John Galliano has always been obsessed with fantasy, with process, with showing his workings. In a sense, it’s the opposite of the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, extolling us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Galliano is both behind the curtain, and its puller-upper, revealing his own methodologies in plain sight with gleeful joy, realising that only makes the magic even more powerful. The Wizard of Oz reference wasn’t coincidental, by the way: there were ruby slippers aplenty in Galliano’s Autumn/Winter 2022 Maison Margiela presentation, loaded talismans of the urge to transport and to transform, both of which Galliano did again and again.
The set-up is tricky to explain: essentially, in a theatre space at Paris’ Palais de Chaillot, we witnessed the live creation of a motion picture, projected overhead. And all the trickery and smoke and mirrors of Hollywood were pulled apart before our eyes, brown-coated stage-hands swirling props and filming crops in a tightly-choreographed dance that could have been a show all its own. But in their midst were models, acting as actors, mouthing along to pre-recorded lines and emoting like silent screen heroes and heroines, to tell a fever dream of a Tennessee Williams-ish tall tale of a pair of star-crossed lovers. There was matricide, and patricide, and a high school dance somewhere in the middle. There was a bevy of supermodel nurses like a midcentury Vogue editorial, a swaying cornfield conjured by sheaves of wheat nailed to a plank of wood, a transformation at some point into a spaghetti western, and a Capote-ean heroine in a faded kimono extolling her love of Charles James. Up on the screens, a movie was seamlessly created in real-time, jump-cuts, vast panoramas and tight close-ups all evoked through these low-fi props – a metaphor, if ever there was one, for the magic fashion can create through humble needle and thread. Oh, and speaking of, all around were some of the most inventive, ingenious and indeed magical clothes we’ve seen for eons. It was a head-rush.
Across his entire career, Galliano has couched his collections in narratives – his graduation collection was inspired by Les Incroyables, dandies of the French Revolution, “ripping down aristocratic curtains, and turning them into waistcoats.” Those stories only spun ever-more complex webs of narratives, taking in Russian processes fleeing through forests, Freudian families exploring their sexual secrets, and collections as biopics of Empress Sisi or the Marchesa Casati. Every element of every story inspires an aesthetic approach, a visual language imbued with meaning – colours transformed by the fact of his heroines living by candle or gaslight, fabric treatments determined by the impact of imaginary locales around, a heady mix of eras and inspirations – nothing ever precisely historically anchored, to allow his febrile brain draw it right back into the contemporary.
Galliano is the great and powerful Oz of fashion storytelling, but never before has his narrative been so complete, nor so sublimely communicated to his audience, as in this Margiela presentation. Generally, those stories are a backstage shenanigan, something inspiring the dreams behind the clothes, rather than animating their movement before our eyes. It is a mark of his genius that, in sending his clothes whirring through each intricately-realised mise-en-scène, Galliano only added to their impact rather than distracting. Our eyes were riveted on those clothes – on flounced tulle sprayed with sand as if thrown up on a dusty highway (in actual fact, an intricate jacquard), constructed from 19th-century bed linens or vintage handkerchiefs, prom dresses of duchesse satin and stiff nylon crin, and couture nurse’s scrubs in hospital greens. Their intricacy and ingenuity makes them impossible to describe in detail, but this collection was grounded in Americana, so there were hints of Presley – Elvis and Priscilla – in fit-and-flare 1950s gowns and pastel-coloured tuxedos, each Laduree shade of yellow, pale blue, lilac or pink marking a cut that was entirely unique, which is the true story of couture, after all.
I have, honestly, very little idea of what was going on; the story was a Möbius loop, turning back on itself, repeating, figures jumping between reality and dreamlike sequences as gorgeous, nonsensical excuses for more incredible clothes. Galliano’s love of narrative has never included accuracy, geographic or historical – remember him sending a steam train filled with matadors and cavaliers and Linda Evangelista dragged-up as Henry VIII on an impossible voyage to 16th-century America? This Margiela excursion was just as whacky. And yet what we come back with, from all of these journeys, is a renewed sense of hope in and love for fashion. Galliano’s palpable joy for creation is infectious – at his best, he cannot be beaten. And this was Galliano reaching a creative zenith, once again. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” said one onlooker as we exited the theatre. I would say we’ll never see anything like it again – but Galliano will be here next season. He’s on masterful form, and his only competition, it seems, is himself.