The Real Reason Why the Fashion World Is Shocked Over Galliano and Margiela

Left Christian Dior Couture 2003, Maison Martin Margiela 2012

"It’s so ABSURD and WRONG," an outraged friend, a top fashion stylist, emailed me yesterday after hearing the news that mad genius designer John Galliano, who dazzled Dior’s runways for 15 years with eye-poppingly frothy confections before torching his career with drunken anti-Semitic remarks, would become the new creative head at the avant-minimal Belgian house Maison Martin Margiela, or MMM.

"On every level this is WRONG," my friend wrote. "Truly, it’s a fashion tragedy."

But lest you think my friend, who is Jewish, was outraged that Galliano was being given a second chance helming a top house after being fired from Dior in 2011 after drunkenly making anti-Semitic remarks to patrons at Paris hotspot La Perle , think again. My friend is over that. “He’s made public apologies and is dealing with his illness,” meaning his alcoholism and addiction issues, my friend said. (Galliano’s been going to 12-step meetings since being disgraced.) “What he did was wrong, but this doesn’t mean he should never work again.”

There’s another reason why my stylist friend—and so many other fashion followers – are, at best, discombobulated by Margiela’s appointment of Galliano – and, at worst, horrified and dismayed. It’s because they see the match as the likely end of everything pure, austere and rigorous they love about Margiela, which has long favored brainy, subdued deconstruction of classic tailoring over aesthetic embellishment, and creative anonymity over a cult of personality. (To wit: Martin Margiela, the house’s founder who stepped away in 2008, hardly ever revealed himself publicly; Galliano ends his shows by swashbuckling onto the runway in an outrageous outfit.)

"It’s just bizarre," said Kelly Cutrone, the fashion publicist who’s no stranger to fashionista-as-celebrity. (She’s got yet another TV show.) “I loved Galliano as Galliano, but asking him to design for Margiela would be like Yohji Yamamoto designing Dolce & Gabbana, or asking a rock star to do EDM. Galliano’s flamboyant, over the top – he’s all about attitude and winks and fan kicks and swag. Margiela’s all about line and nothingness and space and structure. It’s like the difference between Neutra and Gaudi,” she said, naming two diametrically opposed architects. “I don’t think it’s a good deal from a business standpoint.”

So then why did it happen? On Galliano’s end, it’s easy to understand: Other than his de la Renta stint and designing Kate Moss’ wedding dress, he hasn’t worked much the past three years and probably has been chomping at the bit to land a creative helm at a major house. (And Margiela, in its own avant-garde way, is as high-end as Dior, a darling among serious fashion people.) “He’s probably anxious to get back to work,” said Fern Mallis, international fashion consultant and the founder of New York Fashion Week.

But on Margiela’s end, insiders feel it reflects the desire of Renzo Rosso, the fashion magnate and Diesel founder who owns MMM (along with Viktor & Rolf and Marni), to take the brand beyond rarefied fashion-insider status and into the big leagues. “They’re looking for a way to put it on the map in a really big way,” said Mallis.

Longtime fashion scribe Robin Givhan, who covered the news for the Washington Post, agreed. “Clearly there’s a fundamental decision to shift the philosophy of the house,” she said. “The mere fact of appointing a noted designer says that you want media attention.” (Margiela wouldn’t even release the identity of its last lead designer, Matthieu Blazy, but then writer Suzy Menkes unmasked him.)

"It’s certainly about going splashier," she added. "Even if Galliano decided he was going to design black choir robes, I don’t think it would be understated." Givhan said she understood the uproar. "People are surprised, dismayed, jarred." Not least my stylist friend, who adores conceptual fashion untainted by commercial motivations. "On every level this is wrong," she continued, speaking anonymously so she could sound off without career repercussions. "Their ideas of showmanship are totally contrary, their public versus private personas! Galliano is about theatrics, melodrama in the presentation, ego and construction in the work. His clothes are costumes better suited to the opera. If you said he was going to do Gaultier, I may get my head around it—but not Margiela! Martin was the non-showman, always off the beaten track, unconventional in every way, beating his own solitary drum.”

Of course, what feels like a train wreck of an idea to passionate purists comes as an utterly intriguing proposition to other parties, especially buyers and editors.”This is a surprising choice by MMM and I couldn’t have predicted it,” Nina Garcia, the creative director of Marie Claire well-known to TV audiences for her judge role on Project Runway, emailed me, seeming to choose her words carefully. “However, Galliano is supremely talented, and watching the evolution of the brand will be fascinating.”

She was echoed by Ken Downing, Neiman-Marcus’ fashion director. “I think it’s great for Margiela and great for Galliano,” he said. “He’s a very talented man and his reentry into the industry was obviously going to take place at some point. It’ll be very interesting to see John’s ideas translate at MMM, a house that’s known for taking tailoring as common as a menswear suit and turning it upside-down and inside-out.”

The business savvy of the move was not lost on Downing, either. “Overnight,” he said, “MMM is on everybody’s lips because John is arriving there.” (It helps when you have Kanye West tweeting his excitement about the new match-up.) Certainly Margiela made greater waves with the news than if they’d appointed someone rumored to have been under consideration, as Haider Ackermann was a few years ago. Givhan says she thought a more likely choice would have been Yang Li, a hot young Chinese designer who shares with Margiela a minimal, architectural sensibility.

Many observers said they could not think of more shocking house-designer news in recent years except for certain high-profile departures, such as Raf Simons’ exit from Jil Sander or Nicolas Ghesquière’s from Balenciaga.

But one thing is clear: Everyone in the biz – including my outraged stylist friend – is intrigued, to say the least, at what Galliano will unveil for Margiela during the couture shows in January. Already, fashion folk are dreaming about what a Galliano-Margiela DNA hybrid could look like.

Givhan said she wanted to see more than the sum of the two parts. “I’m not looking for gene-splicing,” she said. “I want to see a uniquely new entity, not Galliano just doing a riff on a Margiela label and turning it into a sport jacket. It would seem that by bringing in such a distinctive person, you’d want something wholly new.”

Of course, aside from aesthetics, the question remains: Can Galliano reenter the pressure cooker of the collections calendar without imploding again? Most observers agree that his past few years out of the biz appear to have been therapeutic for him.

Paper magazine editorial director Mickey Boardman, himself sober, has a few words of advice for Galliano: “Go to A.A.! And focus on your work.” He added, “John needs to show that the people who believed in him were right.”