John Galliano departed from The House of Dior over one year ago. Speculation about who would replace him raged throughout 2011, but now the more interesting question is why it has taken so long to fill his gilded seat at fashion’s top table. Daniel Jeffreys has the answer.
[dropcap size=small]”[/dropcap]The King is dead,” said a Frenchman in Le Chiberta, a Michelin two-star restaurant a few catwalk lengths from the heart of Paris, where they know a thing or two about dead monarchs. He looked down at his BlackBerry and sighed, then took a mouthful of beetroot truffle soup. Earlier the French man, a lieutenant of Bernard Arnault, the LVMH chief executive, had been about to start his potage. But then the phone rang. Conversation proceeded in French. At its conclusion the Arnault aide-de-camp leaned in and said to me, “Mr. Arnault wants to know, should he fire John Galliano?” I felt like a 1940s French peasant might, on being asked by General Leclerc if he should accept the German army’s surrender of Paris. The answer was so blindingly obvious that I choked on a truffle. It was March 1, 2011 and the king was not dead, but his regal career had breathed its last.
In truth Arnault’s question must have been rhetorical. After Galliano had been exposed as wide-eyed rantist, spewing admiration for the man who once ordered the destruction of Paris (not to mention – but we must – six million Jews) it was obvious he could no longer be Dior’s dream weaver. This expression conjures up the function of Galliano’s former job at Dior far better than the term “Creative Director”. A few months earlier Galliano’s sub-boss, Sidney Toledano, the President of the House of Dior Couture (yes, that is his real title) had informed me at an a deux lunch in Mr Dior’s old apartment on Avenue Montaigne, that Dior was about building dreams, that the millions of Euros they had just invested in a new training college for Dior employees was to ensure no shop assistante would ever puncture the dream, by doing something gauche while a starry eyed Shanghainese entrepreneur’s wife forked over thousands for a Lady Dior bag. Dream. Racist Rant. Bang.
Within minutes of my leaving Chiberta the Twitterati (not to be confused with the literati, or indeed literacy of any kind, unless preceded by an “i” and an “l”) began speculating about whom would replace the designer whose-name-could-no-longer-be-spoken (at least that was Toledano’s approach, when he made his emotional speech at the Dior show that followed Galliano’s departure on March 4th).
Twits whose only evidence of a contact within the House of Dior was a receipt from one of the brand’s stores, began to speak of tips from deep insiders, telling them Haider or Phoebe or Marc or Albert or Hedi would soon be lifting the couture crown upon their swelling heads. By the summer of last year speculation had become more heated than a Hong Kong dai pai dong in August. I stepped off a plane in Greece to be greeted by a call from a senior member of the Celine team in Asia, who wanted to know if I could confirm that Marc Jacobs had been appointed as Dior’s new le Roi-Soleil. My answer was “No” in as many different languages as I could muster with jetlag. And I had proof. In December 2010, Arnault told me in an interview that Galliano had been perfect for Dior, Jacobs perfect for Louis Vuitton and neither would be successful if they swapped jobs. The man who still keeps copies of Paris Match from the week that Christian Dior died (the founder of the house made the cover) was very emphatic on this point – he just couldn’t see Jacobs’ retailing genius surviving in the more rarefied atmosphere of Dior Couture, which in terms of expectations is thousands of feet higher above sea (or LV) level than his current job.
However, despite logic and commonsense, Jacobs was eventually asked to take the Dior post, and the circumstances of the offer reveal much about the miniature crisis that le affaire Galliano has caused inside the austere LVMH headquarters on Avenue Montaigne. For the offer was, in all probability, a shadow dance between Arnault and Jacobs, designed to allow both to save face. And why would that be necessary?
Fast-forward from Athens in August and it’s winter in Hong Kong. A field-marshal figure in the Empire Arnault tells me that everybody has been offered the Dior job. I hadn’t, so I’m puzzled. “Everybody who counts,” says the FM. In other words the Twits had been Twaccurate (Twitter speak for correct?) and the months following Galliano’s departure had seen the world’s most important designers spinning through the LVMH headquarters like torch singers at an X-Factor audition. So why didn’t any of the big fish take Arnault’s lavishly baited hook?
“None of them wanted to go through the same thing as John,” said FM. “They felt like he had been sucked dry and then tossed away like a used lemon. If it could happen to him, it could happen to them.”
“What Dior needs is a star, somebody who can light up the name again and make it shimmer,” says a European client of the house who rarely wears anything but Galliano-era Dior. “The house can’t expect to continue drawing people in to pay couture prices for ready-to-wear when there is no diva on stage.”
But all the gossip about offers for Philo and Ackerman (even Lagerfeld!) must have made Jacobs feel insecure, or at least unwanted. If Dior could even consider shipping Hedi Slimane (former head of Dior Homme) back to do the ladies, surely they should think about offering Jacobs the job. Thus, according to the gossip (and I stress that this is only gossip) it was agreed that Jacobs would be offered the job, he would then make demands in terms of staffing that would be impossible for Arnault to accept, at which point both Commander-in-Chief and Captain-of-the-Horse could depart from the field with their honour intact. And thus it happened. Arnault said no thank you, and Jacobs galloped back to Vuitton.
With the Jacobs non-succession settled, the air cleared somewhat – and the only figure left standing was Bill Gaytten, who has been auditioning for the Galliano job in situ for over a year. Gaytten was Galliano’s general during the headiest years of the Gibraltan maverick’s ascent, when his new designs were the most anticipated of any during Paris fashion week.
Arnault has been delighted to see Gaytten get some warm reviews for his work, at last. But there’s the rub – none of the reviews had been hot. Gaytten and hot (as in wow, as in got-to-have-it) appear to be states of being that are alien to each other. The New York Times called his January Couture show “pretty good” and, while being warm (but not hot) about his latest ready-to-wear show, for Fall-Winter 2012, said the clothes “didn’t look like Dior” and that apparently “he cannot see Dior whole.” Such damming with faint praise (WWD said the clothes were “pretty”) is bound to give Arnault an LVMH-sized headache, especially when some of his field marshals have been grumbling about what they say is the mishandling of both the Galliano situation, and the decision to bring in Jordi Constans, 47, a Spanish-born yoghurt executive and formerly a managing director at Danone, as the new head of LV.
But diva’s come with baggage, and not the sort that LV make, more the kind that have an emotional tag and can weigh down a design house with paparazzi headlines. And the bags can get very heavy indeed on a couture house treadmill, where two couture, two ready-to-wear and several pre- and cruise collections can mean a designer is threshing through a new line every eight weeks.
Stefano Pilati, former creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, recently summed up the situation facing designers at couture houses, and the lessons he has drawn.
“I work 24 hours a day, essentially,” he bewailed to Vogue. “I have to make a collection every two months. You have to be in shape; you have to be more athlete than rock star. When you go outside that world and meet the 90 per cent of society who have no clue what you’re doing, you end up choosing to go back home with your friends. Or maybe you run away for ten days and party like an animal, and then it takes you ten days to recover and you hope nobody noticed. Today, excess has to be kept within the private sphere. Today that kind of stuff is just impossible. Without getting right into the dirt of it, John [Galliano] really kind of put an end to that sort of option.”
Dragged down with work, lacking the privileges afforded a monarch of old (i.e. the right to abuse whoever they wanted without punishment while living the life of a libertine) it’s no wonder none of the designers approached by Arnault wanted to put their head inside the haute couture noose, however much money was on the table.
All of the much-touted names to replace Galliano work at houses that don’t do couture, apart from Riccardo Tisci and his does it gothic-style, which just isn’t Dior. The official list of front rank haute couture houses consists of Chanel, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier and Giambattista Valli. For designers the step up from ready-to-wear to haute couture is like moving from club tennis to the US Open – only a few are able to make the jump and many a reputation has been dashed in the attempt. And therein lies Arnault’s dilemma. He needs somebody new and fresh for Dior, but he also needs somebody who can survive. Such talents are rare, like a black diamond. And it’s impossible to find out if the new face has what it takes until he he is strapped down inside the pressure cooker with no means to escape but death – at least of the career kind.
Which just makes the stakes involved with choosing the new King of Dior that much higher. The longer it takes, the more extreme will be the expectations and the tougher the task – and the more pressure there will be on Arnault and his team to make the right choice. Dior may have survived the implosion of one dream weaver but to loose a second would be a nightmare. The throne may remain empty for a long time to come. And if it has been filled by the time you read this, remember William Shakespeare’s famous lines from Henry IV, Part II, “Then happy low, lie down!/Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
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