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All of a sudden, John Galliano is back

Taking everyone very much by surprise, Italy’s most anarchic fashionista, Renzo Rosso of Diesel fame, named him creative director of Maison Martin Margiela in the first week of October. In a ballsy move to shake things up at Margiela, fashion’s most mysterious, never photographed designer, Rosso’s handpicked successor becomes the most infamous creator of our age – John Galliano.

John will make his debut for the house next January during the haute couture season. His return to a Paris catwalk will come almost exactly four years since he was ousted in February 2011 as couturier of Christian Dior, after his drunken Anti-Semitic rant in a Marais bar shot on a camera phone which went viral on the Internet. As Achtung’s exensive coverage of his two days in court shows, Galliano suffered a very public and brutal descent. Now, he may be about to pull off the greatest comeback in fashion history.

Apart from American department store retailers, and his former boss Bernard Arnault, everyone seems more than ready to welcome him back, even to the surprise position at Margiela, part of Rosso’s fashion empire that includes Diesel, Marni, DSquared2 and Viktor & Rolf.

It will be a dramatic change for the North Paris based house. Neither Margiela nor any of his successors ever took a bow; Galliano, by contrast, paid a personal stylist to dress for each ovation – between his own label and Dior that was 8 times a year – appearing as everything from a mad cap Lord Nelson to a deranged Rudolf Nureyev.

In the wake of the angry outburst, Galliano was fined 6 000 euros, and striped of his Légion d’honneur.  Galliano subsequently retreated to a health farm in Arizona and made an initial attempt at a comeback in February 2013 working with Oscar de la Renta on the New York-based designer’s collection. He was publically supported by both Anna Wintour of American Vogue  and even the powerful Anti-Defamation League, which issued a release praising Galliano for having “worked arduously in changing his worldview and dedicated a significant amount of time to researching, reading, and learning about the evils of anti-Semitism and bigotry.”

However, despite a powerful de la Renta show where Galliano’s subtle hand was clearly evident, his return was aborted after the New York Post attacked the UK designer for allegedly mocking Jews by wearing an outfit with some similarities to Hasidic dress.

In May 2014, Galliano was named artistic director of Etoile, a Russian beauty chain. In his interregnum, Galliano has granted a couple of TV interviews, in which he apologized profusely for his racist remarks; spoken when he was very evidently drunk.

In fashion, one expects the unexpected.

Though his career at Dior ended in disgrace it’s important not to forget that Galliano was once a massive commercial success. Supported by skilled management, Christian Dior Couture during Galliano’s tenure grew revenues five-fold to over one billion euros during his time at the house.

Galliano’s return will be keenly anticipated in fashion, where a clear majority of insiders believe that he has paid a heavy price for his error, and where his unique blend of cool tailoring, mastery of the bias cut, hyper femininity, colorful eccentricity and sheer bravura makes him one of the outstanding designers of this or any age.

Most fashionistas tend to accept his explanation that the double addiction to alcohol and pain killers coupled with the demands of presenting 14 collections a year – including Dior’s kid’s line – led him into a dark emotional state. Refusing to believe that a designer so sensitive, and a person bullied in his childhood for his different dress and sexual mores could truly be a bigot. So, expect his Margiela debut to take place under intense security and with the keen possible expectation. As one insider commented, it’s a little like the Reine Margot marrying Henri of Navarre. In fashion, one expects the unexpected.

But let’s go back to the days in court a few years ago where our editor in chief Godfrey Deeny found a deeply ashamed Galliano and a motley crew of publicity seeking freaks. It’s a clear reminder about the heavy price the designer has been paying for his drunken trip down to the bar at the corner of his Marais home.

2011

Fashion’s most engrossing story in the past six months has not been about clothes, brand building, defining a new trend or the emergence of an exceptional new talent. It is instead the very public vortex into which John Galliano dramatically fell, after his very drunken bigoted outburst captured on cell phone and seen by millions on the internet let to his immediate sacking by Christian Dior and eventually his recent, and very public, trial for making racist and anti-Semitic remarks – an offence in France.

Along with several hundred members of the international and local press, I attended that trial on June 22 in the Tribunal de Grand Instance, a cut stone neo-classical courtroom located on the south side of the Palais de Justice, France’s most important constellation of courts.

The large marble hallway outside the court throbbed with TV crews, citizen journalists, bloggers, fashionistas and the celebrity seeking curious milling around crash barriers for a chance to glimpse Galliano the accused. Inside, the court was packed and stuffy as the sun beat into the room.

Apparently managing to evade most of the cameras, Galliano entered through a side door a little after 3pm, attired in dark jacket and baggy pants, and accompanied by a formidable looking body guard. This was the first occasion on which I had seen Galliano since chatting to him backstage after staging what turned out to be his last Christian Dior in late January.

Back then, he’d been his usual post-show self, alternatively sweaty and ebullient; fit though a tad chunky, talkative and eccentrically charming. In court, he was tanned but strikingly gaunt, as if he had just woken up from a bad dream and was desperately trying to take his bearings, work out where he was.

Instead of the cocky dandy with the arrogantly tilted head ever ready with some well-modulated quote on his latest collection;

This new Galliano never caught anyone’s eye, his gaze focused on the floor, his voice reduced to a stage whisper.

However, from the outset the trial in many respects did not go as anticipated. The trial effectively covered three different instances; and the first to be discussed was the last to happen chronologically. It dated from the night of February 24 when the designer had an altercation with Geraldine Bloch and Philippe Virgitti, allegedly subjected them to anti-Semitic abuse in La Perle, a bar in the Marais quarter of Paris. The second charge concerned an incident from the October 8, 2010 when Fathia Oumeddour, a 47-year-old French woman, also claimed that he had inflicted a similar verbal tirade in the same bar.

Galliano had been expected to plead guilty and apologize for both incidents, instead in his opening testimony, he insisted he could not recall the evening at all, on the grounds that he was so drunk he had no memory of the events. He stressed that he himself had suffered from bigotry as an immigrant from Gibraltar in London and at school because of his homosexuality. He insisted he lost his way through years of overwork.

“My life was a constant series of shows, children’s collections, pre-collections, couture deadlines. I even was responsible for the ad campaigns. When my associate Stephen Robinson died, I went to his funeral with his parents and then to the cremation, and then I went back to Dior and worked to midnight. After my father’s funeral in London, I got on an Eurostar to return to my studio in Paris as I had a collection to finish. I did not give myself time to mourn,” he said, speaking so quietly one had to strain to hear his words.

Since his sacking by Dior, Galliano had fled to rehab first in Arizona and then in Switzerland. And though in “daycare,” he still found time to design the wedding dress of his old pal Kate Moss, though the actual lace robe was made in the atelier of Alexander McQueen by the team of Sarah Bradford.

Even Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion industry bible, got it badly wrong, insisting in its edition on the morning of the trial that “it is understood the explosive video in which Galliano is heard to say in a slurred voice, “I love Hitler,” will not be a subject of the trial, as the anonymous people who filmed the episode never came forward with a complaint.”

Instead, the judge ordered that the video be projected on to a two-meter square screen, even though Galliano was not technically speaking on trial for the remarks made in the clip. To this day, we still do not know who shot the video, or when. For this reason it would be unlikely that the video could be presented as evidence in a court in the Anglo-Saxon world, but its projection turned out to be the defining moment of this legal battle. Neither of the women whose voices are heard in the video have ever been identified, nor has either of them pressed charges.

Galliano sat on the left hand side of the court between his lawyer Aurélien Hamelle, a civil fellow who spoke excellent English, and a English language translator. Judging from interviews on local fashion TV shows, Galliano, who has lived in France over a decade, speaks pretty good French. Throughout the case, however, he only spoke in English. On the court’s right side sat a battery of lawyers, one each for the three plaintiffs – Bloch, Virgitti and Oumeddour – and several others representing organizations that had attached themselves to the complaint, such as a French Jewish youth group.

The trial opened with a procedural squabble when one of the lawyers demanded that Galliano’s security guard be removed from the court, on the grounds that his presence was “menacing” to the opposing attorneys. However, in a telling moment, after the state prosecutor Anne de Fontette opined that it was “logical” that Galliano might think he would need protection, the presiding judge Anne-Marie Sauteraud ruled that the heavy could stay.

Judge Sauteraud then read out the charges in the two cases, which by dint of her heavy French accent and decision to read the insults in both languages turned out to be something of a Monty Python like scene. It was a long litany, where a snippet of the invective sounded something like this: “Fucking Asian bastard,” ca veut dire, “Enculee de batard asiatique,” or “fucking ugly Jewish bitch,” en Francais, “Mosche conasse Juif.” Though no one in the audience of some 200 actually laughed scores of people smiled discreetly through her reading, others rolled their eyes as Sauteraud translated each alleged insult back and forth between English and French.

Insults enunciated, Sauteraud then interrogated Galliano. Unlike in English-speaking courts, where opposing attorneys can generally question any witness, in this case they generally addressed their questions via the judge.

From his opening remarks, Galliano played the part of the victim, a man so crushed by the incessant demands of his “children” – meaning Christian Dior and his own fashion house – that he eventually cracked under pressure and fell into substance abuse.

Speaking with a shaky voice, Galliano told the court he suffered from a “triple addiction” to alcohol, Valium and sleeping pills and since being sacked he had been in rehab and was now in “daycare,” apparently in Switzerland.

Asked by the judge how people at Dior reacted to his heavy drinking, Galliano responded: “Oh, there was always a lot of heavy drinking at Dior,” causing hoots of laughter throughout the court, and the judge to scowl.

Immediately after, Sauteraud questioned Bloch and Virgitti. From the beginning Bloch, a combative mid-thirties Frenchwoman, came across as if this was her 30 seconds of fame in life. Speaking in an indignant tone, she explained that she and Virgitti had taken a table at about 7PM on the terrace of La Perle, a shabby yet cool neighborhood bar frequented by actors and creative types, located 80 yards from Galliano’s apartment.

Almost immediately, she insisted, she and her date had been the subject of abuse by Galliano, who repeatedly insulted them for being ugly, badly dressed and having disgusting shoes, frequently lacing each remark with the word Jewish at least 20 times.

Asked directly by the state prosecutor whether Galliano had used the word “Jewish”, Bloch replied: “Yes, several times … it was one of the most recurrent words.” He laughed at what he called my “cheap boots” and called me “a dirty Jewish bitch.”

Virgitti, who despite his Italian-sounding name was of obvious Asian origin, was clearly uncomfortable in court. He greatly lamented that his life had been turned upside down by the global media attention of the case. “People have rifled through my mail box. I have calls and threats at all sorts of times over the phone and on the Internet,” sighed Virgitti, almost gulping with fear in the witness stand.

What followed next, however, was a Rashomon moment, i.e. like the Japanese classic film, where four different people see the same incident in four completely different ways.

Two “friendly” witnesses were called, both of whom had sat on the terrace during the 45-minute long altercation pitting Galliano against Bloc and Virgitti. Their flashbacks to that terrace radically differed to those of the two plaintiffs.

First up was Marion Bully, who sat within earshot of the squabble, and said that while she heard Galliano insult Bloch, she insisted that she never heard him use the words Jewish or Juif throughout the row. A 30-year-old French lady, Bully by profession teaches English, and the fact she was able to understand both sides of the bi-lingual row made her testimony sound the most convincing.

She was followed by a 24-year-old German fashion student in Paris called Felicitas Michel, a blond and from her long dress and coiffed hair very obviously a fashionista. Michel, who had just graduated from Paris fashion school Esmod, flew in from Munich to give testimony, and had to hand over her passport on entering the court.

“I was facing John Galliano in the bar at a nearby table and saw the whole situation,” Michel said. “I heard Bloch say something to Galliano and he replied, saying she was ugly and so was her bag. The conversation went on like this and then the woman, Bloch, went to speak to the manager. The couple didn’t want to move table and then they ordered more drinks. They continued to argue. I heard Galliano call her a bitch, and the couple responded too, calling him ugly and disgusting. They both mixed the word fuck into many sentences and must have said it a score of times.”

“At one point Mr. Virgitti turned his chair to look at Galliano in a certain way and then he lifted the chair as if to hit Galliano. At this point Galliano’s driver stepped in and Virgitti said he would call the police, and Galliano said “Go ahead, call them”.

“Then I heard Galliano say “Hey Asian, do you have any papers?” added Michel, who however again claimed she did not hear the designer use the words Jew or Juif. “I did not hear any anti-Semitic remarks.”

Bloch’s lawyer Yves Beddouk pointedly asked Michel how she ended up becoming a witness, and the fashion student replied, “I contacted Mr. Zerbib,” referring to the first lawyer used by Galliano, whom he subsequently sacked and is sewing for embezzlement.

“I saw what happened and I read what was reported in the press, so I wanted to come forward because what was being reported wasn’t true. I was the person closest to the couple’s table,” added Michel.

When asked by Beddouk, “How does a fashion student find the details of Mr. Zerbib?” Michel snapped back, “On Google,” causing more laughter in the court.

At which point, and to the obvious surprise of the French journalists – there were scores in the court reporting for provincial papers, among whom I sat – Galliano’s defense was looking surprisingly solid. Two credible witnesses had both claimed he did not make anti-Semitic remarks, and there was a palpable sense of dismay in the court, crowded with members of the Jewish youth organization. Underling the atmosphere, several local reporters aggressively asked me whether I was “actually wearing Galliano?” When I responded that my split seam jacket was actually by Z Zegna, a surly French reporter sniffed suspiciously, “Oh oui? Elle a l’air Galliano, quand meme.” Meaning, well it has the air of being Galliano all the same.

Whatever version of events most reflected reality and the events on the café terrace, Galliano did end up in a Paris police station that night, and was “suspended” by Dior the following day.

Three days later, when the explosive video went viral on the internet, the famed fashion house sacked him, instantly ending a brilliant decade-long reign.

His collapse was extraordinary by any standards. One moment the ruler of the Paris couture catwalks, a darling to thousands of editors, grand dames and fans, the next a recovering alcoholic, forced to scurry through Los Angeles Airport to very publicly escape insults, in another video that went viral. One had only to look at his gaunt, haunted face to appreciate how tumultuous his fall had been.

The second case involving the incident with Oumeddour back in October turned out to be briefer. Plus by virtue of the fact the two young lady witnesses had so calmly insisted previously that Galliano had not made anti-Jewish remarks, the case seemed to be swinging Galliano’s way.

But like the climax of a Greek tragedy, everything changed when the judge ordered the video of Galliano’s drunken outburst to be projected. In the clip, the evidently drunk designer slurs out “People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be fucking gassed…. Yeah, I love Hitler.”

The court initially fell silent but there then followed a low murmur of disgust that wafted through the room, as appalled looks were shared.

Again the judge called Galliano to the witness stand, where speaking in the quietest of voices, he insisted: “They are not views that I hold or believe in.”

“In the video, I see someone who needs help, who is very vulnerable. It is a shell of John Galliano, pushed to the edge,” said the British designer.

Asked by the judge if he waned to apologize to the three plaintiffs, Galliano responded: “I apologize very much. I apologize for the sadness this whole affair has caused.”

Again, despite predictions by UK dailies that the prosecutor would “present Mr. Galliano as a chronic bigot whose hate-filled prejudices came to the fore when he was drunk,” to quote the words of the Daily Telegraph, the prosecutor de Fontette did not request a jail sentence for Galliano – when the potential sanction for this sort of offense is six months in prison – and requested a fine of 10,000 euros, less than half the maximum amount.

Moreover, Bloch’s lawyer Beddouk said his client only wanted a euro of symbolic damages and the publication of the court decision in the fashion magazines Elle and Vogue and in the French daily Le Figaro.

Anti-Semitism has been a criminal offence in France since in 1972, and the law currently forbids people from making “public insults based on the origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity.”

Dismissing the court after the four hour trial, judge Sauteraud said she will render her verdict in September. All rose as she left the court, Galliano slipped out the door, not quite evading the cameras as he scuttled along narrow corridors down to a waiting limousine, the media mob following him outside on to the street. He entered his chauffeured car just beside the entrance to the La Conciergerie Prison, where aristocrats were held during the Revolution prior to being sent to the Madame de la Guillotine. Galliano kept his head in court that day, but his few could doubt leaving the courtroom that his career had rolled away from him as surely as the guillotine had cut him in two.