LFF 2023: High and Low – John Galliano

High and Low: John Galliano

Genre: Documentary 

Director:Kevin McDonald

John Galliano‘s rise in the fashion world, in the 1990s, was meteoric, by any standard. Within just a few years of graduating from St Martin’s College, in London, he was  snapped up by French design house Givenchy. Shortly after, he got the big one when he was appointed artistic director at Dior. His friends included supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. Vogue editor and powerful fashion  doyenne, Anna Wintour, was a big supporter. Haute couture in Paris fell at his feet.

Then, one drunken night, in 2011 it all fell apart. Galliano was captured, on camera, engaging in a foul mouthed, antisemitic tirade at a Paris cafe. It was not a one off either. There had been two other similar incidents, also aimed at strangers who had reported the abuse to police. A high profile court case, covered by the world’s media, followed. He was fined €6000. But the career price was higher. His fall from grace was as dramatic as his rise had been just fifteen or so years earlier. He was ousted from Dior, shunned by the fickle fashion world and polite society. He became, essentially, a social pariah.

This fascinating, unflinching documentary about his life and career is directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, One day in September). 

During lockdown, when considering projects, Macdonald was keen to explore the issue of forgiveness. Someone suggested looking at the case of Galliano. It was a good suggestion because the resulting film is a complex, debate igniting study of a man who comes across as both likeable and fun as well as somewhat disingenuous if not also perhaps insincere in his protestations that he now fully recognises what he said was wrong.

Certainly, the BFI London Film Festival premiere of the film left some of its audience divided on the issue.

“He agreed to do the film because he wants to be understood,” explained Macdonald during a Q+A following the screening. Earlier in the evening, prior to the screening, he had had to issue a warning for distressing content in the film, especially in the light of recent events in the Middle East. “It’s only a small part of the film, though,” he’d hastily added. 

He’s right, the offensive comments form only part of the John Galliano story and the film explores the rest with appropriate creativity and flair.

We see photos of the quiet little boy born, in Gibraltar, to a father from there and a Spanish mother. Named Juan Carlos, he knew from an early age that he was gay but also knew that it was unacceptables to make this known, either to his family or the wider world. 

So, he escaped into drawing, sketching designs that he absorbed from the people he saw around him, including his stylish mother and the films he watched, especially the 1927 classic Napoleon by Director Abel Gance, with which he became obsessed. That obsessive, addictive nature comes through again and again during the film. As a boy, he stayed up all night to sew sequins on a dress for his older sister. As a student at Saint Martin’s, although he enjoyed the clubbing and exciting world of London where his family had moved, and took in the fashion of the New Romantics, he also remained studious. His graduation collection Les Incroyables, based on the French Revolution, entranced all who saw it. At the peak of his success he obsessively worked out at the gym, developing a six pack he showed off at the end of each show when he appeared in creations as elaborate as the ones he designed for his models. His perfectionism also meant he had to be in control of every last detail, including the length of the models’ eyelashes. But when his bathroom cabinet began to contain more bottles of pills than the buttons on his outfits and the alcohol flowed too freely, trouble loomed.

The intense creativity and attention to detail may have contributed to his fall. As artistic director of Dior he was expected to produce an inordinate number of collections per year (32) not just of clothes but accessories too. In addition he had to woo the press through interviews and personal appearances, maintain the high profile image he had created for himself and keep an eye on every single design detail to ensure it was of the highest quality and so beautiful it would make people cry.

“I don’t know at what point I lost touch with reality,” Galliano says plaintively, “but I did.“

After the death, at just age 38, of his right-hand man and alter ego Steven Robinson, it all proved too much for Galliano. He began to fall apart. He was drinking excessively, refusing to acknowledge the problem, turning down suggestions of help. It all culminated in the racist verbal abuse that led to his career going up in flames.

Filmed 2 years ago, High and Low includes several big name contributors, all speaking enthusiastically about Galliano’s creative genius. But during his research, Macdonald also found that not many people in fashion wanted to talk about things that happened 20 years ago. They are all about the next collection, not reflecting on the past. Nevertheless, some changes were made in the work culture at the big design houses after Galliano’s disgrace and the suicide of fellow Brit, Alexander McQueen. There are more safeguards now, said Macdonald but then people were largely oblivious as long as the designer produced the work.

He said, in making the film he ended up liking Galliano. “He’s a complicated character, a fascinating, flawed one. But a generous, likeable, sweet man.”

His film captures and shows all these aspects of the man.

An audience member, at the premiere suggested that a feature film should be made of John Galliano’s story and that Robert Downey Jnr should play him.

I’d watch that.