Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Fashion's "Magical Moment" Recounted

Timed to the paperback release of her book, Pret-a-Reporter spoke to the New York Times best-selling author and fashion journalist about her inspiration behind the piece, the research process ("to write smartly about the end, I had to thoroughly understand the beginning") and what made Galliano and McQueen different from the likes of Karl Largerfeld, Alexander Wang and Riccardo Tisci.

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Why did you pick Alexander McQueen and John Galliano to do a biography/non-fiction book on? Was it them who fascinated you, or the time in fashion?

While working on a story about John’s downfall, I found myself writing a paragraph about other designers who had cracked or had serious addiction issues in recent years, most notably McQueen. And I thought, there’s something going on here. I talked to my book editor in London and it occurred to me that they were victims of the pressures of globalization in the luxury fashion business. They were no longer designers; they were managers, jobs for which they were never trained and didn’t really want — and it was just too much. And they were stuck on a hamster wheel they just couldn’t get off. McQueen killed himself; Galliano mixed prescription meds with alcohol. Galliano has said in a recent interview that had he not been fired and sent to rehab he believes he, too, would have been dead within six months.

I chose these two to spotlight because they had similar backgrounds — sons of London’s working class (McQueen’s father was a black cab driver, Galliano’s a plumber), they both went to Central Saint Martins art school and both got their big break from the same man, Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH, and for the same job — the designer for Givenchy — successively. And both imploded within a year of each other.

I had interviewed and written about both a lot during my 25 years covering fashion; I had followed them since their early years and had kept all my notes, press kits and clippings. I discovered a treasure trove in my basement. So it just made sense to turn it all into a book.

COUTURE WORLD: Galliano on stage at a Dior Haute Couture show. (Photo: Penguin Press)

How do you think their working-class families drew both designers to the dramatic and romantic? Do you think there was something about being gay in working-class environments that could have ignited a love of beauty and esthetics and a heightened world — a world of the imagination?

Galliano has long said that to escape the bullying he endured at his English grammar school he would retreat into a far more beautiful dream world. He was and is a gifted illustrator, a real artist at heart — which was finally nurtured at Saint Martins.

McQueen grew up in a violent household — his sister was married to an abusive man, and he was molested as a boy (it is said by the same man). As a child, he drew dresses and read up on designers, and he helped his sisters figure out what to wear. He said he wanted them to look strong, that clothes should be like an armor, which is something that he later carried on into his work as a designer. But more importantly, he was a visualist — he talked often about wanting to be a photographer and he had an extraordinary eye. He was a keen observer, and his work was always — always — a commentary on society. I wish he had become a photographer; maybe as a second act, since he was hoping to leave fashion. He could have been as powerful and important as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Capa. Instead, to a great loss for us all, he took his life.

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When I saw you in Decades [Cameron Silver's vintage shop in Los Angeles], you said you had saved all your fashion programs and interviews from many years. What did you find in there that really helped you with the book? How is it you came to save all of that?

Well, as a foreign correspondent back in the early 1990s, I quickly learned if you wanted to have a research library you had to build your own. It wasn’t like when I worked in the Washington Post newsroom and when I needed clips I just walked over the research center and asked someone to pull them or do a Nexis search for me. So I clipped, filed and saved stories pertaining to stories I might write, so I could have some background when the story would come up.

Plus, when you are covering fashion, you see the fall-winter shows in March and the spring-summer shows in October; then six months later, you’d have to write a trend piece about the clothes showing up in the stores. This was before Google, and YouTube; if you wanted to look up what you saw six months earlier, you had to have it on file, and have your notebooks within reach.

So each fashion week, I’d have a file on my desk, and all week long, I’d stuff clips from WWD, the IHT, Paris-Match and the French papers in it, as well as invitations, press kits, slide sheets and photo handouts, and my notebooks. And once the season was done, I’d put it in a filing cabinet in the basement storeroom. Because when I wanted to do a profile on John Galliano, and talk about that amazing Pin-Up show of October 1995, I’d have everything from it. And there it all sat, like a time capsule, ever since. And then I went down and started pawing through it to work on my proposal and it was like a gold mine. Interviews at shows I’d forgotten I’d done — asking what Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw thought of Galliano’s Dior couture show based on S&M; Joan Collins weighing in on Galliano’s first Givenchy show; Nicole Kidman talking from the set of Eyes Wide Shut about how much she loved Galliano’s clothes — that really made the book sing.

I learned this system, by the way, from my first boss, Nina Hyde, the legendary fashion editor of the Washington Post. She left her papers to FIT, and her successor Robin Givhan used them as research for her book The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History. I guess I’ll someday leave it all to a school, too.

EARLY YEARS: McQueen and Béatrice Dalle at Givenchy Prêt-à-Porter (Photo: Penguin Press)

Whom did you interview to find out so many details on the personal lives of McQueen and Galliano?

In addition to all that archival material I had, I spoke to about 200 people, including just about everyone who worked for Galliano in the 1980s, most of McQueen’s early assistants, McQueen’s nephew who worked with him, their trusted collaborators (and dear friends) Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones; former boyfriends, former press assistants, retailers who sold their clothes early on, former employees, backers and bosses; fellow designers such as Tom Ford; just about anyone you can think of. I had a color-coded Excel spreadsheet to keep it all straight.

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The difference, I think, is because there are two types of designers: those who design beautiful clothes, like artists who paint beautiful pictures, and those who invest their soul, who use their work to tell their own personal story, like parables — who essentially vomit out these creations. (Sorry to be so vulgar).

Galliano and McQueen were like the second sort. Creating collections was like some sort of exorcism for them at times. Designers like Alber, Karl, Alexander and Dries do not let their emotional selves get all tangled up in it; they do their work and then they go home at the end of the day. Karl, in addition, isn’t telling his story; he’s telling Coco Chanel’s. They are also good managers: good at telling other people what to do; they don’t feel possessed to do it all themselves. In the early days, Galliano hand-dyed the fabrics to the exact hue he wanted; he was obsessive about controlling the design process.

I’ve been to a Chanel fitting. Karl sits behind a desk, regards the outfit on the model before him and tells the atelier heads what he wants done. Then they whisk it off to the atelier and do it. There’s a strict protocol and hierarchy that he respects — which is the old-school couture system. He doesn’t get on his hands and knees with scissors and pins and fix things himself. Galliano and McQueen did.

ROGUE DESIGNER: Galliano flicking off camera in a 1993 portrait (Photo: Penguin Press)

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You spent four years doing the research and writing this book. How much time was spent writing? How does one set about doing this exhaustive research?

I was writing all along the way. From day one to the last day. As I reported, I wrote. I reported and wrote in chronological order, too, because to write smartly about the end, I had to thoroughly understand the beginning; plus those early days reporting led me to the right places.

Of course, by doing this, the last months were hard and depressing, because I had three suicides in the closing chapters — not easy to write, I can assure you. There were times I wished I could change the ending; that I could see the signposts now, and wanted to shout to everyone involved, "Can’t you see what’s coming?!" That’s hindsight. And it was heart-wrenching.

I wrote a 300,000-word manuscript. We cut it to 130,000 words. In six weeks.

A number of the British reviews insinuate that you disliked your subjects, and wanted to expose their sordid underbellies — but I'm sure you don't feel like that. What is your comeback or response to them?

I cried over these two; I felt their pain — and my God, did they have pain. I cared about them deeply. You can’t be a good biographer and not. I respect immensely their talent — it was like having Matisse and Picasso at the same time — and call the period they reigned "a magical moment.” That’s why I spent so much time writing about their creative process; I was and am in awe of it and wanted others to see and understand what they invested in their work. I wanted this book to be an elegy. And I think it is.

You can pick up the paperback version of the book now; $18, at