In our unpredictable times, it may be hard for publishers to find a richly researched book that could easily turn into a bestseller. Yet, apart from being well-written, the recently released volume Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano (Penguin Press) by Dana Thomas, could just do the trick. The volume coincides indeed with a series of events celebrating McQueen including the blockbuster show, "Savage Beauty", currently on at London's V&A (after the first version of the exhibit became an instant success in 2011 and broke all records for a museum fashion display at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute in New York). In the meantime, John Galliano's story is currently being updated with his new job as Creative Director of Maison Martin Margiela.
Thomas, a journalist who started covering Galliano in 1994 and McQueen three years later, offers in the book a careful and educated analysis of their careers. The author first looks at their backgrounds and childhood years, chronicling their time at Central Saint Martins and the first financial struggles to stage romantic and provocative shows, while shedding some light on the competition between the two designers (McQueen was obsessed with Galliano's "shellfish" dress, and tried to come up with more ethereal versions of it in his "Irere" and "Widows of Culloden" collections).
The biggest change in both the designers' lives occurred in October 1996 when the luxury conglomerate LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), owner of Christian Dior and Givenchy, announced that John Galliano would be taking over at Dior, while Alexander McQueen would have replaced Galliano at Givenchy, a shift that also marked an era of growth for luxury fashion.
At the first couture shows that followed in January 1997 Galliano's collection for Dior was hailed as a triumph, while McQueen's rose many doubts, even though when he arrived at the Givenchy atelier, the French couturiers were astonished by his technique, skills with hems and seams, and precision cutting.
Thomas describes in detail the main inspirations behind each show that included in Galliano's case capricious and extravagant muses, and books, history, films and his mother Joyce's interest in their family's past when it came to McQueen's. As they rose to fame and their shows became more complex, both designers seemed to lose some of their original spontaneous madness: in February 1997 when McQueen's staged his A/W 1997-98 show "It's a Jungle Out There", hundreds of young people, students and groupies tried to get in. Amy Spindler of The New York Times stated then that McQueen was "fashion's closest thing to a rock star (...) He isn't just part of the London scene; he is the scene."
Thomas also mentions (and in some cases interviews) in the book early backers such as socialite São Schlumberger (Galliano's) and loyal collaborators orbiting around the designers including Galliano's muse Amanda Harlech, who was later on offered a better position at Chanel by Lagerfeld; Steven Robinson, who maneuvered his way up to become an invaluable fashion collaborator for Galliano, and prematurely died of heart attack, maybe induced by a massive overdose of cocaine.
The painful relationship between Isabella Blow and McQueen is also described, while former colleague Sebastian Pons, milliner Philip Treacy and Simon Ungless offer touching memories of times when in McQueen's life there was maybe less money, but also more anger, creativity and freedom.
Acute anxiety and work-related pressures and problems gradually led both designers to drink and drugs: Galliano started in 1984, producing two collections and shows a year until 1995, when he began working at Givenchy. In 2011, before being fired from Dior, he was overseeing over 30 collections a year.
McQueen felt the same pressures dictated by continuously creating, and found hard reconciling the fact that the products appearing in the stores didn't look like what he had designed. Thomas reveals in the book that he wanted out and was in talks with Ungless to start teaching at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, a project that kept on being postponed.
The luxury market is not directly blamed for the ups and downs in the designers' lives: according to the author, Dior's firm head Sidney Toledano and LVMH's Bernard Arnault tried to convince Galliano to go to rehab, but they weren't as fast as to stop him from cracking up and attacking with anti-Semitic remarks a couple in the Paris café La Perle.
In the same way, Domenico De Sole - who had convinced McQueen with the help of Tom Ford to work on his own label under the Gucci Group and PPR (now Kering), headed by François-Henri Pinault, extricating him from the Givenchy contract - and De Sole's successor Robert Polet, never realised McQueen's physical and mental health conditions.
Yet the pressure of being a mere clog in the biggest machine of the modern fashion industry and of being pushed to deliver multiple products and collections, had been tackled by McQueen in one show that many people forgot. In October 2003, he staged a catwalk show inspired by Sydney Pollack's drama They Shoot Horses Don't They? about a dance marathon that prompts many desperate couples competing for a money prize until their mental and physical destruction. An allegory for his personal life (at the time McQueen had already been diagnosed with HIV) and career, the performance featured professional dancers and models moving, dancing and running till they collapsed on the floor with exhaustion.
The most sublime moments of beauty are juxtaposed in the book to moments of darkness: a triumph of luxurious decadence at Dior, is rebalanced by a faux pas like the "Diorient Express" show, a terribly mad confusion of history, trains and Indian warriors; while McQueen's fame was shadowed by his betrayal of stylist Isabella Blow, whose suicide in 2007 ominously preceded McQueen's.
The fall of Galliano and McQueen coincides with the end of a period of magic creativity and dark beauty that lasted for three decades. Thomas doesn't seem to be too happy about the current state of the fashion industry: rather than just in fashion, McQueen's vision was undoubtedly drenched in art and history, in disturbing mindscapes à la Jake and Dinos Chapman or in the photographic nightmares of Kevin Carter's (McQueen once claimed he wished he had been a war photographer instead...). Nowadays, Thomas claims, "designers are hired hands charged with interpreting the house's codes, and few outside the industry know their names," while fashion's stars are "bloggers and Instagrammers who have hundreds of thousands of followers and earn more than a million dollars a year in kickbacks and 'gifts' from brands for shamelessly flacking products in their posts."
It's somehow impossible to disagree: Galliano's story is still being written (though, so far, the designer hasn't added anything new to his creative glossary), in the meantime there is an unhealthy excitement surrounding McQueen's image. "Savage Beauty" is at London's V&A; a new play based on the designer and written by British playwright James Phillips will be unveiled in May at London's St James Theatre; behind-the-scenes pictures from McQueen's "The Horn of Plenty" (A/W 2009-10) collection by Nick Waplington are currently on show at Tate Britain, while "McQueen: Backstage - The Early Show" an exhibition of photographs by Gary Wallis was recently on at Proud Chelsea.
Somehow, the same people who in the '90s thought McQueen was just a provocateur and a misogynist, are now tragicomically considering him a genius. Maybe it's just a case of the old adage "Nemo propheta in patria (sua)", or maybe this is just the final proof that, at the moment, we are not after art and poetical darkness in fashion, but we are all settled on relentless consumption, money, finance and marketing, no matter how many young and creative minds burn out, get destroyed and die in the process.
Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano by Dana Thomas is out now on Penguin.
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos