What did you do on Sunday? We spent the afternoon with Dana Thomas at the Design Hub (RMIT). Sure, there were other shadows there, but it was such an intimate event, it felt like it was just the three of us, out to lunch…but without any table service (sadly).
Dana Thomas is the author of the new double-biography Gods And Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, and the New York Times bestseller Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre. She’s also a contributing editor to the New York Times Style Magazine, T, and regularly contributes to Architectural Digest.
When she first rose to her sunny yellow lectern, Thomas lamented the fact that her talk coincided with the Grand Prix, and, just as I considered shattering the silence with a shrill outburst of, “the people who read your books are not the same as the people who attend the Grand Prix!”, she confessed that while she writes about fashion, she really loves cars. So with decorum in tact, we listened on in silence.
Gods and Kings is an exploration of two working-class British boys from the London art scene, and their decade-long dominance of haute couture in Paris… the impact they had on the fashion world, and the effects that had on their lives, resulting in Alexander McQueen’s suicide and John Galliano’s very public career implosion, within twelve months.
Thomas said, “This is in part a memoir, I creep into it from time to time, because parts of it comes from what I wrote in my notebooks while sitting at shows [way back when]. I first interviewed Galliano in 1994, and McQueen in 1997.
This was before Google. If you ever wanted to look up something that happened before, you had to have kept it. You had to have your own clipping service, especially if you were living overseas [an American in Paris]. We didn’t have a library at Newsweek any more, so at the end of every season, I would collect all the Suzy Menkes stories, all the womenswear stories from Le Figaro, whatever was in Paris Match…. I kept all the press kits, all the invitations and I kept all my notebooks. I’d put them in a folder and throw them into the cave (ca-veh noun. French: a cellar or basement). That was, say, in March… so in October when the clothes would go into stores, I’d do a trend piece, I’d have to go back to storage, pull out the file, and I’d write a trend story about what we saw back in March. That’s how we worked – we just couldn’t Google it. There was no style.com. We couldn’t just look at slides of the show, and say “oh yeah“. If I wanted to remember what I saw, I needed the press kit to help describe what the fabrics were.
When we decided I’d work on this book, I went back to the cave, and thought my god, I’ve got 25 years of press kits, clips and interviews! I’d also kept all the original interviews and stories I had done with them (Galliano, McQueen). So I found these amazing things I’d never used, all these great little gems that never made it into magazine or newspapers, just sitting there in notebooks.”
During work on the book, Thomas interviewed around a hundred people over four years. She said that on some days she’d sit in silence on her sofa, reflecting. She’d made people cry by talking about it. And, that was hard to do.
Dana Thomas, On The Book
Bernard Arnault, owner of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, appointed John Galliano as head designer at Givenchy in 1995. The following year he was moved over to Christian Dior, where he remained until 2011. In 1996, Alexander McQueen was appointed by Arnault as head designer at Givenchy – both designers were employed to make some noise and bring new excitement to the fashion world. Ultimately, Thomas believes they were the victims of the pressure that comes when art and creation clashes with big commerce.
They both started as pure designers, creatively free, but in the end they gave up their control, and were driven by Marketing Executives – they were told what colours to use, release fragrances, design kids clothes, shoes, handbags and, more fragrances!
To cope with the pressure, they were self-medicating for a whole decade. So entrapped were they on the mouse wheel, that they became less like designers and more like managers, making more decisions, making less clothes. Huge teams of people were hired to cope with the demands, sales targets, and pure volume of output, creating an insurmountable chasm between the designers and their craft.
“Fashion wasn’t a big industry as it is now. We wanted to make beautiful things and have fun along the way. There wasn’t the pressure to do handbags, shoes, perfumes. It was about the clothes – the shape, the feel, colours.” – J. Galliano
At the time when he was fired from Dior, and in a haze of uppers, downers and booze, John Galliano was overseeing around thirty-two collections a year.
Towards the end of his life, McQueen had a $1,000 a day cocaine habit. Thomas said, “These guys were living in a bubble. When he left Dior, Galliano didn’t know how to use an ATM or send an email. And, they were both surrounded by enablers. The entourages, in the beginning at least – they thought they were doing some good, that they were helping. Galliano and McQueen both had personal assistants that would do everything for them. They had drivers. They were taken care of, in that regard …but then there was a real disconnect between the designers and the CEOs of the company. They existed in separate buildings. You’d never have a CEO passing Galliano in the corridor. The management team didn’t know the extent of the problems their designers were grappling with. McQueen was HIV positive, and the management team had no idea. What kind of management team doesn’t know that about their employee?”
In contrast to the themes in her own title, Thomas mentioned a book written by her friend, Teri Agins called Hijacking The Runway, about the likes of Jessica Simpson, Kanye West, and Victoria Beckham; celebrities who have a ready made brand, and a completely different approach to design – they have huge teams of people to create for them, and they know how to use them to great success (and profit) – a completely different scene to the origins of creative daring and brilliance in McQueen and Galliano’s work.
On Galliano’s role as creative director at Maison Margiella, Thomas said she hopes that he’s easing himself back into the design process, by going to a much smaller brand… that it will lead him to create his own brand, under his own name, or a completely new one. She felt that too many people are trying to resurrect old brands, names that have been around for years, outdated and tired – and that, apart from Halston, which she would love to see make a comeback (and we concur). She asked, “what is wrong with simply starting new brands, like Tom Ford did?”
At the end of proceedings, we each bought a copy of Gods and Kings, and as I waited to meet Dana Thomas, was overwhelmed with anticipation, I was in awe of the chance to talk with her. I told her all about you. I can’t wait to read this book. That is, if I can make it past the first page.