- Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano
- Dana Thomas
- Penguin Press
- 422 pages
Fashion journalist Dana Thomas's previous book Deluxe, the 2007 bestseller that largely debunked the luxury fashion industry as a marketing conspiracy to dupe consumers, was presciently published on the eve of the global recession and still sparks debate about the commodification and true nature of luxury. Gods and Kings is Thomas's much-anticipated dual biography of designers Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, one a skilled technician of fashion who is tragically dead, the other its consummate showman very much still notoriously alive. Its publication coincides all too morbidly with the fifth anniversary of McQueen's suicide but it also arrives at another canny, interesting fashion "moment," as they say in the biz. A few months after Jean Paul Gaultier disrupted the industry with the news that after 38 years he was discontinuing ready-to-wear collections to focus exclusively on haute couture and perfume, Viktor & Rolf announced the same thing this week, citing the very pressures of juggling workloads and the creative motives that Thomas explores in her new book.
Much of the book is immersed in the 1990s, with rapidly changing global business priorities, mainly at luxury group LVMH (but later, Gucci Group and Kering), the corporate consequences of which these fashion-industry players are only now facing. The personal costs have already been high for the two designers she profiles: McQueen committed suicide in 2010 at the age of 40, after a long battle with depression and substance abuse arguably the result of workplace-induced stress and anxiety, and John Galliano, now 54, fell from grace in 2011, fired from his post as creative director of Dior after an inebriated anti-Semitic tirade and subsequent conviction for hate speech. The fragile remains of his career are still in reputational rehab.
In the 1990s, it was Galliano's decadence, not yet his drunken rants, that were memorable. His gift for fusion and outlandish tableaux vivants made Dior runway spectacles the stuff of legend and Thomas argues that his extravagant fashion shows (and equally extravagant personal lifestyle) ushered in the present era – fashion's equivalent of big but empty Hollywood tent poles to underwrite tie-in merchandise. In those days, mundane commercial concerns of clothing fit and retail sales gave way to marketing the higher-markup handbags and perfume through runway excess, although Thomas allows McQueen's elaborately staged presentations to be darkly artistic pursuits rather than mere hype. Galliano, she writes, wanted "to make the old clients wince." Indeed: At the time, the socialite Nan Kempner told Thomas that her haute-couture seatmates, Mesdames Chirac and Pompidou, "looked like they had been hit in the face with a cold dead fish." Hype it may have been, but for a time retailers bought it, even though to hear former Bergdorf's fashion director Dawn Mello tell it, the clothes just plain didn't fit and had to be tailored by the customer.
If McQueen and Galliano were caught between artistic and commercial endeavours (in 2011, through both his namesake brand and Dior, Galliano was responsible for a whopping 32 collections a year), between creativity and fame, the latter still admittedly comes off much less torn than the former. The reporting may be matter-of-fact but there is little doubt which Thomas favours: She quotes Galliano's glib and airy interview answers, concerns about champagne and preferred studio flower arrangements, but writes at length of an intrigued young McQueen's time in Italy learning viable business practices from Romeo Gigli, who like many Italian designers had successfully industrialized production of his elaborate ready-to-wear. She also catalogues early examples of Galliano's latent diva tendencies, and the effect is that a predisposition to bad behaviour seems only further enabled by later luxury gigs, and (substance abuse notwithstanding), less a product of it.
Thomas pores over the men's eating habits, sexual liaisons and proclivities (student assistant Sarah Heard, now better known as the creative director of McQueen and by her married name Burton, is forewarned that her duties could include washing McQueen's sex toys). McQueen was also HIV-positive, though that's not the big reveal it might have been, since the claim previously appeared in Champagne Supernovas, Maureen Callahan's recent history of the 1990s fashion scene. The dishy sources around both are inner and outer circles: former intimates, associates, friends, executives, acolytes and, presumably, a few score-settlers mixed in with the reliable sources. For McQueen there are many, including Simon Ungless, Philip Treacy and former assistants and fewer are cited directly in the Galliano camp: André Leon Talley, Canadian-born shoe designer Patrick Cox and former classmate Hamish Bowles, along with dozens of others cited, understandably without attribution, on both sides.
Between the minutiae and the hearsay, copious research, welcome plundering of pre-Internet clippings files and Thomas's mining of her own years reporting in the trenches, Gods and Kings is a spectacular work of reconstruction. Many passages conjure cinematic scenes of their lives and, more important, lush images of the designers' work and shows in the early and creatively fertile periods from which few photographs (let alone scarce sample garments) survive.
Devoted followers of fashion history will relish Thomas's sumptuous runway-show descriptions, complete with quotations culled from published fashion criticism of the era. The cumulative effect of reading descriptions of season after season about the creative process is also exhausting – one can soon feel pointlessly mired in knowing so much muchness of their daily lives. How Galliano wore his hair to a meeting or which sneakers were on McQueen's feet at his first show bow – not every detail is a telling one.
In several ways, Galliano and McQueen's lives run in tandem and seem a natural pairing: Both working-class Londoners attended Central Saint Martins, albeit nearly a decade apart, and had similar issues with gay bullying and class consciousness; they also have unflattering parallels – at the first taste of success, both callously discarded their influential early confidants/champions/collaborators (Amanda Harlech and Isabella Blow, respectively). In some cases, they intersect
directly: When Galliano vacated the creative direction of Givenchy to go to Dior, McQueen was hired to replace him. Here, Thomas dissects their respective challenges and strained relationships with executives (chief among them CEO Bernard Arnault) at shared parent company LVMH and, increasingly, with each other: They directed thinly veiled jibes at one another through their work and media interviews, and McQueen became flat-out obsessed with improving on Galliano's first famous "showpiece," the 1988 shellfish dress (he eventually did, several times over).
The duality doesn't coalesce enough into a bigger-picture portrait to justify pairing them beyond the purpose of mere contrast. The talent, character, approach and, sadly, fate of these two designers bifurcate so dramatically and in so many crucial ways that profiling either one, situated in his heyday, might have made the same point.
The book also offers little insight as to why the phenomenon experienced by the two British designers seems particular to Paris fashion companies. Is it something about Paris as the birthplace of both the industry's most revered heritage and lucrative international maisons? If not, why doesn't this seem to plague relatively young but similarly behemoth American mega-brands such asRalph Lauren? Or prolific Italian houses such as Armani and Prada? Or Alexander Wang, the busy creative director of both his own brand and of Balenciaga in Paris? How might the phenomenon arise from the cultural expectations and French reverence of the designer-as-auteur? Perhaps it is simpler, and less an institutional problem at Paris houses than one with the strategy of LVMH CEO Arnault, the principal villain also at the greedy heart of Deluxe. The bellicose McQueen begrudgingly admired Yves Saint Laurent, the pioneer of democratic ready-to-wear. Yet even the pioneer realized the beast he created. "I've made a rope to hang myself with," Saint Laurent lamented, back in the 1970s. "I'd love to be able to do fashion when I want, but I'm a prisoner of my own commercial empire."
Nathalie Atkinson writes a weekly column for Globe Style.