More than two decades ago, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen arrived on the fashions scene when the business was in an artistic and economic rut. Both wanted to revolutionize fashion in a way no one had in decades. They shook the establishment out of its bourgeois, minimalist stupor with daring, sexy designs. They turned out landmark collections in mesmerizing, theatrical shows that retailers and critics still gush about and designers continue to reference.
Their approach to fashion was wildly different – Galliano began as an illustrator, McQueen as a Savile Row tailor. Galliano led the way with his sensual bias-cut gowns and his voluptuous hourglass tailoring, which he presented in romantic storybook-like settings. McQueen, though nearly ten years younger than Galliano, was a brilliant technician and a visionary artist who brought a new reality to fashion, as well as an otherworldly beauty. For his first official collection at the tender age of twenty-three, McQueen did what few in fashion ever achieve: he invented a new silhouette, the Bumster.
They had similar backgrounds: sensitive, shy gay men raised in tough London neighborhoods, their love of fashion nurtured by their doting mothers. Both struggled to get their businesses off the ground, despite early critical success. But by 1997, each had landed a job as creative director for couture houses owned by French tycoon Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH.
Galliano’s and McQueen’s work for Dior and Givenchy and beyond not only influenced fashion; their distinct styles were also reflected across the media landscape. With their help, luxury fashion evolved from a clutch of small, family-owned businesses into a $280 billion-a-year global corporate industry. Executives pushed the designers to meet increasingly rapid deadlines. For both Galliano and McQueen, the pace was unsustainable. In 2010, McQueen took his own life three weeks before his womens’ wear show. The same week that Galliano was fired, Forbes named Arnault the fourth richest man in the world. Two months later, Kate Middleton wore a McQueen wedding gown, instantly making the house the world’s most famous fashion brand, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a wildly successful McQueen retrospective, cosponsored by the corporate owners of the McQueen brand. The corporations had won and the artists had lost.
In her groundbreaking work Gods and Kings, acclaimed journalist Dana Thomas tells the true story of McQueen and Galliano. In so doing, she reveals the revolution in high fashion in the last two decades – and the price it demanded of the very ones who saved it.
After McQueen’s graduation from Central Saint Martins, everyone around him urged him to stage a bona fide fashion show. It was time. McQueen called the collection Nihilism because he said it was about anti-Romanticism. He turned the models into modern punks, bruised and smeared with dirt, their eyes made up to look drug-addict hollow, their hair savage Sid Vicious-like mohawks tinged with red. A crowd of about three hundred filtered into the first-floor warehouse-like room as a sound track of house and riot grrrl music blared on the sound system. When the show started, about half an hour late, the models exploded with a hard attitude and stormed past the crowd as the deejay played Nirvana, L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead”, and Cypress Hill’s “I Wanna Get High”, punctuated with silences. One girl pogo danced all the way down the runway. Another model, a student from Central Saint Martins also named Lee who had a boy/girl look, came out bare chested. Many of the models gave the crowd the finger as they walked by.
Like Galliano for his Saint Martins degree show, McQueen played with the look of Les Merveilleuses, the late-eighteenth-century Frenchwomen who dressed in flowing, pale, sheer gowns. And like when Galliano reprised the look of muslin disease gowns for his Fallen Angels show, McQueen doused models with water to make the dresses cling to their skin. But where Galliano’s versions looked historic and costume-like and would have seemed strange on a woman in the street or at a party, McQueen’s take was defiantly modern and flagrantly sexual: sleek sleeveless ivory columns molded erotically on the breasts as if they were strapped in S&M harnesses, cling-wrap panties, trousers sliced down the back seam to reveal the buttocks, his signature bumster pants with waistlines cut so low the models had to shave their pubic hair backstage. One T-shirt, with his logo printed large across the breasts, had two smeared bloody handprints down the front, as if a violent murderer was leaving his mark on his latest victim.
If Galliano was a romantic, McQueen was a pornographer. The Larry Flynt of Fashion. He didn’t believe anything was off-limits. Nothing – nothing – was taboo. He accepted the brutality of human nature, thought it normal, didn’t try to suppress it. He didn’t want to put women on a pedestal like untouchable, unreachable goddesses. He wanted to empower them. He wanted to help them use the power of their sex to its fullest.
Dana Thomas began her career writing for the Style section of the Washington Post and served for fifteen years as the European cultural and fashion correspondent for Newsweek in Paris. She is a contributing editor for The New York Times Style Magazine and has written for the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Financial Times. She lives in Paris.
Gods and Kings, The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano / Written by Dana Thomas / Published by Penguin Press New York / 432 pages / 29,95$
By Eric Lanuit