Every morning while John Galliano was working on Dior's Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2000 collection, the designer would go running with his trainer along the Parisian quays and the waterfront where the homeless were sleeping. Galliano controversially found the state of the tramps dressed in rags quite "romantic" and decided to use them as the main inspiration for Dior's collection.
To this purpose he researched the Rag Balls of the Depression era when rich people would dress in shredded gowns made by the house of Worth, and studied pictures by Diane Arbus of mentally ill people and the twisted paintings of Austrian Egon Schiele.
He then proceeded to remix them all together and came up with pieces inspired by the homeless and the mentally ill. At the time while some fashion critics praised him for creating magic on the runway, others considered the show as socially insensitive, as Galliano wasn't trying to raise social consciousness, but was focused on selling Haute Couture designs.
This story immediately came back to mind (or rather - it came back to the mind of all those ones whose memory hasn't been damaged by the fast and furious fashion rhythms or by the latest barrage of superficial Instagrams posted by the usual fashion peacocks...) when seeing the second Artisanal collection created by Galliano for Maison Margiela.
While the S/S 15 Artisanal collection was maybe more difficult and flamboyant, in these designs Galliano seemed more at ease, and once again relied on his passion for telling a story involving his decadent muses.
One of the main characters on Margiela's A/W 2015 ready-to-wear runway was (once again) the Marchesa Casati portrayed towards the end of her life as a dishevelled yet chic woman. This time the starting point was a similar yet anonymous muse, such as an eccentrically dressed pigeon or cat lady feeding animals on a park bench or in a street.
In Galliano's story the rags she elaborately wrapped around her body told a story of happier days, like the one the lonely and sad Grizabella the glamour feline in Cats would sing about.
Thick men's coats and jackets were suspended from straps on the back of models, like rucksacks; deconstructed frocks and coats were matched with cuff-like gauntlets made with the hip pockets of horrid looking jeans; man's trousers were wrapped around a model's body recreating an unlikely yet practical twisted bodice; broken shards of a compact mirror were used to design intricate mosaics on dresses, while banal slingback pumps were mounted onto thin swirling mirrors transformed into perilous razor blade-like Rococo heels.
There were moments when the clothes worked particularly well: a coat dress was made recycling a used burlap potato sack, a rather arty material at the moment that called to mind Ibrahim Mahama's textile installations.
The coarse burlap was embroidered with colourful threads and sequins that added to the humble fabric (a reference to Galliano's condition?) new and more fantastic three-dimensional layers.
Crocheted granny squares savaged from boring quilts were transformed into a desirable skirt; a needlepoint piece depicting a rural scene was turned into a jacket, while a shift dress was made with a vintage French tapestry backed by silk organza, the threads left hanging loose and creating a texture reminiscent of the exotic mohairs and tweeds designed for famous fashion houses by Serbian-born textile designer Bernat Klein.
A linear pink coat slightly reminiscent in its shape of the single-seam wedding gown designed in 1967 by Balenciaga was unbalanced by a bright blue obi hidden in the back and nestled between the shoulders in a tailored wing structure. The Japanese influences in the collection were actually the result of a collaboration with two Japanese craft masters, a kimono painter and an expert of the shibori technique.
The final bride clad in a crumpled duvet (another reference to the madhouse looks in Galliano's S/S 2000 collection for Dior?) and cellophane was actually less convincing than the other designs.
While some ideas like the cobalt blue bib-front dress covered in seashells were recycled from the S/S 2015 Artisanal collection, there was something – or rather someone – that some critics highlighted as a new entry and a sign of gender fluidity: male models on the runway.
Some critics stated indeed that this was an utterly provocative gesture from Galliano since he highlighted the masculinity via hairy legs rather than trying to erase it under Haute Couture gowns (while Gaultier cast in his S/S 2011 show the then male model Andrej Pejić, but dressed him in a bridal gown that turned him into a woman). Then again, there was actually a male model also on Dior's S/S 2000 runway, so this appearance wasn't so new, besides, one of the models on Margiela's runway was incredibly reminiscent of Arbus' picture of a drag queen.
After Galliano's controversial show for Dior, protesters stormed the Avenue Montaigne flagship store shouting "Respect the homeless!"
Nobody will do so in this case for two main reasons: first and foremost our collective memory is extremely short and very few people probably remember that Galliano show; besides, the act of taking found objects and decontextualising, disassembling, transforming, reassembling, repurposing and elevating them, is at the core of Margiela's Artisanal collections, so that Galliano's original homeless reference has now been remixed and repurposed and doesn't sound or look as offensive as it was then.
Galliano is in fact back to being considered a genius-like phoenix by many at the moment, and while this Margiela's Artisanal collection proves that his mind may have recovered and that his flamboyant persona has been left behind in favour of a humbler character, when you dissect the basic ideas and inspirations behind this collection you realise that there is nothing new behind these designs.
So far fashion (and Haute Couture Week in particular) has suggested us to whimsically take up a role, a bit like Polly Bushong as photographed by Arbus in her disguise of Miss Cora Pratt, the Counterfeit Lady, and wear old laces, wigs and brooches as a little and fun hoax, while designers are using contrasts, contradictions (think about male and female; equilibrium and discord; rags and couture; ugly and chic...) and cross-pollinations to keep the industry alive. Yet what would push fashion forward would be a statement that would genuinely challenge rules and preconceptions not about what we wear, but about consumerism, politics, economy, society, and class divisions.
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