The Conflict at the Heart of the Galliano Documentary

What moral lapses should genius be permitted? John Galliano, self-styled bad boy of fashion, seemed determined to find out.

He was a fashion-world Icarus: a prodigious talent who soared high, then crashed to earth in 2011, losing his reputation and his position as creative director of Dior, after a series of highly publicized drunken, racist and antisemitic tirades. He would rise again, but the path back was steep.

The aptly titled “High & Low: John Galliano,” directed by Kevin Macdonald, chronicles this roller coaster of a career, while exposing some of the less beautiful side of the fashion industry — the toll it exacts from even those it most glorifies.

Mr. Galliano proved himself a genius early on, designing not just clothes, but hallucinogenic visions, alive with color, movement, texture and, above all, stories. Skyrocketing out of St. Martin’s School of Art in London in 1984, he produced a dazzling graduation collection called “Les Incroyables,” inspired by an 18th-century French fashion movement. In the film, the renowned fashion journalist, Hamish Bowles, calls it one of the five greatest runway shows he’s ever seen.

Mr. Galliano’s star rose quickly. He attracted backers, key editors (André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour anointed him), a slinky entourage that featured Amanda Harlech as his personal muse and a bevy of one-named ’90s glamazons — Naomi, Linda, Kate. After a stint at Givenchy, Mr. Galliano ascended to Dior, one of France’s most historic luxury houses.

In Mr. Galliano’s hands, fashion blossomed into alternate universes. For one Dior collection, he reimagined ancient Egypt, dreaming up golden pyramidal dresses, gem-encrusted makeup, jackal headdresses, Nefertiti and Tutankhamen masks. He plucked motifs merrily and irreverently from everywhere.

Every collection unfolded like experimental theater or film, with odd, discordant touches reminiscent of Bunraku or Dada. Mr. Galliano put trees in models’ hair. He had them toss dead mackerels into the audience. Everything was beautiful. Nothing was sacred.

For his “clochard” (or ‘hobo’) show, in 2000, Mr. Galliano drew inspiration, he said, from the homeless people he saw while jogging along the Seine. The collection featured clothes resembling piles of newspapers, and accessories made of found objects, like whiskey bottles. The show ignited mass demonstrations and accusations of cruel indifference to social problems, which only baffled Mr. Galliano. He had just thought the clothes were beautiful, he said.

In the documentary, models Kate Moss and Amber Valletta recall Mr. Galliano’s theater-director approach, his instructions to imagine themselves as storybook princesses running from danger. The most recurrent theme was “escape.”

Mr. Galliano was running, too, from a painful past, from inner demons. He too sought escape in playing characters. “John Galliano,” darling of the international beau monde, was actually the invention of the boy born Juan Carlos Galliano-Gallien, to working-class parents in Gibraltar. Aware of being gay from early childhood, he kept his sexuality a secret from his strict Catholic family, especially his disapproving father who could be violent. Juan Carlos took refuge in make-believe and drawing pictures. “It was nicer in my head,” Mr. Galliano explains.

Eventually, the pictures inside his head sprang to three-dimensional life through fashion, and Mr. Galliano developed his increasingly extravagant persona. He dressed in costumes: as a pirate, a sailor, an astronaut or an emperor — affecting a Napoleonic tricorn. The director of “High & Low,” Mr. Macdonald, underscores both Mr. Galliano’s cinematic life and his penchant for Napoleon (which Mr. Galliano denies) by punctuating the documentary with clips from “Napoléon,” Abel Gance’s 1927 silent film.

The clips are an odd, self-consciously auteur-ish touch, and appear with little explanation. Yet the implication is clear: Like Mr. Galliano, Napoleon was a bullied outsider (from the French province of Corsica), whose enormous ambition gave him the world but led eventually to defeat and exile. Mr. Macdonald also weaves in (unexplained) clips from the 1948 classic, “The Red Shoes,” in which a gifted ballerina is forced, by enchanted pointe shoes, to dance herself to death. Mr. Macdonald seems to see shades of this frenzied dancer in Mr. Galliano.

The documentary reveals much about Mr. Galliano’s frenzied life: the demands for ever more collections (up to 32 per year), the excesses that isolated him from reality (Mr. Galliano recalls six people helping him light a cigarette), the pills and booze and the grief over the death of his closest friend and assistant, Steven Robinson, at 38, a man who’d all but given up his own life to serve Mr. Galliano.

Such pressures preceded Mr. Galliano’s now-famous, drunken outbursts in a Paris bar. “You are so ugly. I don’t want to see you,” he said to one woman, using antisemitic language and insulting her clothes and body. In a second incident, Mr. Galliano declared, “I love Hitler,” adding, “People like you would be dead today.”

Today, the now-sober Mr. Galliano blames drugs and alcohol for these episodes, claiming to have no recollection of them. He has been through a trial, gone to rehab and met with rabbis.

Mr. Galliano seems contrite. The film seems to suggest that all should be forgiven, even while demonstrating its subject’s curious oblivion to social and political issues, and his blithe disregard of the suffering of close associates like Mr. Robinson. But it raises, too, troubling issues that go beyond one man’s story.

Mr. Galliano’s particular insults connected ethnicity and race to questions of appearance and belonging. He offered judgments about who is beautiful and who is not. Who deserved to live and who did not. These tirades were racist, yes, but they also smacked of some of the very judgments that preoccupy fashion, with its habit of legislating what, or who, is in or out. Fashion, the exquisite haven that welcomed the former bullied child, the place that indulged his dreams and nurtured his talent, is also the place that helped drive him to self-destruction, a place of ravenous, incessant demands for youth, status, money and, especially, beauty.

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