Fascinating New John Galliano Documentary Unpicks The Designer’s Rise & Fall

New documentary High & Low: John Galliano covers all the complexities of the famous British designer, one of the most celebrated and controversial figures in the fashion industry.

The film, directed by Kevin Macdonald, features candid interviews with Galliano and fashion icons Anna Wintour, Naomi Campbell, Penelope Cruz, Kate Moss and Charlize Theron.

Galliano’s star shone brightly when Givenchy hired him as a young head designer in 1995, before Christian Dior brought him on as creative director the following year. For nearly 15 years, he worked tirelessly on multiple seasonal collections at Dior and also started his own label. His over-the-top theatrical runway shows told stories with elaborate sets and makeup.

The film suggests that Galliano was overworked and abusing alcohol and drugs when he made a series of anti-Semitic and racist comments in 2010 and 2011. After the video of him saying “I love Hitler,” went viral, outrage was swift. Dior dropped him, he was convicted in an anti-Semitism trial in France, and he disappeared from the fashion world for several years. During that time, he made public and private efforts to rehabilitate and get sober, and educate himself on Jewish history and culture.

In 2014, Galliano was hired by Paris fashion house Maison Margiela and debuted his first show in years. His most recent show received rave reviews. The Associated Press talked to Macdonald about Galliano’s rise and fall and why many friends and fans stayed loyal to him. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

'High & Low: John Galliano' sees John Galliano return to the Dior archive for the first time since 2011. Photo / AP
‘High & Low: John Galliano’ sees John Galliano return to the Dior archive for the first time since 2011. Photo / AP

AP: How did this film come about?

Macdonald: I went to Paris, I met [Galliano], we had lunch, and it was obvious that he wanted to make a film. It was in his mind I think for a number of reasons, maybe partly because he thought, “Alexander McQueen has a great film. I should have one about me.” … But I think also because he said to me, “Look, I don’t expect people to forgive me. Those who are not going to forgive me are not going to forgive me, but I would like people to understand a bit more what happened.” And I thought that was a good motivation for making a film.

AP: What do you want people to know about him after watching?

Macdonald: I wanted to make a film that was a film for debate — that didn’t close things down in a black-and-white way. Because there is no answer to a lot of the questions that are raised by this film. When has somebody paid their dues? When should they be forgiven? How do we really know why someone said something? Why somebody did something wrong? He was blind drunk, blacked out. He doesn’t even remember why he did it. So I want people to come away with a feeling of, gosh, it’s complicated.

AP: Many fashion icons stuck by him despite his troubles, why?

Macdonald: People can criticise and say, well, you know, you’re putting your loyalty above integrity. But you can also see it, as you know, loyalty is a really great quality. And I think it’s amazing to me, the number of celebrities who agreed to appear — at some reputational risk. I would say that because they felt loyalty to him, because they like him, and they wanted to put forward their experiences with him.

John Galliano and Anna Wintour at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2021. Photo / Getty Images
John Galliano and Anna Wintour at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2021. Photo / Getty Images

AP: Do you think Galliano feels remorse about his past comments and behaviour?

Macdonald: I don’t think that he was in any way deliberately setting out to hurt people. As far as how sorry he feels, I think he feels very sorry about what happened, but I think there’s also a side to him — he’s a bit narcissistic, and he feels like, you know, “I’ve done enough”. But of course, then he’ll turn around and say, “Well, I know that I’m never going to be forgiven. And I know that there are certain people who would never buy my clothes.”

AP: Do you think his success at Maison Margiela will continue?

Macdonald: This latest show has been greeted with this attention and people absolutely loved it. It’s become a kind of internet phenomenon. And people are saying it’s now no longer Margiela. It’s back to being Galliano. I don’t know whether the experience of making the documentary was somehow cathartic and it’s kind of released him to do that, but I think there might be a little bit of that going on … It feels like, “Okay, I’ve got that off my chest now, now I can … do what I’m really, really good at and express myself more personally again.”

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