It’s a curious subject, fashion, and those who write about it rarely want to jeopardise future access to it on the altar of clear-eyed analysis. The business must pretend that there is a single genius at work here, whose vision creates not just clothes but the things that actually make the money. The catwalk shows are all very well, but they haven’t been the main business for decades, and it came as rather a surprise to the industry when a great mob of new customers emerged from nowhere, the wives of Russian oligarchs and American hedgefund traders, willing to spend six-figure sums every season on a new wardrobe.
The primary source of income is, of course, not just the ready-to-wear — often perfectly standard products of Asian garment manufacturers with a celebrated European name emblazoned on them — but the spin-offs. Handbags, perfumes, shoes, jewellery, accessories, scarves and watches are all accompanied by excitable PR commentaries assuring the punter that some kind of quality or vision is being served up with the famous name.
These things are important. You may not have the looks, figure or money to buy clothes with the magic label, but no one is too fat or old to wear perfume of a particular brand. The market for tat is more or less unlimited. This sort of business has been going on for decades. One of the only licensing proposals that Yves Saint Laurent turned down in the 1970s was for car tyres.
The key point is that the person who was christened with one of these now world-famous names must be the one whose vision determines the ‘flavour’ of every product. In some instances, the PR campaign appears the only thing connecting the two; as an amateur of perfume, I’ve often been amused by some trifling piece of pink sugary florals bearing the name of a supposedly dangerous fashion radical. What a dead name does is clear: it supplies a sort of Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Balenciaga spirit that subsequent generations can interpret as they wish. But what a living name does when it endorses a belt, perfume or even a frock — that is probably something we will never discover.
Dana Thomas, an American journalist, has written a book about the designers/figureheads/industrial complexes John Galliano and Alexander McQueen which, despite itself, tells the story of two human beings who, over a couple of decades, allowed themselves to be subsumed into a sort of corporate status. In the end, hardly anything was left for either of them to do, and they seem to have taken the decision to intoxicate themselves away from their usual existence. It is all very much like the story of Jean Genet’s Le Balcon, as individual beings find themselves slowly ossified into archetypes.
The truth of the matter clearly presents a problem for the author. By the end of their careers, could either Galliano or McQueen have been making much of a contribution? It seems unlikely. Each was heading a major Paris couture house and an eponymous label that required a constant flood of catwalk pieces, ready-to-wear, accessories, perfumes and so on. Even keeping an eye on all that as it passed from conception into production and through to retail would have demanded constant attention on the part of the creator. We know, however, that Galliano was so incapacitated through drink that he was discovered hurling anti-Semitic abuse in public, not knowing what he was doing or saying. McQueen, before he died, would fail to turn up to work for two weeks on end, and, if Thomas is to be believed, was spending £600 a night on drugs. So what really were these men contributing? It is an interesting question which this book has no intention of answering. But it’s worth observing that the institutions that McQueen headed moved on very successfully after his death, hardly needing to pause for breath.
Galliano and McQueen arrived from different points in the evolution of London style. Galliano was part of the first generation after punk, and he made his mark in the giant dressing-up-box of pirate-like New Romanticism. McQueen came to prominence a little later, and was more confrontational. If Galliano rode the Adam Ant aesthetic, McQueen dressed the first of the Damien Hirst generation. Both had a theatrical element and working-class London origins. McQueen exploited these, while Galliano chose to skate over them in the process of reinventing himself.
McQueen had some traditional training in tailoring, much stressed in later life as evidence of his capacity for craft. (Actually, he was sacked after a year at Savile Row for not turning up to work). Galliano’s style is much more based in art-school improvisation (or, unkindly, the dressing-up box). McQueen’s work has lasted the better of the two. Galliano’s, to me, seems like a romp through various ill-understood historical periods and bizarre ‘looks’. At one point, he sent out a collection tastelessly inspired by the homeless he occasionally glimpsed under the bridges of Paris. There were, too, the borrowings from random exotic places — by someone who had clearly never heard the word ‘orientalism’. If you were going to wear a sari, why would you buy one from John Galliano? Joan Collins said of one collection: ‘There are great individual pieces — especially if you are going to play Auntie Mame.’
One of the problems with this book is that Galliano and McQueen don’t offer enough of a contrast. Both moved from squalor in squats to bad behaviour in elegant spaces; both had much-trumpeted ‘muses’, who were subsequently dumped; both were surrounded by murderous levels of drug-abuse, which killed Galliano’s associate Steven Robinson as well as contributing to McQueen’s suicide. Galliano’s downfall was drink, which could remove him from business for days at a time.
Both, ones suspects, got the job done with the help of a very hard-working outer circle of assistants who kept an eye on budgets, timetables and other crucial factors. These individuals supply the really interesting story here, but I suspect that McQueen, at least, and his inner circle had little contact with them. In 2004, preparing to launch a menswear line at Barneys, the department store in New York, a McQueen representative conveyed the demand (if Thomas is to be believed) that ‘Alexander will need a room…where he can do his drugs.’ It seemed a quite normal request, unless you had the slightest idea of how department stores are run.
The book doesn’t succeed in elucidating the ultimately puzzling question of when, if a designer turns into a name and then into a house and subsequently into a corporation, his personal decisions are first guessed at, then reconstructed and finally rendered unnecessary to the whole process. This certainly happened in the case of McQueen.
With the author being American, the book also takes the point of view that these clothes were never going to appeal to the conservative and suspicious US market. But that wasn’t where McQueen and Galliano made their mark. Thomas doesn’t really understand the English background at all. It’s absurd to say that McQueen suffered because he was
stubbornly working-class. He was gruff. He maintained his cockney accent, riddled with profanity…. The British fashion establishment did not like him, and quietly wished he would just disappear.
In fact all that was his USP and people couldn’t get enough of it. Bagley’s, the club in King’s Cross, wasn’t remotely ‘seedy’ or dangerous in the 1990s, as Thomas suggests; I used to go dancing there on a Friday night with a lot of lawyers, shirts off. And Thomas can be comically at sea about details: Detmar Blow’s 1914 house is described as ‘rather medieval — armour, pre-Raphaelite tapestries and august portraits of relatives and British royalty’. She might confuse English readers when she explains for the benefit of her American ones that ‘grammar schools were a cross between private school and public school: students wore uniforms, and the education was a rigorous, advanced curriculum, but the tuition was state-funded.’
Galliano once told a Jewish woman, a perfect stranger, that he loved Hitler and that her family should have been gassed. In explanation, it emerged that he was twice over the legal limit for driving in France — which might mean that he had had as much as three or four beers. He was sacked, then reinstated after a spell in rehab, and has been forgiven this outbreak of anti-Semitic abuse. If the house had calculated the value of the controversy in publicity terms, and weighed it up against a few lost clients, it might very well have applauded it.
McQueen is dead — and his house goes from strength to strength, designing a much-admired wedding dress for the Duchess of Cambridge. At least nobody has to worry where he is these days. His ashes are buried on the Isle of Skye, where he’d been a couple of times on holiday. ‘He felt a real connection to the place,’ apparently.