Some called it a match that shouldn’t have been made. But many are fervently supporting the return of one of fashion’s biggest dreamers. Did John Galliano thrill with his debut collection for the house that Martin Margiela built?
By Raiment Young
John Galliano’s languorous trek back to fashion via Maison Martin Margiela wasn’t entirely met with approval. Sure, many raved—the everyone’s-great fashion flock, in particular—but there were those, such as I, who were concerned that Mr Galliano might attempt to re-write MMM’s house codes too aggressively. Mr Galliano is, after all, the polar opposite of Mr Margiela. One loved the spotlight so much that he seemed to wallow in it, while the other shunned the spotlight to the point of being reclusive (leaving his own house in 2009 without ceremony). One loved dramatic, over-the-top presentations, the other bland; sometimes nearly clinical showings. And one embraced histrionics and historicism with near-operatic passion, the other held close deconstructionism and witticism with inscrutable zeal.
Last Monday, in London, Mr Galliano offered no rancor-as-response to his earlier fall from grace. Instead, he put out a 24-piece collection that allowed design to do the talking. He even took a very meek curtain call: a mere peep, by his own standards! Let the clothes be upfront, he seemed to say. Whether this is to keep things as quiet as the public face of Maison Martin Margiela, it wasn’t quite clear. As it stands, MMM is now shortened to MM or Maison Margiela, a move that echoes what Hedi Slimane did for Yves Saint Laurent, as if dropping the first name allows one to start with a clean slate. There have been attempts to understand why the show—the Artisanal collection (the house’s take on haute couture, formerly helmed by Matthieu Blazy, who, following Mr Galliano’s appointment, was reported to have moved to Céline)—was staged in the English capital, at the end of the London Collection: Men, but perhaps site isn’t as important as show. Mr Galliano was out to prove he has not lost it. A four-year hiatus is a long one, even considering the one-season, bit-part stint with Oscar de la Renta’s Spring/Summer 2013 season.
It is inevitable that the discourses that followed centred on how much of the clothes were very Galliano, how much very Margiela. I am not sure, after receiving so many text messages asking me what I thought of the collection, if that really is the point. These days, those who take over the design responsibilities of storied fashion houses are not assuming the position of small companies obsessed with keeping their hard-earned heritage. Maison Martin Margiela is owned by Only the Brave (OTB), a corporation that runs more than just one brand (others include Marni and Viktor & Rolf). Although not nearly as large as LVMH, OTB is sizeable enough for its owner to be mindful of the bottom line. MMM was never the massively successful fashion brand in the same vein as, say, Dior. It does not have a significant leather goods or cosmetic business to bankroll its fashion arm, the crux of MMM. Its unexpected pairing with H&M in 2012 was later rumoured to be the latter’s weakest-performing collaboration. MMM, despite all its conceptual might and breathtaking craftsmanship, is not a fashion-crowd pleaser, even when it’s a fashion-line influencer. Designers wear MMM, so do rag-trade insiders and fashion editors, no so your Chanel-clad tai-tais. Three months after the standalone boutique opened in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, the staff does not negate that traffic has been slow.
It’s not known what Mr Galliano is really obliged to do for Maison Margiela, but I think he would not be able to do what he did for Dior during his later years there. So what he did for his debut with MM was to try to strike a balance. You sensed the showman with a foot on the stage, and you also sensed a quieter soul conceptualizing in a more monastic setting. Whether this is how it will turn out in future seasons remains to be seen. While those who were full of anticipation wanted to see what grandeur (read: fantasy) Mr Galliano will reveal, I was more interested in seeing how his collection will transition from Mr Blazy’s swansong. Sure, it does not have to have anything to do with the previous collection, but I did like the Artisanal pieces of Autumn/Winter 2014, and I did hope that the quiet, kooky elegance can somehow be retained (those dresses composed of what looked like embroidery samples!). Or maybe I was just hoping for an MMM that shall be no more.
But I should have known better. So few creative directors installed in couture houses are able to keep the spirit of the label alive and unwavering. Karl Lagerfeld did it with Chanel, but only at the beginning. These days, it’s manifestly Mr Lagerfeld doing Lagerfeld with Chanel fabrics and the house’s iconic motifs. Someone said to me that he felt Mr Galliano was doing a Dior. I refuted that: Mr Galliano did a Galliano, just as he did, prior to Dior, at Givenchy. He can’t help it; he’s wired this way. And he offered a show more dramatic than what the Maison was used to, but fashion always could use a little drama. That someone also added, “There was nothing new in the collection.” I took that to mean there was something old or that there was not anything groundbreaking. I wouldn’t say Mr Galliano stayed with the past—he did not resuscitate the likes of Marchesa Luisa Casati (to seduce us with an another improbable high-style adventure) just as he did not bring around the Margiela of yore. It wasn’t a landmark collection—that much is certain. As Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times wrote, it was “not one of those moments that change the direction of clothes, redefining a silhouette or mood…” But there was something else: sure-footed verve.
Anna Wintour already allowed us to preview what Mr Galliano could be doing. In early December last year, she wore an MM dress designed by Mr Galliano to receive the Outstanding Achievement honour at the British Fashion Awards. The monochromatic sleeveless dress—biased cut, no less—with floral motif spiralling to the neckline looked like something Ms Wintour typically wears. It was a relief, therefore, that the collection that eventually emerged was nothing like her for-awards-night dress. In contrast, Mr Galliano sent out outfits that had the theatrical femininity that he’s known for, as well as the simpler and more linear aesthetic that the house of Margiela has promoted. While we could see the romantic flourishes in the more extravagant designs, we could also see the technical finesse in the simpler pieces. Like so many of you, I saw the show online, and I was not terribly impressed, but I was quite pleased that it was not entirely Galliano-OTT. Those who are partial to Mr Margiela’s minimalist leanings will surely be drawn, for example, to the red, floor-length coat-dress with square insets over the bust in which vertical darts were pivoted. Mr Galliano could charm the heart and, in the next breath, seduce the mind.
It has never really been established how successful the Artisanal line is, but the house has never been cast in doubt as to how skilled the design team is. From the start, Artisanal was meant to showcase technical ability more than the dearest fabrics. The collections were based on “found objects”—pieces of this and that, for dressmaking or not, in or out of the atelier. The unexpected media confounded as much as enthralled. And it does not only characterised the Artisanal line. I still remember how, in his debut collection of 1989, Mr Margiela morphed a leather butcher’s apron into an evening gown. I remember calling it reverse-transmogrification, and I was very intrigued. It changed forever what I thought could be done in fashion design. But increasingly, the Artisanal collection was built on found fabrics more than objects. In the last collection before Mr Galliano took over, one sensed that the keepers of the Maison had gone around Paris, picking up pieces from the floors of fabric designers, embroiderers, beaders, plummasiers, and such artisans. It was hotchpotch in the most delightful way, and everything was assembled with a lightness of touch that has become quite uncommon.
Mr Galliano, too, showed such compositional skill; only his, like always, pushed excess to the fore and toyed with the viewers’ sense of heightened expectation. It was remarked to me just this morning that there was something Comme des Garçons about some of the pieces, to which I reminded the commentator that even Mr Margiela had traversed CDG territory. Both Mr Margiela and CDG’s Rei Kawakubo, while mostly compelling, were not always comprehensible. Mr Galliano, on the other hand, is compelling and usually relatable. His ability to attract and retain attention, his knack for forceful narrative that you’d want to hear and see, and his skill at transforming already beautiful dresses into creations far beyond that will be welcomed at Maison Margiela.