Before John Galliano showed his second ready-to-wear collection for Maison Margiela on Wednesday, a man in a suit and plastic gloves got down on his hands and knees and rubbed the footprints out of the brushed metal runway before the photographers' pit. It was painstaking work; he was sweating. It was a well-timed reminder of just how much sweat had gone into the making of the show: the white felt carpet leading across the Tuileries into the show space transformed for the occasion; the careful placement of buyers and press by publicists in white coats; the fantastical beauty looks soon to be revealed — and, of course, the collection itself.
The clothes Galliano debuted on Wednesday were labeled ready-to-wear, but they could have passed for couture — and they certainly offered a commentary on, if not a downright parody of, that craft. The first model walked out in a matted green beehive and silvery eye makeup (c/o Pat McGrath), a cream-colored coat with a leopard collar, a single crystal earring, a misshapen version of Hermès's Kelly bag and chic pointed-toe shoes: all the trappings of golden age French couture and totally madcap. The looks that followed, spanning decades of fashionable silhouettes, were willfully distorted, exaggerated or ruined: many of the backs were smeared with paint, as if the models had accidentally leaned against a freshly painted surface in their finery; others were torn, revealing the padding underneath, or held in tact by cellophane. The introduction of male models partway through the lineup, as well as small shoulder bags tied around the bust, added to the sense of unreality. These were rich and glamorous — but mad — women (and men) in the spirit of Blanche DuBois, Miss Havisham and Edith Bouvier Beale — whom Galliano has celebrated many times before.
It's perhaps because Galliano continues to be fascinated with many of the same muses and themes that he has begun to feel like a designer of a past age. This was something Lauren Sherman touched upon last season in a piece titled, "Is there a place for John Galliano in a world run by Alexander Wang?" We know now that ugly can be beautiful; the stuffing has already been taken out of couture. A new generation of designers is tackling a host of fresh challenges — defining the look of contemporary, questioning preconceived gender boundaries, discovering how a young generation of women want to present themselves. As Sherman pointed out at the time, it's surprising to know that Galliano's successor at Dior, Raf Simons, is only seven years younger; they seem a generation apart.
Still, it makes Galliano's designs no less thrilling, and Wednesday's show was the most exciting we've seen in Paris thus far. And even though photographers cried out his name at the end of the show, Galliano, in keeping with the Margiela tradition, once again did not take a bow.