This Week's Wow: New Book on Two of Fashion's Greatest, Most Tortured Showmen Is More Than a Delicious Read
In this weekly feature, InStyle’s Fashion News Director Eric Wilson shares his favorite fashion moment of the week, and explains how it could shape styles to come. Look for it on What’s Right Now every Friday.
The Moment: I’ve spent the last couple of weeks with my nose buried deep in Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, journalist Dana Thomas’s extraordinarily detailed recounting of two of fashion’s greatest, and most tortured, showmen. There are many parallels between the lives of the English designers—both came to prominence during an intense period of fashion in the 1990s, when creative genius flourished alongside the rapid globalization of the fashion industry. And their downfalls were equally astonishing, with McQueen’s suicide in 2010, and Galliano’s shocking outbursts in 2011 that cost him his job at Christian Dior.
Thomas’s first book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster, published in 2007, is required reading for anyone interested in the mechanics and changing dynamics of fashion. In a sense, Gods and Kings picks up where Deluxe left off, recounting the unexpected psychological impacts on these designers from a business that grew faster than either could have possibly imagined. “It became obvious to me that the balance between art and commerce was out of whack,” Thomas says (pictured, below). “They were part of a magical moment in fashion, and their endings came at a time when this disconnect was at its most profound.”
Why It’s a Wow: More than a delicious read, Gods and Kings (coming from Penguin Press, Feb. 10) gives some perspective to the conditions and pressures facing each designer, so here, I’ll give the floor to Thomas.
Why did this subject interest you? When Alexander McQueen died, I wrote a little piece for Newsweek about why I thought he was so great. Then a year later I wrote about John Galliano’s downfall for The Washington Post, including a paragraph about the bad spate of news for designers. Tom Ford had told me after he left Gucci that he suffered depression. Marc Jacobs, who lived in my apartment building in Paris, was at his nadir, and wound up in rehab twice. I had just read about the kid at Balmain who cracked up and went on leave, then I’m writing about John and McQueen and I thought "Yikes."
We always say you need three examples for a story, and I’ve got five in one paragraph. Everyone was talking about the pressure on designers, being on this hamster wheel that kept spinning faster and faster and faster. Eventually you get flung off the wheel into this heap of dung.
Has the pressure on designers really changed that much? In 1977, Louis Vuitton had two stores. Now there are hundreds of them. The business had gone more global and it had gone more corporate, and a lot of things were lost along the way. The designers were not able to keep up. John, when he started, did two collections a year, and by the time he was done at Dior, he was up to 32. That’s an insane pace to try to keep up at the level of creativity he liked to invest into it. All of these designers at their core were artists. People say fashion isn’t an art, but it takes a creative soul to be a designer.
What were some of the big surprises you discovered? I was surprised how hands-on both of them were. John was personally dying fabrics in the bathtub of his studio in the East End for his first collection. I knew McQueen had great technical skills. He once asked his interns what they were studying in school. It was how Balenciaga could make a garment with one invisible seam. McQueen said, “That’s easy.” The next morning, the interns walked in, and McQueen had stayed up all night and made that. He could do that just by looking at a picture.
You talked about McQueen’s discovery of his HIV diagnosis in the book. How important do you think that was to his state of mind? To me, his career made so much more sense post the infection, the idea that his career had a finite ending in his mind. He became even more fearless, and his suicide made more sense to me, his drug addiction made more sense to me. In his mind it was a terminal illness and he didn’t want to face that kind of ending. As he told a friend, he would never live to be an old man, or as he put it, “Gays don’t do old well.”
Alexander McQueen would never live to be an old man, or as he put it, “Gays don’t do old well.”
How much do you think their personal struggles were reflected in the work they did? With both of them, if you really look at their clothes, it becomes a diary. John’s new show for Margiela, those shoes that are half black and half white, that’s like showing his good side and his bad side. The seashells and the found objects were an homage to Amanda Harlech. She used to send them to him from the beach to inspire him. I also felt there were nods to McQueen, like those Mexican death masks, and the mussel shells he used as a trim on tunics.
You draw many parallels between the two men, but what are their most important differences? McQueen rightly said that John was the romantic and he was the realist. John wanted to put women up on pedestals, make them goddesses, make men desire them. McQueen was a realist. He wanted to make clothes for today, not some dreamy existence we all wish we had.
Will we ever see that kind of creativity in fashion again? I don’t think we will see it on that global level. When Deluxe came out, fashion was at a crossroads, where you had the big groups that were only going to get bigger and become the Apples, Coca-Colas and Nikes of the fashion world. The logo would become what was important, not the designer. These companies are gigantic now. They sell billions of dollars of products all over the world and some are beginning to feel a bit of pain from this extraordinary expansion. In that environment, you just can’t have someone as creative and experimental as McQueen or Galliano, because you need to keep selling clothes that will fit Chinese women, Italian women, Brazilian women and look right in all those places.
What do you make of Galliano’s new job as creative director at Maison Margiela? It’s one of those small little places that would still allow for creativity. I thought it was interesting John didn’t use his own money to start something small, but chose to be bound by the codes of someone else. It might be a moment of insecurity. He might not be completely sure of his creative voice. This is a way for him to work back and find his voice. He always said, since the first time I met him in 1994, that he wanted to have his own couture house, and I know he hasn’t given up on that idea. I think he’ll finally get there, but he’s taking baby steps, and part of that is working at an established house with an in-house team.
So what is the future of fashion? If I knew I would cash in. John’s going to be fine at Margiela. As for fashion, in general, I can’t imagine these brands getting any bigger than they have. I’ve always wondered, is there a tipping point? There is a moment where you do saturate the market, and there is nothing special about your product any more. In luxury fashion, the whole pitch is that this is something special. So that day it isn’t special any more, it’s done for.