Dana Thomas Explores the Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen & John Galliano in New Book

We chat with the author of "GODS AND KINGS: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano" about how the world lost one of it's most creative visionaries of all time -- and how it saved another from the same fate, just in the nick of time.
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We chat with the author of "GODS AND KINGS: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano" about how the world lost one of it's most creative visionaries of all time -- and how it saved another from the same fate, just in the nick of time.
Photo: Penguin. 

Photo: Penguin. 

Will there ever be another Alexander McQueen or John Galliano? It’s a question that many have asked since the former committed suicide in 2010 and the latter was publicly sacked from his lofty positions at LVMH for an anti-Semitic public tirade. And it's the question posed in Dana Thomas’s latest book "GODS AND KINGS: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano" -- a more-than-300-page discussion about how we’ve “killed the soul in creative industries to churn out profits,” as Thomas, also the author of "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster," explained over the phone Monday.

Unbeknownst to Thomas, the title of his book is even more fitting than he initially realized. “I was chatting with someone in the fashion industry and I told them what I was working on,” the author explained. “When I told them the name, they said, ‘Well, you know, at LVMH they call [Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH] dieu!’ I asked someone else who worked at LVMH and they said ‘Yeah, yeah, we don’t like to talk about it, but we do.’”

In addition to exploring the complicated relationship between McQueen and Galliano's creative genius and the all-important pull of profit, the dual biography really pulls back the veil on the designers' creative processes. Though rumors are touched upon -- including McQueen's alleged HIV-positive status -- the book is a far cry from being gossipy. Those who assume otherwise, says Thomas, simply "haven’t read the book yet. The book that I wrote is about how you make things and how you make things beautifully.”

Read on for her thoughts on the industry post-McQueen and Galliano and why she found both so fascinating.

'Gods and Kings' author Dana Thomas. Photo: Penguin

'Gods and Kings' author Dana Thomas. Photo: Penguin

What was the jumping off point for this book?

I was working on a piece about John's downfall for the Washington Post, and I found myself writing this leading paragraph about how he wasn't the only designer who cracked under the pressure in recent years. I decided there was something more to it. There was Marc Jacobs having a hard time and going to rehab, and McQueen, who was the most famous. There was [Christophe Decarnin] at Balmain who ended up missing his show because he had be hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. It kept coming up, so I thought, ‘There's something going on here.’

When John and McQueen first started designing, they were only doing two collections a year -- but when Galliano left Dior and his own brand, he was overseeing 32 collections a year. He was no longer really designer -- he'd become a manager.

Designers are creative souls who are far more sensitive than number crunchers with MBAs. They didn't study business, they didn't learn how to be managers, they just had to do it and it became a bit too much. It also seemed like the perfect follow-up to Deluxe. That book really talked about the business side, and how it became global -- but I didn't really talk about how that affected the creative side. So I thought, this is the perfect way to look at the creative side of the luxury fashion industry, but to use the tales of these two men to explore a much bigger question -- which is, have we lost the human touch in the pursuit of these profits?

The book deals with some pretty dark themes, including drug addiction. Why was that important to you? 

I really wanted to talk about how, in America, the culture of drugs and rehab are very much on the table. People willingly say, 'Yeah, I just spent 90 days in rehab, I’m going to be fine,' which is in large part thanks to Betty Ford, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli and other high profile people who came out and said, 'I have a problem, I fixed my problem and I hope that because I’ve come out in public and said this, you will look in the mirror and realize you have a problem and will get help too.' That never happened in Europe. That’s one of the reasons why both McQueen and Galliano got to the point where one died, and the other could have very easily. I hope that this book calls attention to the issues of addiction and makes them a more public discussion.

Also, that the corporate side of businesses that employ people who are creatives must realize that maybe in their personal lives, they are miserable and are self-medicating. They really need to take care of their creatives because otherwise you’re going to lose them. Taking care of them is like Bernard Arnault sitting down with John Galliano and saying, 'You need help.' But when it’s an addiction that is that profound, it takes more than just a talking to. You bring in a team and say, “We’ve packed your bags and you’re out of here, dude. We’ll see you in 90 days and your job will be here.” That doesn’t exist in Europe as it does in America. 

Do you think that there has been a change since what happened to McQueen and Galliano?

Well, what has happened is that the brands are now the stars and the star designers have more or less evaporated. It's more about teamwork and anonymous hands that do it. And designers go to fashion school where they do now have a business regimen, so they are far more prepared when they graduate. The designers are just less important than the brand, and everyone else is a hired hand, producing things that the brand can be stamped on or labeled with and sold everywhere.

People keep complaining about how commercial fashion has become sort of soulless in a way. That's what happens when you're producing so much, so fast by anonymous teams: there is no soul because there isn't one person who puts their creative spirit in it like it was under McQueen or Galliano or Tom Ford at Gucci or Marc at Vuitton. With them, there was sort of a trickle down effect, and you don't have that anymore. Now, people are sort of doing what they need to do and collecting their checks and going home. It’s just a job.

Do you think the recent trend of hiring from within (ie Alessandro Michele at Gucci) plays into that?

Yes! And it's not just any designers, it's the designers that are in charge of accessories. In the end, as I wrote in Deluxe, the fashion business isn't about fashion anymore; It's about accessories and handbags, shoes, sunglasses, perfume. It's about these high profit, highly marked up items that you can sell and ship anywhere that don't have sizing problems and don't go out of fashion. To this day, the one thing that Vuitton sells more than anything else, like, over 90 percent of their sales, is that classic brown monogram of suitcases and overnight bags. They've been selling that design since the 19th century, but that's what they sell the most. 

I remember Hubert de Givenchy told me 10 years ago, "You walk down the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and all you see is handbags and shoes.” What does that tell you? There is no more fashion.' So I was not surprised that they tapped [Alessandro Michele] an accessories designer at Gucci, for the second time in a row.

Even Sidney Toledano, who I love and respect very much over at Dior, came up through accessories. He was over accessories before he was the head of the whole house. So it's not just designers, it's the whole industry.

I remember reading once that the head of Saint Laurent six or seven years ago said, 'Our numbers will get better once we have an ‘It’ bag!' It was weird because Yves Saint Laurent, its entire reputation, it's entire history has been about clothes and fashion, and now it won't be a success until they get an "It" bag.

Why did you choose to focus on Galliano and McQueen specifically?

The arc of their careers really were parallel to the globalization of luxury fashion. When John started, that really was the beginning of the switch from small family businesses to those niche companies being purchased by businessmen who never had any relationship to fashion but knew how to make money. Bernard Arnault had just started getting into the luxury fashion industry in the mid to late 80s, and that's when John started. So it seemed like a good way to show how it was before these big executives got in -- like when he was hand-dying fabrics by himself in a tub and walking the racks of clothes to the store because he couldn't afford a taxi -- and then show, at the same time, how the business tycoons and people who saw the potential of brands in the global marketplace just came in and started changing that game. I wanted to show how [Galliano] and McQueen had to evolve and adapt with those changes.

Were you hoping to compare the two designers, or was it supposed to be a juxtaposition of them?

Well both. They have such similar backgrounds in that they both came from simple, working class fathers and doting mothers who nourished their love of fashion. Both of their fathers were really patriarchal and down on the idea that their sons were gay, and that they liked to draw dresses. They both also went to Central Saint Martins -- and sure a lot of people went to Saint Martins. They had similar teachers and then they both really made their way into working in Paris for LVMH at Givenchy separately. I thought it would be easy to show that they kind of took the same path, but they had such different voices along that path.

When they both started showing in Paris, McQueen had caught up to Galliano and they were running in parallels creatively and in their careers. Then there was a moment when McQueen sold to Gucci Group and went back to London, and he sped past Galliano on every level -- including self destruction -- and that’s why he crashed first. To me, it wasn’t a surprise that they both crashed within a year of each other. It was sort of a two-step ending to this magical era of creativity in fashion.

Those two set a bar so high, because they were both geniuses in their own right, and everyone else had to measure up to them. Like Saint Laurent did in the 60s, like Madame Vionnet in the 30s, like Balenciaga. It pushed everybody -- so the photographers had to go to a higher level of creativity, the stylists, the makeup artists and even the hair dressers. That’s why I even talked to the hairdressers -- they said that McQueen would push them to do crazy things that they would have never thought of before. 

You ended up interviewing over 150 people for this book. Was there one interview that was sort of pivotal, or that really stands out in your mind?

Oh yeah, Phillip Treacy! Phillip Treacy is a magical person. He’s the most divine human being I’ve ever met. I adore him. Everything he does is a gift; I can’t find the words to describe the beauty of what he creates. And hats aren't something we use much anymore, but he’s an artist and a very kind soul.

The way Phillip described [the relationship between himself, Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow], he said it was like she was having a love affair with the two of them. It was a platonic, mental, emotional sort of love affair. He said, ‘I was the first one and McQueen was the second.’ 

One of the interesting things I learned was that McQueen was famous for stealing things. But when he was working in the basement of Isabella’s mother-in-law’s house as his early studio, Phillip’s archives of hats was upstairs. McQueen’s partner at the time said that McQueen stole [Blow's husband] Detmar’s sister’s fabrics and sold them and got the cash to buy what he needed -- but he didn't touch Phillip’s hats. There was an unspoken respect for what Phillip was doing, and he just didn’t go there.

Even when he worked with Phillip, he didn’t say, 'Phillip, for this outfit, I want you to make something like this.' He would just meet with Phillip and say, 'This is what I’m doing, I’ll leave you to it.' And then Phillip would come back with things and McQueen would make everyone sit silently and he’d say, 'We are now going to have the unveiling of the hats,' and Phillip would take each hat out and it would be properly introduced. And then they would figure out which hat should go with which outfit, along with Katy England, or whoever else was styling it. There again, McQueen was letting Phillip be Phillip as opposed to steering him.

Since Galliano’s downfall he’s returned to fashion with his position at Maison Margiela. Given his history, what are your thoughts on the move and the fact that it was so public?

I think it’s kind of curious. The one designer that McQueen most respected, and almost idolized when he was a young, up and coming designer and student was Margiela. When he was a student at Saint Martins, it was all about Margiela at a time when no one knew Margiela was. What was really interesting is that the first person he went to see to get a job was Margiela. Margiela told him 'You’re too good to work for me as an assistant. Go back to London and start your own company, you’ll do well.'

Everything that John did was really an antithesis to what Margiela was about. McQueen sort of followed that drum beat about being true to yourself, being experimental, pushing boundaries, trying to do new things -- not necessarily in design, but trying out things that are modern as in like, 'the next thing.' Margiela like that too: it wasn’t about him, it was about the clothes and the design and his commentary on society.

John was about the opposite, he was the romantic and he was always referencing history. You had to know your French and British history if you were going to understand his clothes. He wasn’t incredibly modern. He might reference the 1970s, but there was never much forward thinking about what’s next -- it was about romanticizing certain periods in new fabrics.

So for John to go to Margiela, I thought it was the perfect way to tie my book back together. We lost McQueen, who loved Margiela, and we almost lost Galliano -- but now he’s seen the light. And that light is Margiela.