John Galliano on the runway after his spring 2008 Christian Dior haute couture show in Paris. Photo: Corbis
At the 87th Academy Awards, in a sea of pale, embellished dresses, Cate Blanchett—revered the world over for her fearless, forward-thinking fashion choices—stood out in a simple, black form-fitting gown. But what really made headlines was the name of the designer she chose to wear: John Galliano for Maison Margiela.
“We reached out [to Maison Margiela] because of John [Galliano]’s history with Cate,” Blanchett’s stylist Elizabeth Stewart told Yahoo Style about the duo’s decision to wear the controversial designer last night. “He made Cate’s very first award show dress, so there is a special relationship there.” Indeed, Blanchett was a relative unknown in 1999 when Galliano designed a custom embroidered gown for her first turn on the Oscars red carpet. The dress put Blanchett on the map as a fashion risk-taker; it is still considered one of the best Oscar fashion moments.
On Sunday, Blanchett returned the favor. Her endorsement on the most important red carpet of the year is a major coup for Galliano, cementing his return to the spotlight. Thanks to support from A-listers like Blanchett, Rihanna, and Jennifer Aniston (all of whom have recently worn his designs), and public support from industry icon Anna Wintour since his dismissal (she also wore a Galliano for Margiela dress to the British Fashion Awards), not to mention positive critical reviews of his debut Maison Margiela collection, John Galliano’s comeback strategy is working.
Cate Blanchett at the Academy Awards in 1999, and 2015. Photos: Getty Images
It hasn’t been an easy road for the designer. After he was arrested in February 2011 for making anti-Semitic and racist remarks (a criminal offense in France), industry insiders were swift to condemn the once-revered designer. By March, just a few weeks later, Galliano had been fired from his posts at Dior and John Galliano, and publicly denounced by everyone from Dior CEO Sidney Toledano to Natalie Portman, a face of the brand. Several retailers dropped his namesake line and in September 2011, he was found guilty in a French court of slander. A year later, he was stripped of his Legion of Honor Award, France’s highest honor which was granted to him in 2010.
During all of this, Galliano remained mostly silent. Shortly after his dismissal, he released an apology and quietly entered rehab. Though certain industry big wigs came out in support of Galliano—Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani famously told Dior to “hire him back” and Kate Moss enlisted the designer to create her wedding gown—his future within the industry remained uncertain (at best). Even in July 2013, over two years after the scandal, Vanity Fair writer Ingrid Sischy wondered whether Galliano’s “brilliant career…could ever be repaired,” adding that “the stain [of his remarks] will be with him forever.”
Galliano’s cautious efforts to return to fashion have been met with mixed reactions. When Oscar de la Renta welcomed the designer into his studio in January 2013 (at the behest of Anna Wintour), it looked like the industry might finally be ready to forgive. But then he was photographed leaving the atelier wearing what the New York Post misconstrued (some might say deliberately) as Hasidic garb, and a new wave of outrage began. Though the Anti-Defamation League defended Galliano, certain influential members of the Jewish community, including Sandy Schreier, one of the world’s biggest collectors of couture fashion, publicly voiced their offense. Similarly, when Parsons announced in April 2013 that the designer would be teaching a master class at the prestigious school, a petition sprung up almost immediately demanding that the institution drop him. It eventually garnered over 2,000 signatures. A few weeks later, Parsons cancelled the class.
Rihanna wore a Galliano for Margiela Artisanal suit on stage at the 2015 Grammy Awards. Photo: Getty Images
This time, however, there seems to be a tightly controlled strategy in place—and it’s working. In October 2014, Galliano was named creative director of Maison Margiela and reactions were largely positive. When he showed his first couture (they’re calling it artisanal) collection for the brand this January, critics agreed: Galliano’s hotly-anticipated comeback was a success. Vogue UK’s Suzy Menkes wrote that “the return of John Galliano to the catwalk must be welcomed by anyone who loves the glory of the extraordinary.” Style.com’s Tim Blanks described the scene at the end of the show like this: “He’s back, everyone cried… palpable excitement overwhelming the sense of relief.”
“I am thrilled he is back,” said Mel Ottenberg, Rihanna’s longtime stylist, who dressed the stylish songstress in one of Galliano’s vintage designs last July and put her in Margiela Artisanal for her performance at this year’s Grammys. “Nobody knows how to cut on the bias like John Galliano. Bias cutting can be so elegant and flattering on the red carpet. In the right hands it can also be daring and cool. I’m sure we will be seeing such cuts in Maison Margiela that just aren’t available out there right now. I wish him all the best personally and look forward to using his designs when I style.”
“As an institution, I believe that fashion needs Galliano,” said Leandra Medine of influential blog Man Repeller. “He is one of the few remaining fantasies in this industry. We need storytellers to share their visions and pick us up out of our own circumstances—you know? As a Jew, I forgive him.”
A look from Galliano’s debut collection for Martin Margiela. Photo: Getty Images
Fashion VIPs might support his comeback, but it’s stars like Blanchett and Aniston, who have to carefully consider their public image, declaring the designer safe enough to wear on the red carpet, who have secured his place in the game. After all, the biggest question of Galliano’s comeback has always been whether or not the public—rather than the fashion industry—could forgive him. Though insiders seemed to understand that Galliano’s comments stemmed from drug and alcohol abuse, to the casual fashion observer the designer’s name is still closely associated with anti-Semitism. In fact, many people outside of fashion, probably never heard of the designer before the scandal.
“I think for a time, stylists were scared to use him,” said one celebrity stylist, who wished to remain anonymous. “There was the worry that the press or the public would take it as some sort of anti-Semitic statement, even if people in the industry no longer feel that’s true of him. You want the focus to be on your client; you don’t want to risk the conversation being about a controversy connected with the designer.” If one thing’s clear, it’s that that is no longer the case.
Jennifer Aniston in vintage John Galliano at the 2015 SAG Awards. Photo: Getty Images
But how did Galliano manage to turn his image around? He’s obviously got talent on his side. But according to the Anti-Defamation League, it’s his commitment to making amends—from meeting with rabbis to Holocaust survivors, and offering to do volunteer work in Israel—that has inspired forgiveness. “From every interaction we have had with him, it is clear that Mr. Galliano has made a very positive effort to redeem himself,” said ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman (his son, Ariel, is Editorial Director at InStyle). “It is because of this effort that I am willing to stand up for him and to say, ‘Let’s give him a second chance.’”
Foxman and Wintour are only a handful of highly influential people who have gone to bat for Galliano. And that’s the beauty of the designer’s comeback: In all of this, Galliano has remained remarkably silent on the issue, only granting two interviews (one to Vanity Fair, one to Charlie Rose). It’s a trick he no doubt picked up from famed publicist Liz Rosenberg, who, unsurprisingly, declined to give comment for this story: Galliano has never explicitly asked for forgiveness; instead, he’s shown to the world—through hard work, and steadfast commitment—that he’s worthy of forgiveness.