Fashion, addiction, antisemitism: the spectacular rise and fall of designer John Galliano

<span>System of a gown … John Galliano in a scene from High & Low.</span><span>Photograph: Nicholas Matthews</span>
System of a gown … John Galliano in a scene from High & Low.Photograph: Nicholas Matthews

One weekend in the mid-2000s John Galliano, then in his pomp as the king of Paris fashion, whose beautiful dresses and wild catwalk shows had transformed the house of Christian Dior into pop-cultural dynamite, came back to London for a weekend. He checked into the Ritz, where he proceeded to get so drunk that he spent four hours naked in a lift, telling guests who tried to enter that he was a lion, and warning them off with a growl. The Ritz called his office in Paris, who apologised, offering to cover the bills of any guests who had been inconvenienced. The following week Galliano was back at work.

This story is one of many jaw-dropping moments in Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary, High & Low: John Galliano. This is not a trajectory that tends to end happily – and indeed, we already know where and when this story came to its particularly nasty end: in La Perle bar in Paris, in February 2011, when a wasted Galliano was filmed making a string of racist and antisemitic remarks that included allusions to the gas chambers, and saying “I love Hitler”. Fired from his job, condemned by the media, convicted and fined by a French court, he disappeared into rehab and obscurity. Ahead of the curve as ever, he was one of the first celebrities to be “cancelled” by the social media age, before that phrase was in common parlance.

Galliano, now a decade sober, spent five days talking to Macdonald’s camera. “I’m going to tell you everything,” he says at the start. Lean, tanned and ponytailed, he could be a yoga instructor in a high-end Ibiza resort. But there is theatre, still, in the Jack Sparrow dandy flair of his slicked-back hair, and an extraordinary voice, which lurches from the speaking clock to the Peckham vowels of Only Fools and Horses.

High & Low is a hair-raising portrait of addiction, and a breakneck joyride down memory lane into one of the most colourful chapters in fashion history. We begin with the boy who arrived in Streatham from Gibraltar with parents horrified by his homosexuality, and found his calling as one of Central Saint Martins’ greatest ever prodigies. Footage from his early shows is sublime. In one, models with frowsy hair totter along the catwalk in clogs, clutching – for reasons not explained – dead mackerel. Kate Moss remembers him teaching her how to walk: shoulders back, pelvis thrust forward. Galliano explains the technique that made his slip dresses so sexy, cutting fabric on the bias so that it twists on the wearer, the fibres melting at the points where fabric catches skin, so that the dress drips off the body like butter from hot toast.

But never mind the bias cutting. What made Galliano a genius was that his clothes could make you catch feelings. Even in grainy film of low-budget shows, every single model looks electric, as if their personality has been plugged into the mains. He makes fashion that sounds ridiculous on the page – shipwrecked flamenco dancer goes clubbing, anyone? – but which is, somehow, a joy to behold.

Alcohol is a menace from the start of the film. Moss laughs it off in classic British fashion – “We’re both a bit shy and awkward, till we’ve had a drink” – but a youthful habit of crashing from the high of a fashion event into a solo bender, spending days locked in a room alone drinking and watching videos of the show, descends into serious abuse.

Galliano was in no state of mind to pack a bag and check into rehab, and no one took it upon themselves to intervene

We see Galliano the day after his father’s funeral in 2003, preparing for a show, his voice slurred, his pupils enormous. In 2007, his close friend and colleague Steven Robinson was found dead in his Paris apartment with seven grams of cocaine in his system, a loss that floored the already fragile Galliano. Valium, bromides, amphetamines and sleeping pills were added to the drink habit, and he “couldn’t go to bed without all my bottles lined up by the bed”, he says. “I was committing suicide, slowly.”

The 1990s and 2000s were the era when fashion exploded from a niche industry into a pop-cultural juggernaut. Galliano, riding that wave, was swept way out of his depth. We see the industry bloating, the celebrities and photographers multiplying, and Galliano himself increasingly losing touch with reality. I remember being backstage after a Dior show in the mid-2000s, trying to find Galliano for a quote, eventually locating him cut off from the revelry, cloistered in a private VVIP room, flanked by two enormous security guards and attended by an assistant whose job was to light his endless cigarettes.

Sidney Toledano, the boss of Dior, says on screen that Galliano was offered six months off to get better; Galliano says he doesn’t remember such an offer. But it’s a moot point; in the grip of addiction – to alcohol and also, perhaps, to fashion, or to the high drama of his job – Galliano was in no state of mind to pack a bag and check himself into rehab, and no one around him took it upon themselves to intervene.

When news of Galliano’s outburst broke in 2011, I was waiting for a New York fashion week show to start, in a room packed with fashion journalists, and we all shared the same reaction: John Galliano off his head and behaving erratically, par for the course, but racist and antisemitic? Surely not.By now, Galliano had become an overblown figure, his aesthetic tipping into pantomime. He would take his end-of-show bow dressed as an astronaut or a prizefighter, or as Lt Pinkerton from Madame Butterfly, complete with thigh-high leather boots and feathered hat. While the vibe had become a bit Masked Singer, there had been no sign of malice to it.

But it soon became clear that Galliano had indeed been the unprovoked instigator of odious abuse. He was exiled from fashion – but not for long. He designed Moss’s wedding dress the same year, a project he called his “creative rehab”.

The fashion world does not come off well in Macdonald’s film. The swift brushing aside of his behaviour does not sit well with an industry that claims to hold diversity dear. Naomi Campbell grandly bats away the entire incident by declaring that she has never watched the video, as if that closes the matter.

Galliano's psychiatrist theorises that he reached, seemingly at random, for a hateful stereotype in our culture

Frustratingly for the viewer – and, you imagine, for Macdonald – neither Galliano nor anyone around him seem to know where the antisemitism he expressed came from. His ranting descends without warning from playground taunts about being ugly into vile racism. A rabbi who has worked with Galliano to educate him notes that he seemed to know very little about the Holocaust, and to have given little thought either to Judaism or to antisemitism. His psychiatrist theorises that he reached, seemingly at random, for a hateful stereotype in our culture. Toledano, who is Jewish, hypothesises that antisemitism might have been embedded somewhere in his Spanish Catholic upbringing.

The film offers no easy answers either to the psychological question of what made Galliano do what he did, or to the linked moral one of whether he should be forgiven. There are exterior shots of Galliano looking vaguely pensive and a bit of chat about being in recovery for the rest of his life, but he seems as nonplussed as everyone else about what happened. He does not seem a bad man, but there is a certain carelessness to him. He says he apologised to Philippe Virgitti, one of the people he hurled insults at, but Virgitti denies this, and Galliano shows little concern for Virgitti’s evident pain.

As fate would have it, the release of the film coincides with a catwalk comeback by Galliano. In January, he staged a show under a bridge in Paris for Martin Margiela, the house for which he has designed since 2014. It was greeted with a thunderous, foot-stamping, five-minute standing ovation and hailed by critics as a return to form. Toulouse-Lautrec and Brassaï references, corsets and merkins, breathtaking porcelain-effect peel-off makeup all made for a show that “will surely be remembered in history books, collected by museums, pored over by design students – and possibly extinguish the quiet luxury juggernaut with the tsunami of powerful emotions and fashion thrills it unleashed,” wrote Women’s Wear Daily. The New York Times noted that “it has been a while since anyone had experienced a world-building show quite like it”. Galliano told Macdonald that he wasn’t doing the film to be forgiven, but rather to be “a little more understood”.

I’m not sure Galliano is any more understood than he is forgiven. But he might be back in fashion regardless.

High & Low: John Galliano is in cinemas in the UK, US and Ireland from 8 March.