A tale of two designers

A tale of two designers

Alexander McQueen and John Galliano were two of the most celebrated designers of their generation.

Both emerged on the scene in the mid-1990s, when the fashion world was going through a period of minimalism. They lit it up with their outrageous designs and theatrical fashion shows.

By 1997, they were each heading couture houses; McQueen at Givenchy and Galliano at Dior.

Although their careers reached new heights, the pressures that came with these appointments, such as the rapid deadlines and high profit targets, were ultimately factors that led to their downfall.

In her latest book, Gods And Kings: The Rise And Fall Of Alexander McQueen And John Galliano, fashion journalist and author Dana Thomas uses the biographies of the two designers to illustrate what has been lost in the quest for profits.

The world lost an audacious designer when McQueen committed suicide in 2010, at the age of 40, just three weeks before the fall/winter show of his eponymous collection.

A year later, Galliano, 54, who reinvented the bias cut, was fired from Dior and his namesake label after hurling anti-Semitic insults.

The disgraced designer has since been given a second chance as the creative director of Paris-based brand Maison Margiela.

"The go-go pace was unsustainable and the wreckage it caused astounding," wrote Thomas, 51.

The Paris-based writer, who is a contributing editor for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, started her career as a general news reporter at The Washington Post in the 1990s and later moved on to the Style section of the paper.

Although she worked as a fashion model in Paris and Milan in her teens, she never intended to continue working in the industry.

"My dad took me to a modelling agency because they didn't have much money to pay for my college education. When I had enough money, I went to college with the idea of becoming a political writer," said the Pennsylvania native, who moved to Paris in 1992.

Her husband is French and they have a 14-year-old daughter.

Her first book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, also examined the dark side of the fashion industry.

Gods And Kings: The Rise And Fall Of Alexander McQueen And John Galliano is available at Books Kinokuniya for $42.75, while Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster costs $26.70 at the same store.

During a visit to Singapore two weeks ago, Thomas reflected on her new book, career and other designers that she admires.

Why did you choose to focus on these two designers?

I was working on a story about Galliano's downfall for The Washington Post, and I found myself writing a paragraph about other designers who had cracked under the pressure of work. The most notable was McQueen and I thought: "Wow, there is something going on here." The business had become this big industry and the creative side was cracking under the pressure of all that expansion and growth.

When Galliano started his career, he was overseeing two collections a year, but by the time he was fired by Dior and his own company, he was overseeing 32 collections a year - that's an enormous workload.

There were a lot of similarities between the two of them: They grew up in working-class London, both went to tough schools where they were bullied, and both had strong-willed fathers who were not very keen that their sons liked fashion.

What was the most surprising thing you found out while working on this book?

I always knew that the business and creative side of fashion were very separate, but I did not realise just how separate they were.

McQueen had his office in east London, while his bosses were on the other side of town in Mayfair. They would go to his office only once or twice a year to see what he was doing. They did not know that he was having such a hard time and taking drugs because they never saw him.

You have met McQueen and Galliano - what is your impression of them?

They were both very shy. Galliano overcame that shyness with a very sharp humour that could sometimes be mean-spirited.

In your first book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, you looked at how the luxury industry has changed. Does true luxury still exist and what do you consider luxurious?

In the big companies, very little. To me, the definition of luxury is something that is made with integrity using the best materials and that you do not see it everywhere you go. It is not necessarily one-of-a-kind, but it is rare. If a company is doing US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) a year in sales, then its products are not very rare, they are ubiquitous.

You have been a fashion journalist for over 20 years - what is the most memorable story you have written?

The Newsweek cover story that I did about McQueen when he took over Givenchy in 1997, which is why I went back to him. I was completely fascinated by his creativity, but I did not get to write about him again until this book, and I am sorry that I did not because he was really special - you only get talent like that once in a generation.

Who has been the most interesting person you have interviewed?

Mr Mul, a sixth-generation rose farmer.

I went to Chanel's rose field near the town of Grasse, in the South of France, where he harvests roses for the Chanel No. 5 perfume.

He had big, meaty, rough hands because he had been working in the field for years, and when he shook my hand, it was engulfed in his. I thought to myself: "Wow, I'm shaking the hand of a man who works with his hands." I really admired that.

How did you get your start as a fashion writer?

I am not one of those fashion writers who has always been into fashion, and I spend most of my days in T-shirts and Levi's.

I started my career as a reporter on the national desk at The Washington Post. While I was there, the fashion editor, who needed a new assistant, heard that I spoke French and Italian, lived in Paris, and knew who Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent were. I was the only kid in the newsroom who knew who they were, so that is how I got started.

I have never thought of myself as a fashion writer; I am just a general assignments newspaper girl who has written about arts, sports and politics. I think one just needs to be a good reporter to write about anything.

At the beginning, I wrote about a lot of fashion trends, but the beat became more interesting when more fashion companies were going from private to public and I started doing more business stories.

Who, in your opinion, is a designer to watch?

Jason Wu is really great. I just love what he does; it is elegant, chic and modern.

Jeremy Scott at Moschino is one to watch too. What he is doing is very witty and it has been missing in fashion for a while.


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