Homeless collections), he didn’t always seem particularly interested.


Secondly, apart from the talent — never a question; it’s galactic — does Galliano have what it takes to be a successful working designer today? “What” being the stamina, focus, thick skin and, yes, the common sense and humility. According to Oscar, the stamina and focus are there. “He works endlessly,” de la Renta said on Wednesday. “On the last few days before the collection, he was there until midnight.”

 

As for common sense, designers today cannot only be creative forces, no matter how brilliant. They’ve long since been forced down from their ivory towers (some relished the descent) to go christen the new São Paulo flagship or host a we-love-you-rich-ladies dinner in Shanghai. They are (may God have mercy on us all) brand ambassadors. As such, there are limits to the public behavioral gaffes they can get away with. Consciously or not, when Galliano got dressed on Tuesday, he set himself up for a controversy. Even accepting that his intent and the outfit itself had nothing to do with Hasidic dress, the Post’s photo makes a convincing case otherwise. Galliano wants back into mainstream fashion. Displays of apparent tone-deafness could give pause to potential employers or backers. 


Finally — humility. I’m not suggesting that fashion design is or should be an ego-free enterprise. Fashion is a tough grind requiring tough people who must believe in their own talents. De la Renta noted that Galliano displayed not a shred of diva behavior and was a pleasure to work with. “He’s the nicest guy,” he said. “We worked so well together because he was unbelievably respectful of my thoughts. I was deeply respectful of his ideas, and we had a really great time working together. It’s so wonderful when you have [a situation] where you’re challenging each other in your own ways.”


Speaking to Galliano, he comes across as consummately gentle. Yet rumors of major behavioral issues at Dior — going AWOL among them — were in industry circulation well before the final straw. Even accepting Galliano’s expression of contrition to the Jewish community, one wonders if he feels any responsibility for the sour turn of events at Dior and whether he thinks he has amends to make there.


De la Renta feels confident that any essential lessons of workplace decorum have been learned. “If John wanted to come back, I would be happy to have him,” he said. Still, Oscar acknowledged having offered Galliano one piece of advice: “I told him, if he wants to be in America…you cannot be like Greta Garbo. At one point you have to face the music and explain your position.’”