Dana Thomas | Why The Downfall of John Galliano & Alexander McQueen Still Affects Us

Alexander McQueen and John Galliano were two of the brightest and most eccentric stars working within the last decade of fashion. Both McQueen’s death and Galliano’s exit from Dior remain intriguing episodes in the annals of fashion history.
In 2015, renowned fashion writer Dana Thomas released the book, Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, which covered the lives and controversies of both men leading up to their tragic downfall. The book also upheld a scathing attack on the fashion industry and how it ultimately helped to fuel the demise of these eccentric and very public figures.
McQueen was famously quoted as saying, “Give me time and I’ll give you a revolution.” And that he certainly did. Galliano on the other hand, now the face of Maison Margiela, will have to wait and see whether history will look kindly on him after his infamous anti-semetic outburst in 2011.

Your book outlines the rise and fall of two titans of the fashion industry. What drew you to the story of these two particular men?

I have covered both Galliano and McQueen since the beginning of their careers and knew both men and their work well. Both, I felt since those early days, were creative geniuses, doing work far beyond their professions, even when they didn’t have a penny in their pocket. It was like having Matisse and Picasso working at the same time. When Galliano imploded at Dior, I wrote a story for the Washington Post and in it had a paragraph talking about other fashion designers who had crumbled under the stress of their work, most notably McQueen. I sat back and thought, Hmm..there’s something going on here. I called the Penguin editor in London who edited my first book, Deluxe, and after about a 20 minute chat, I had the outline in my head for a book.

Your book implies that it is the business that crushed Galiano’s and McQueen’s creative souls. Where should the line between creativity and money be?

That’s a tricky question, and it seems to be a generational one. In the old days of couture, there was a strict hierarchy: the couturier sketched ideas and handed them off to the atelier heads, and then the atelier heads oversaw the creation of the clothes. During fittings, the couturiers would tell the atelier heads what needed fixing. Though they knew how to sew, they never actually did any sewing or cutting. They delegated. That is still how Karl Lagerfeld works.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, however, that all changed. Galliano and McQueen, and the designers of their generation, made everything themselves. They were not prepared for fashion to turn into a global industry. Most had gone to art school, not business school, and hadn’t taken a single business class. They were artists, not managers. They started small companies backed by business executives who handled the management, freeing them up to create.

They did two collections a year. They had fun. But then they were hired as creative directors of mega-brands that were part of global conglomerates. It seemed glamorous, and it was an excellent paying job after years of poverty. But the jobs included managing teams of assistants, something they were never trained to do, unlike the old school couturiers. And they had to come up with an endless supply of ideas for dozens of new collections a year, all to keep up with the demands of share holders who wanted to see profits every three months. It was just too much, and many of those who didn’t have some sort of breakdown have withdrawn from the business. It wasn’t fun anymore. Not at all. The new generation of designers seem far more prepared for the job. Their art schools now offer business classes, and some even go on to get a masters in luxury management. They understand that their job is as managerial as it is creative. The perfect example is Christopher Bailey, who is now CEO as well as the creative head of Burberry.

Both McQueen and Galliano had addictions and seemed to experience heavy ups and downs. Recent documentaries on Nina Simone, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse in a way they all tell the same story: sad childhood, lack of self confidence, addictive behavior, creative genius and managers who push them to the extremes. There is a sense that addiction and self destruction is perhaps glorified in this industry. Would you agree?

I think it was for a long time. Pierre Bergé once famously told the French daily Le Figaro that Yves Saint Laurent was born with a nervous breakdown. Fashion designers were seen as fragile as well as flamboyant creative souls that needed nurturing. But I think that is no longer the case with the new generation of designers, in part because we are in the rehab era, and those cautionary tales have had an impact. And also in part because we are in a global world. Fashion is run by no-nonsense business executives, and quite simply there is too much money at stake.

It seems that because of all these scandals, pressure and lack of creative freedom, many artists seem to go to smaller ventures, handling their commerce online, by themselves. Just look at what is happening with Hedi Slimane’s recent exit and Raf Simons. What do you think of those small-scale enterprises, and the importance of remaining independent?

I love the return to small, independent companies! This is what I hailed in my first book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. Most major luxury brands have sacrificed their integrity for the sake of profits. The independents hold on tight to their integrity.

Your book has been criticized by fashion critics. Some have even hinted that facts might not be true (ie. Steven Robinson). What is your reaction to that?

I haven’t read or heard anything about the information about Steven Robinson not being true. In fact, I have heard quite the opposite and many people have confirmed and expanded on what I wrote about him. The handful critics who blasted the book—all but one had a conflict of interest in reviewing it. They were cited throughout, not always favorably, and used their pens to lash back. More importantly, they were all part of the “insiders” who, as I pointed out, are in the thick of the game, either ignoring McQueen during his rise only to fawn over him in death or fawn over Galliano only to tear him down later. They are players. And this book was very hard on the players, because the players contributed to these two designers’ downfalls.

Can you give us an insight on what is happening in fashion at the moment? Where should we be looking?

I’m excited by the return of domestic and small-batch cut-and-sew production, about 3-D printing, about the rise of sustainability and social responsibility in fashion. And all of this is happening not because of the players or the critics, members of the same four hundred people who attend fashion shows and think of themselves as the “fashion tribe.” No, it’s because consumers are demanding it. I love that consumers are now taking charge and dictating what’s next. Now that’s the democratization of luxury!

Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano is out now on Penguin.