John Galliano
Credit: Patrick Demarchelier

Maison Martin Margiela, the 25-year-old Belgian label known for avant-garde creations and an extraordinary professional culture that opposed the fashion industry's obsession with designer personalities, has hired John Galliano to take over its creative direction, confirming widespread reports on the future of the house. But it is a move that is nevertheless shocking.

Since his fall from fashion in 2011, when he was ousted from Christian Dior after making anti-Semitic remarks in a Paris café, Galliano has sought to rebuild his reputation, working with Oscar de la Renta for a season in 2013 and a Russian cosmetics retailer since May. That Galliano would eventually return to the runways seemed likely, though in what form remained an open question. And frankly, I’m less surprised that he is making a comeback than by the fact that Margiela would name a designer at all, which goes against the long-held principles of the founding designer. And Galliano (below, left) is a flamboyant showman, almost the antithesis of Margiela (below, right).

John Galliano for Maison Martin Margiela
Credit: Antonio de Moraes Barros/WireImage; Imaxtree

To put this in context, Margiela, during the prime of his career in the 1990s and 2000s, was almost never quoted in the press, refused to be photographed and responded to press questions only through written answers in the plural "we" form, representing the collaborative nature of the designer’s studio. And yet his work, with raw-edges, exposed construction and even more loopy ideas like backward capes and wigs or masks that obscured the models’ faces on his runway, became hugely influential. He did not even put his name on the label of his clothes.

In 2008, Margiela quietly stepped away from his business, which he had sold to Diesel's Renzo Rosso in 2002, reportedly displeased with efforts to bring more traditional marketing to the company, but also disenchanted with the increasingly corporate nature of fashion. As an example of just how seriously the company took its policy of anonymity, after reporting on Margiela’s departure, I found myself banned from its presentations.

When I returned after a few seasons in the penalty box, the environment had changed substantially. The staff was still dressed in uniform white lab coats, serving trays with plastic cups of white wine, but the mood had shifted. Before, there had been no seating assignments, so the lowliest assistant could be in the front row, and editors in chief gladly sat in the back to witness whatever Margiela's team had dreamed up, a treatise on sex in fashion or, once, a vision of what Barbie clothes would look like if they were blown up to life size.

Now editors sit in assigned seats, and we hear through the grapevine the names of the designers who worked on the collections, like Matthieu Blazy, who was identified after the last couture show, and then left the company. But naming Galliano in an official manner (WWD reports he will show his first collection in January at the couture show) suggests that Rosso has altogether broken with tradition.

Perhaps this was inevitable. As Margiela himself seemed to recognize in his departure, it may no longer be possible to maintain a sense of mystery in an online era, when everything is so easily identifiable. And it will be fascinating to see how Galliano, known for a style of decadent ornamentation, will make the subtle codes of Margiela his own, or if, for that matter, he will even bother.