John Galliano has a complicated relationship with the past. On a professional level, he's somewhat haunted by it: The explosive ups and downs of his own career have played out so publicly that they're never far from mind, even as he's consistently recognized as one of the visionary designers of his generation. On a personal level, though, he's always been interested in history, combing archives and researching deeply for inspiration that might inform his own design process.
Ever since he took over as creative director at avant-garde fashion house Maison Margiela, the complexity of Galliano's relationship with what went before him has only deepened.
"I was trying to bring a new genetic into the existing DNA of Maison Margiela," Galliano said to Andre Leon Talley at Vogue's Forces of Fashion conference on Thursday. It was this desire to honor the old while ushering in the new that led to Galliano's focus on the idea of décortiqué. "[It's] this idea of bringing things down to the memory of what they were," he explained. "I started to take parts of my menswear wardrobe down to the skeleton and then layering that over things to reveal and non-reveal."
He thinks about the process of taking over the atelier at Margiela in a similar way, describing his need to disassemble certain structures in order to preserve the overall essence of the label. In the context of Margiela, this meant hiring some new staff and watching others depart, in addition to rearranging the offices so that his own workspace would be on the same floor as the atelier to facilitate more direct and regular interaction.
Much of this approach traces back to advice he received at the six-hour tea party he had with the elusive Martin Margiela himself — the only meeting to date between the two — just before Galliano stepped into his current role.
"He wanted to meet, so we met, and that was the most amazing, amazing thing," Galliano said. "He remembered me and said we'd hung out in clubs and stuff in London, but I have no recollection," he added with a laugh. While Galliano loved learning about Margiela's preoccupation with 17th-century French literature and 18th-century costuming, the best thing he walked away with was the advice that still guides him: "Take what you will from the DNA of the house. Protect yourself. And make it your own."
On the runway, that's meant introducing techniques that Galliano is known for — like cutting fabric on the bias — and applying it to new materials, like tweed. He's also enjoyed submitting himself to design motifs the house has long capitalized on, like deconstruction, and learning new ways of operating as a result.
"I was obsessed with perfection and polish [before], and at Maison Margiela I've discovered the joy in the unfinished," Galliano said. "It's helped me to perhaps loosen my control."
Seeing the "Instaglam" way that kids dress on the internet has highlighted the importance of letting go, too.
"It's more spontaneous, I find, than when we were dressing up as kids and we'd spend three days getting ready. They're less precious about it," he said of the 'grammers he follows these days. "They don't really care if David Bowie wore those trousers in 1972 and they were worsted and cut by Tommy Nutter. No. The image: it either speaks to them or it doesn't."
All in all, whether he's looking to vintage Madeleine Vionnet photographs or today's club kids for inspiration, Galliano's mostly just glad he's still in the business he loves. He says there was a point after being fired from Dior and his own label in 2011 where he wondered if he'd be stocking shelves for the rest of his life.
"I had to do the work I had to do, and I am so grateful for that time that I spent on my own," he says of his hiatus. "The joy of creativity is what pulled me through and is why I'm here today."