If John Galliano, the designer at Dior, were not so recognizably talented, he might be considered a joke.
For every show he changes his look, and his guises are as varied as Cindy Sherman's. On the day of the recent Costume Institute gala at the Met, he slipped into a booth at the Four Seasons wearing a well cut, if severe, brown pinstripe suit and a snap-brim cap. Four hours later, materially transformed by sequins and golden curls, Juan Carlos Antonio Galliano looked like Davy Crockett in drag. The bloggers went to town.
But there is the fact of his talent, which rises up to greet you like a brick wall. It is unavoidably great. In two decades, he has staged at least half a dozen shows that people still vividly remember.
These include the 1993 Princess Lucretia show in which he used electrical wire to give his skirts swing; a 1994 show in an empty Paris mansion in which all the dresses were made from black satin-backed crepe (it was a fabric he could afford and it could be used on both sides); the 1999 Matrix show, at Versailles, in which he offended Dior's old clients and established the house's modernity; and the 2000 hobo show that put fashion on the front page.
He is one of the few designers working today who actually knows how to cut cloth. If your daughter is wearing a bias-cut prom dress this spring, it is largely because years ago Galliano pushed manufacturers to try the technique on an industrial scale. His clothes have been judged unwearable and, more recently, overly commercial and safe. But as with all far-sighted talent, the judgments are eventually reversed. What once looked unwearable now seems ordinary, and what once seemed banal now looks right.
On May 15, Galliano was in New York to present Dior's resort collection. Though resort clothes don't get (or deserve) the news media attention of couture and ready-to-wear, Dior decided to make an event of it, inviting fashionistas as well as movie people, like Spike Lee and the producer Harvey Weinstein, and feeding them baked potatoes with caviar and Champagne at a dinner afterward. Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which owns Dior, flew from Paris with his wife, Hilhne, as did the editors of French Vogue and Le Figaro.
To the Hollywood guests, the scene at the show must have had an ancient regime quality despite the modern setting of the LVMH Tower on East 57 Street. "I don't know how you do it," a Hollywood guest said with a grin to a journalist. "You're always looking at the same people at these shows. They never change!"
Well, in a way this is also Galliano's problem. How does a maverick at age 46 perform magic when those judging him remember the old tricks, and even occasionally complain he was better then? And how does Galliano satisfy his own creativity when he has to feed a global business, its annual sales approaching US$1 billion, with more than 200 stores and new customers who suddenly and perceptibly don't care about what a glamorous windbag in New York thinks about his genius cutting?
Like the Artful Dodger, whose sense of freedom he transmits in both his own style and his runway collections, Galliano has an instinct for survival. A couple of years ago, when he started showing more conventional-looking clothes, along with handbags, many people took this as a sign that, at least in his ready-to-wear shows, he had finally been reined in by Dior executives.