Ever since his return to the catwalks at the start of this year, the fashion industry at large seems to have swept John Galliano's outspoken anti-semitic remarks under the carpet. While everyone deserves a chance to atone for their mistakes, is it too soon to forgive, and forget?
Last Thursday, Maison Margiela’s newest creative director, John Galliano, made his latest, and perhaps most pronounced, public apology for his 2011 racist tirade which cost him his job at Dior. Speaking at a Jewish educational event, Galliano told the audience of 200: "I am an alcoholic. I am an addict. This is in no way an excuse. We alcoholics and we addicts are not responsible for our disease. However, I do take complete responsibility for my recovery and making amends."
The contrition which Galliano showed was in reference to an incident in a Parisian bar in which he carried out an anti-Semitic tirade that led to his arrest. The same day of his arrest, a French newspaper received a recording of Galliano a year earlier in the same bar proclaiming: “I love Hitler... People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed." At the time, Galliano blamed his addiction to alcohol and drugs, coupled with the stress of his post as creative director of Dior. It is a position that the London-born designer has maintained ever since, even if last Thursday’s speech showed a greater admission of guilt than he ever had before.
After Galliano’s sacking, he spent several years in the proverbial fashion wilderness, until last October when his new role at Margiela was announced. To most, the announcement came as a complete surprise, not only because of Galliano’s controversial past, but also because the spectacle and celebrity of the designer’s work seemed completely at odds with the typical Margiela aesthetic. It was the latter point which seemed to fascinate the fashion press the most, with the former largely only being alluded to through a number of synonyms like, “his controversial outburst.”
And then came #MargielaMonday. With John Galliano’s first Margiela couture offering in London – a nod to the designer’s roots – all was apparently forgiven. The reviews marvelled at Galliano’s ‘mastery’ – of which no one can deny – but did not allude to why his creations had been missing from runways for nearly four years. It was as if, by virtue of his creative brilliance, the majority within fashion journalism were willing to turn a blind eye to his past indiscretions. That is not to say that fashion necessarily should be devoid of compassion, or that Galliano should have remained out in the cold for the rest of his years, but the fact that – except for a few dissenting voices – nobody seemed too bothered that this man had once advocated the killing of Jews, intoxicated or not.
Had Galliano operated in any other industry, from art to politics, eyebrows would have surely been raised at his appointment at Margiela, and questions certainly would have been asked of the man. This should have been the same for fashion, in particular because it is an industry which has failed to address its apparent lack of racial diversity. From the whitewashing of runways, to the lack of black designers heading up the major fashion houses of Paris – race remains an uncomfortable subject within fashion that many would simply rather ignore.
Fashion has an incredible power – or, at least, this is what the foremost figures in fashion will tell you. It is one of the most accessible forms of art there is on an aesthetic level, whilst also having the power to provide social critiques and to shift the cultural zeitgeist. But that power will surely wane if fashion, as an industry, chooses to present itself as aloof and uncaring. For every article or blog on Galliano’s return and subsequent road to redemption that has swept his actions under the carpet, the cultural gravitas of fashion as an art form has diminished. For fashion to have a true semblance of importance, it must be in some way reflective of the standards and morals of society.
The subject of Galliano is still one that I grapple with. On one hand, I understand the need for compassion; on the other, I do not believe that people who have shown themselves to be racist – and, let us not forget, on more than one occasion – should be afforded positions of influence. Yet, with the case of John Galliano, such a moral quandary didn’t even penetrate the commentary which surrounded his return to fashion. This was, in no small part, thanks to the support of Galliano’s long-time friend and all-powerful Vogue editor, Anna Wintour. For many within fashion, Wintour is to be followed and not questioned – and, I suspect, because most do not want to butt heads with the most powerful woman in the industry.
Last Thursday’s apology by Galliano was almost irrelevant, because he had already regained everything he had lost and cherished – the adoration of the fashion community, his celebrity and the ability to create. Typically, an apology is the first step in such a situation, not an afterthought. There is no doubt that Galliano the designer brought a sense of theatre to fashion through his creations at Dior, and it would not be surprising if he does the same at Martin Margiela’s brainchild. But the incident has illustrated fashion’s failings as a business all too obsessed with celebrity and all too willing to forego what is morally right, in favor of what is profitable.
On Tuesday, Renzo Rosso’s Only The Brave group, which is Maison Margiela’s parent company, announced that the brand’s sales had risen by 20% since Galliano’s appointment. Clearly, it has been a profitable business decision, but fashion risks becoming increasingly insignificant within the wider world if every decision is based on profit alone. And this is perhaps where both journalists and consumers come in, providing checks and balances in a world that is increasingly driven by pure capital. Too often fashion journalists will refuse to properly critique, or ask difficult questions, because it may mean they won’t be welcome to certain designer’s shows six months down the line. Similarly, as consumers, it is up to us to apply an ethical consideration to how we view fashion, because it affects brand’s actions.
Galliano’s appointment at Margiela cannot be reversed – and it is not for me to judge whether he has rebuilt enough bridges with the Jewish community to be afforded such a position – but it is important that the fashion industry does not become incapable of asking itself difficult questions.
Words by Calum Gordon for Highsnobiety. The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.