Transcript: John Galliano and Colin McDowell

published on 2 March 2002

Colin McDowell and John Galliano discuss the designer's approach to couture over his first five years with the brand.

Colin McDowell and John Galliano discuss the designer's approach to couture over his first five years with the brand.

Colin McDowell: The great contribution you're making now it seems to me, is that you are re-formulating our ideas of couture. Now I don't know whether that is conscious or whether it's an unconscious thing. Do you set out thinking ‘I must make couture modern’?

John Galliano: Yeah, it was a conscious thing. When I first was invited to be the designer at the House of Givenchy by Monsieur Arnault the idea was to bring the House into the 21st century. You know, there'd be kicking and screaming but to kind of like move it along, because it had become quite dusty. So we both consciously decided that it needed this energy for it to have relevance today because, as you know from what everyone's saying today that couture is dead, it's gone and all the rest of it, with the retirement of Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent. That I have to agree, that couture, as that generation knew it is dead, it is gone. However, while all those know-sos have been saying that…in a kind of avant garde way, this new couture has been happening, which has really started as well with people like Mr Arnault putting younger designers in these houses, or Jean Paul Gaultier who started a couture line. Thierry Mugler was even mixing couture and prêt-a-porter together, so it does have relevance today. But it's changed, I mean as well as dressing some of the most beautiful and wonderful women in the world, it's caught up with our generation, it is the world of MTV of the VH1 awards etc. You know, TV not just newsprint, and Internet. So it's really important to be aware of that, and it's theirs as well.

We've talked about (couture) before as the engine if you like, to the House of Dior, it's there to inspire the rest of the houses. The time you have, the time and resources to work, these fantastic petit mains to experiment, to produce in classic fabrics, weave fabrics and colour up yarns, to really spend that time to work things out; almost like the perfume. That then inspired the ready-to-wear and the accessories, the shoes, the handbags, the lingerie, the Baby Dior etc. etc. I've been at Dior now for five years I think, and now we're beginning to see the fruits of this initial concept of how couture could be relevant today. It's working, it's inspired every department of the House which has helped to give the House and the label a coherence; which you now see through the windows, through the advertising campaigns, the displays in the shop, the way the collections are marketed globally. When the windows change, they change everywhere worldwide. We're beginning to see the result of that now in a really positive way.

CM: If we go back five years to when you first started at Christian Dior, I well remember the first couture collection which was very romantic and very beautiful, and I thought very tactful because it looked back to what Monsieur Dior had originally been about and recreated that for modern times. You produced some very beautiful clothes, which were also in a sense quite traditional. Did you at that stage think ‘well this is all very beautiful but it is traditional and it's looking back and I must gently start moving away from this’? What was in your mind at that point?

JG: Well that was in my mind, of course. You've got to remember as well when I first went to Dior, I think I'd signed the contract in August I think, August, September, October and even November. I couldn't go into the House because Monsieur Ferre was still packing his bags and leaving. So I was doing my research. I immersed myself in the lovingly amassed archives they had and I was in awe. I mean, completely ‘oh my god!’, and my first collection to be seen by the world was haute couture, I'd never done it before.

CM: It was really being plunged in at the deep end.

JG: Totally.

CM: Very exciting.

JG: Yeah, either sink or swim honey.

CM: We're you petrified or more excited? A bit of both I think.

JG: Both. Petrified and excited and yeah, it releases incredibly positive energies, dramas in the Houses. Chanel had taken Amanda (Harlech) and there was all that going on and then (I thought) ‘what do I do with this haute couture, what do I want to say?’. Don't forget it was the 50th anniversary of Monsieur Dior which is pretty awesome too, I'd just come back from New York and that fantastic exhibition at the Met where (Princess) Diana had come, and so there was a lot on my shoulders at that point.

CM: But in fact you had universal approval, you hit the button just for the time and for the House.

JG: Yeah, for the time and the House and the 50th anniversary.

CM: It wasn't just homage to Christian Dior, it was all the John Galliano romanticism.

JG: It started off as being an homage but not a literal homage, I wanted to get behind Monsieur Dior and what was inspiring him, the Mitza Bricard, the pearls, the perfume his mother wore, that whole silhouette that it was obsessed with, and then drawing parallels with the Masai tribe, and I got the small, that elegance. You can see it in one of these pictures how proud…and drawing parallels with these two fantastic silhouettes, that was my starting off point and that's when the excitement and the adrenaline started running and I found a way to move it forward a little bit. However, some of it was still quite literal because it was my first haute couture and you need to be there a little bit of time and get to know how the teams work to maybe abstract it a little bit more. I mean, that comes with a little bit more knowledge and a little bit more confidence.

CM: The touch of genius I think John, was the fact that you brought in the Masai thing. How did that happen, was it sort of a bolt out of the blue?

JG: Belle époque, the silhouette of the belle époque.

CM: Very curvaceous and very tight.

JG: And aristocratic profiles, and then I don't know, oh I know what happened: my dear friend Didier said ‘you've got to come to London’, Mirella Ricciardi, she was still living off the Kings Road, and so we went there…

CM: …and you saw her African photographs?

JG: Yeah, we went to her flat and then it was like ‘oh this is like the silhouette of Dior's mother, this is the obsession, the fear of his mother’, and then looking at pictures of that era and the Masai. I mean, the silhouettes were incredibly similar, like proud, aristocratic, 18th century almost.

CM: I think that's what is the touch of genius, the fact that the mind can leap across the…

JG: Well also I guess from art school in the back of my mind was that whole influence of African art on Picasso in Paris at that time too that was going on, I mean it was.

CM: ‘Negro art’ as they call it.

JG: Art Nouveau and negro art, exactly, as it was called then, it's quite obvious really now when you look back but at the time it was like really exciting, and dragging Stephen with me as well and getting high on all these ideas it was really electrifying.

CM: When did you begin to change? I see the change as being your Pocahontas.

JG: Oh yes.

CM: Or would you say that that was before? It seems to me that's when, the fact that you were bringing other cultural references, that became apparent at that point, and that was a very strong statement which was largely misunderstood, but you are still working through those ideas now, that's what I love about couture: you go back and forth.

JG: At the time I mean I didn't have as much responsibility as I have now at the House of Dior, but I was saying there is so much in this collection to inspire, the shoes, the bags, the techniques for whatever in the House, but no-one was quite ready or knew how to pick up and benefit from it, other houses did. So yeah, you could say it was a bit misunderstood that collection.

CM: But you never felt, you had a lot of praise, you had a lot of criticism, anyone who is in the forefront has this whether he's an artist, a musician, a painter or whatever. Do you ever think ‘oh my god am I going in the wrong direction?’, or are you always so sure? I don't know you, I know you are actually deep down a very modest man, but I don't want you so sound big-headed, but do you always think ‘well this is what I must do and if they don't understand it well I've got to find another way of making them understand it’?

JG: Yeah that's it. I mean I do have a duty to the House of Dior of course, and we love finding creative solutions, but I can't really do anything unless my heart's into it, I'm not that kind of person, so whatever I decide to do it's done a hundred percent with a belief or the belief of my teams. You know, it's got to excite us as well, because when we're excited, when we're stimulated creatively, that's when we get results and that's when everyone can reap the benefits at the House, whether it be Galliano or Dior. So each time we have to stimulate ourselves, our team, so that we can forge ahead and play with different techniques or ways of cutting, whether it's ultimately the most sophisticated bias cut or something that's inspired by folk lore, much more primitive cuts, which is another angle to take, and then to extract that as en plumes is really exciting.

CM: You are sensitive enough to obviously be hurt by some of the criticism, but you're never presumably…you never feel ‘right I've got to do something that they'll understand a bit more’. What you're saying is you have to do what you have to do and if we, the press and public, don't understand then it's our problem?

JG: Well I do what I have to do in the haute couture, in the true spirit of haute couture, as Mr Dior did, I mean he'd drop in his Coup de Trafalgar, you know where's that coming from, and then it would evolve into something else. I think that's the relevance of haute couture today; that you are allowed to express yourself creatively in haute couture and then afterwards you inspire the rest of the house, I mean as I'm saying.

CM: How traditional are your methods? I mean (Dior) used to be there in his white coat with his stick…but you start with a sketch…

JG: Oh I actually start…

CM: Maybe you first start with fabric or others or what?

JG: We go on a research trip, whether it be London, New York, for the last year it was to Russia, and we amass all this information, you know trips to galleries, museums, markets, eating, you know the church.

CM: Looking to stimuli, yeah.

JG: Yeah, exactly. The last one we went to St. Petersburg and the Summer Palace, and we listened to Russian music, totally immersed ourselves in that whole incredibly rich culture. We film, we video, we sketch, we take loads of photographs.

CM: Do you buy things like in the markets or whatever?

JG: We buy books, yeah, absolutely.

CM: So you come back with a hell of a lot of ideas, concrete ideas either with nature, photographs or whatever?

JG: It’s all shipped back, and then we have a period where we assimilate all this information and put it into some kind of store, you know it's threading a necklace, a beautiful necklace if you like.

CM: How long does that period take?

JG: The research or…?

CM: No, the research…you're usually away for a week, but obviously that's just the beginning and then you're researching in your head all the time, but when you've got all the artefacts there, the pictures and everything and you're sorting it through, is that a lengthy process or quite a quick process?

JG: It used to be a lengthy process when it was just Stephen and I doing it, now we have like a gang, I'd say within a week we're able to break things down and decide.

CM: So by the end of a week you have a coherent picture of what you've actually…

JG: Well, that picture is in my mind a little bit before, normally along with like musical ideas and things like that, and then we have what we call our Bible, which is all the beautiful romantic paintings let's say from Russia that inspired us, and then we'll have another book with all the costumes we saw. One for jewellery, one for music, and we break it down like that, and then we do another book and we juxtapose things just to remind us of what we really like and how we'd like to do let's say this folkloric look but not in a literal way, in like funky folklore and how to extract it even more, and how to, especially with this last collection, not to be as literal as I had been in the past. We didn't need to let anyone know really where it was all coming from, that we could take a make-up idea from a Russian icon and mix it with a folkloric skirt painted à la Leon Bakst, Ballet Russe, and create a new look if you like…which was equally fun and inspiring but without being slavishly literal. That opened up a lot of…I think looking at all those primitive cuts was really inspiring, to go back to that and see that, and then you know having seen like Kodo drummers in Japan. That's something I saw two years ago, and then at New Year I saw this rehash video on Adam Ant and suddenly that clicked and it was like ‘oh right’. You embellish and embroider in, and you begin to get a kind of story. At the same time you're launching shapes, getting into that whole cut thing.

CM: How do you do that, you've started to sketch by now?

JG: Yeah, we get some shapes down in linear, yeah, sketches. Very loose, just playing with volumes and unusual proportions. Normally, we're so strict with ourselves that the waist has to be there, the bust has to be there, and this somehow stretched, attenuated everything, and we thought we ‘no, the waist doesn't have to be there, why does it have to be? Why does the sleeve have to stop there?’ Lots of things like that, so we were quite loose, not too strict with ourselves, and we launched everything in toiles like the old way, and we had a huge backdrop of…

CM: Let's just explain to everybody what exactly toile is because a lot of people might not know.

JG: Toile is that first, it's that first time you see three-dimensionally your sketch. It's like a cotton fabric, sometimes you use fine ones, heavier ones to define volume.

CM: Depending on what sort of garment you're thinking of creating.

JG: Depending on the garment, if it's like a bias cut dress then we'll use a fabric that's slinky too, whatever gives the volume best for what this outfit could eventually be. They're very loose ideas, I mean, what if the jacket could turn into a pair of trousers, could turn into…it's just the beginning of…it's only something you see on the body, on a mannequin, and of course you spend hours and hours and hours… When you see her moving and walking and discussing, she's hopefully very inspiring.

CM: Who do you have with you there? Do you have people from the atelier with you at that point, or head cutter or somebody like that?

JG: Well, there's all the instructions with the initial drawings and then Stephen very carefully talks through each preliminary of what I would like to see as a shape of whatever. Then it comes down and we try to get it all down at the same time, because I like to see the whole collection in toiles, in its very basic form just to define the volumes.

CM: So you're talking volume and cut and shape, you're you’re your eye isn't being confused by colour or pattern?

JG: No, no, no. We put a film, a roll of big black paper in the back, a bit like you just saw in Nick's studio, so we can just see brutally the silhouette, cream and off-white toiles against a black backdrop, because we're just concerning ourselves with volume and how the garment moves in this. We worked with Melinda for the whole collection, it was really hard work, hours and hours and hours. Then we start to see things that we like, and then we start to see, it's pushed along the next stage and then I work with a premier and say ‘come down’, and then we'll start saying things like ‘oh do you think Kate (Moss) would wear this jacket? No, she wouldn't wear it that long it would be really short’. Then you start to play with, you know, you've got someone in your head that's real, and modern.

CM: You get an actual model in your head quite early on?

JG: Yeah, someone that I respect and admire, sort of like Kate for the whole first section, that whole first section of the Russian thing was we kept thinking ‘Kate, she would wear those flat boots, no, she'd rip off that jacket’ and it would be much, much shorter than should be. So what was this frumpy folklore thing suddenly became incredibly funky and very Kate, that was my inspiration anyway.

CM: So you're thinking models, you're thinking volume. I know music is very, very important to you, has the music come into this equation at that point?

JG: Yeah, at that point Jeremy (Healey)'s doing an audio toiles of what we're doing visually with our toiles. ‘Audio toiles’, it probably doesn't even make sense! No, but he is, I'll have talked to him. Well actually, I was listening to an audio toile before Christmas, because also what has started to happen now is that I like to have that inspiration too. To have the music or his rough ideas while I'm toileing. So, rather than always referencing paintings or books, or even my Bible, sometimes it's nice to just close it and put Jeremy's music on: ‘oh I want that chiffon to fly like these violins, and that bass, and the way he's sampled this. Why aren't we doing that?’. I try to get his input in earlier and earlier.

CM: So you're getting a spirit of music into the clothes really?

JG: Yeah, that heartbeat, the Kodo drums, that whole things, and then like I said, seeing Adam Ant. Then I thought ‘I want to return to something that's more tinny, more primitive, less produced’. Everything was getting so digitally over-produced it was nice to bring it back to a kind of rawer heartbeat of a sound.

CM: That’s exactly what those drums were like, there was such power.

JG: That was a heartbeat.

CM: A powerful beginning.

JG: And those dragon things, they were getting the energy from the sun and bringing it down to earth. Paris, earth, yeah, which I felt kind of was a fantastic background for the clothes and what we were trying to say. So as with them, I mean some toiles can take, shall I say, twelve or eighteen goes, some even go that far and then get scrapped.

CM: How much do you toss out on average, what percentage? Ten percent, five percent?

JG: It's difficult to say, I mean something might get tossed out and then it gets put back in as well, it's difficult to define. Sometimes something that's really ugly is a great surprise.

CM: Because it doesn't matter very at this stage, except for man-hour times it isn't costing very much money because a toile is very cheap.

JG: Yeah, we get through a lot of it and the ateliers are on full-steam at this point because now they know that's when I need the energy. That’s when I need to see things very quickly, because the quicker I see that, the quicker I can then, me and my team can make decisions on fabrics, colours, embroideries. If I can't see roughly the whole show it slows the whole process up.

CM: What sort of hour are you working at this stage?

JG: Every hour God gives us.

CM: You work very late I trust?

JG: Yeah, and they start very, very early. Stephen, Vanessa and Bill, they do like 6 o'clock starts.

CM: In the morning?

JG: Yeah.

CM: Until what sort of time?

JG: Well, they like doing the morning starts because the phones aren't ringing, there's no-one around and they can really kind of like work things out on paper, so we'll discuss everything the night before and they're very clear and everything's exactly where it needs to be. Whether it's accessories for the fittings, or the right music, or how we're going to, how this toile is going to evolve, how they're going to help me to edit. At that point everyone knows what I want to say so they're helping me to make the message the strongest we can.

CM: Now, if we take a dress like this, which is one of your earlier dresses showing the spirit of the Masai and also the spirit of Dior, and also going right back to the turn of the, the beginning of the 20th century, can you say at what stage you began to decide on things like colours and fabric? Presumably people are bringing you in, you have ideas for fabrics, I suppose you have a studio that draws them?

JG: More and more we working directly with the mills and producing our own fabrics.

CM: Totally unique.

JG: Yeah, and in haute couture too you're not necessarily producing a print, you're getting artists in to paint the fabrics so its all placed exactly where you want it.

CM: This is a very complicated stage this, so you've got to be pretty dammed sure of what you're after before you bring the…

JG: Oh, before they come in you've got your toiles and then you've got, your teams help you to get, map out some kind of drawing with references. Like Vanessa has a million pots of ribbons and colours and we start to take little swatches and then someone will help us to paint the thing up, and we'll see it in its different colour variants before we commit ourselves, because once you've got Georges Krivoshey in to start painting then that's it.

CM: You don't go back.

JG: No, because you know then that everything is thread-marked, no patterns are made in haute couture as you know, the toile is then disassembled and then those pieces are all thread-marked onto your white satin-backed crêpe for instance. Then the image that you want painted, this is after the fitting's been done and up to a…you can only fit up to a point because obviously the final stuff is done on the real girl that's going to wear it in the show. So you have very big seam allowances left, a thing that's really lumpy. It's a bit disheartening and it's hand-basted. It's like ‘oh’. But you trust the ateliers, you know it's going to look amazing, and this is just put together loosely for the artist to be able to paint those pieces. Then as I've said, that goes out. Oh sorry, that's thread-marked, that's cut, that goes out. He then will take it to his atelier, its all pinned-out, it's carefully painted, he's got to work out the right and the wrong side of the dress, it's going back on itself, great technique goes on. So while that's going on we're working on something else, and something else, and something else. I mean the whole of Paris comes to life when an haute couture is going on.

CM: What about the beading? If you have beading would you do a lot of…

JG: We work with some of the greatest houses in that.

CM: Do you design the sort of type of pattern you want, or do you talk about the dress and then get them to come up with ideas?

JG: Both. A little bit of both. With some embroiderers they just have got la pat, they know exactly what you're talking about, they know exactly what you're talking about, there's a Ballet Russe and you show them a few sketches and then you give them the feeling if you like. You show them the toiles, and I want it to be like a Mongolian trapeze artist for instance. They come back, or we go if we have the time, and we go through all their beads, and then we choose the beads, then the colour, then the texture, then they come in with their techniques. Now they can just make this bead glisten in the most beautiful way, or how to produce this texture, you know it's an ongoing dialogue. Then they'll take a sketch idea, or we'll let them take the toile and put down a preliminary idea on the toile. Then we'll discuss more colours and beads and threads, and how light we want it because this is going to be a chiffon dress and we still want it to look like a chiffon dress, so what kind of sequins, what beads, ‘is it raffia? Is it nylon?’, all these different techniques that you can use to not lose this beautiful shape that we saw in front of the black cinema roll. So then their professionalism and experience is called in, and they'll do swatches. So they'll produce it first of all to get the shape, the design on like a toile, which is unbearable for them because it hurts their fingers and it's, but I like to see that fuss, then how that translates onto the fabric, many changes go on there too, because some things are too heavy, or the yarns that thread the beads together are too low, or it snags or you can't put a needle through beads for instance.

CM: So it's a learning experience all the time?

JG: Well, each time you introduce a new fabric, they always say ‘you give us such a work out, you really like challenge us’, it’s like ‘you really wake us up’.

CM: They must love that.

JG: Yeah, because they're going to find new techniques.

CM: So you're experimenting?

JG: Sometimes I call on old, very classical techniques and they almost like ‘yawn’, you know they like….

CM: ‘Been there, done that’?

JG: Yeah, they're like, ‘oh’. But this I love, this felt embroidery with eel skin or you know ostrich foot. It all sounds pretty disgusting but it's really beautiful. So yeah, I think that poses a lot of challenges to them and they get very excited about that, and you know they work all day and all night to produce that.

CM: This is what's unique about Paris too they're so, the people who work in high fashion are do dedicated to the beauty and the craftsmanship they don't care about time.

JG: Absolutely, no. Monsieur Lemarié, the feather maker, I mean they don't exist anywhere else in the world these ateliers. I took Alexi up the night before for the first time to walk round the ateliers, we went through the Tailleur and through the Flou, just to show, he was a bit freaked out because everything was in pieces and he didn't think that was normal, but the girls were still coming so nothing can be finally, finally sewn until the last, last minute, and he was really quite moved almost to tears to see the passion that these petite mains, these fantastic work, that they were sewing then, it was like four o'clock in the morning, and the dresses were still in pieces and the show was going to be at two the next day, and he was really moved by that, and he was really moved as well to see so many young people in there, and concerned too that would it, yeah, it will get together by some kind of magic, it always comes together.

CM: And it is magic.

JG: It's magic.

CM: If anyone, a time and motion guy would say ‘forget it, you've blown it, there's not going to be a show in time’, but you know it's all going to come together.

JG: You just trust them completely, because there is always that moment where I've got to go, have a show, do the, I've just got to get out ready for the next day, and you just trust them, trust them completely.

CM: When you get very near to the say, two or three days before the collection, you've got them not properly sewn and made yet but you've got all the stuff there, some very expensive stuff. Is there any throw-out at that point or by then? You absolutely know what you're going to have?

JG: There have been outfits in the past that have been not sent down the runway, and that's been decided the night before…

CM: Is that because they don't quite tell the story as you want it?

JG: Or they came out a little bit too heavy, the girl can't walk in it, it's fantastic, amazing to look at but would make us look rather foolish as far as technique was concerned, when you do those big dresses, forget it, don’t show it, it's just not right, and that's quite scary when Lesage has been you know..

CM: Because that's very expensive.

JG: It's expensive but I have to think of my duty to the House of Dior too, which has to be the finest workmanship. These things have to work, they have to move. So sometimes, yeah it's sad but you have to edit to make the rest look beautiful. You don't walk, do you know what I mean? It doesn't happen very often and you have to be quite… I remember the one dress, it was like Suzanne who'd done all our fittings, and I was thinking that we could make it work. I actually managed to get home that night for a couple of hours sleep and I left it with Bill and Stephen. Then I got that horrible phone call in the morning from Stephen saying ‘it just ain't going to work’….’are you sure? It's Suzanne's dress. There's no way? It's the most expensive embroidery ever done by Lesage. It's Suzanne's dress she can work it’. Not even Suzanne could work this dress so we had to cancel it, horrible.

CM: And that must be terrible right through the House because the people have worked on it.

JG: Yeah, but at the end they realise that it just wouldn't have worked, and by editing it, it actually made the rest of the collection stronger.

CM: Of course, and that of course if the final, that's the criteria.

JG: And Suzanne totally, she totally understood, I mean you know she knew.

CM: It must have been hard for her but I'm sure she would, because they're all professionals, they all understand, if that was me taken off I'd be disappointed and probably upset a bit, but as you say you've got this overall responsibility to get it right in that crucial twenty minutes. I mean, so much hangs on what comes down that line and how people are going to perceive it.

JG: It's got its highs, it's got its lows. The music psychologically can again take you up there and bring you down. You can interrupt someone's thought with the music if it goes too down, if you just keep that heartbeat pounding, so many things going on, the way the girls are sent on, how they're sent on, they're attitude, the make-up, the hair, you don't stop at the clothes. In those three days before as well we start doing – no - a week before, Pat (McGrath) and Orlando come over and we talk them through the collection, show them the research books, explain what we're trying to say. Then they start their interpretations with make-up, Pat will be in the corner somewhere cutting up bits of paper and felt, or she's picked up on a gold lace, looking at an icon she's been inspired and seen, gone out to B.H.V. and bought some gold lace paper doily. You look at her and you're like ‘Oh! What is she doing now?’. So we just let her get on with it, and Orlando's kind of thinking 18th century and clown, at which point we close the doors, we just don't want anyone to see what's going on because…

CM: You scare them too much?

JG: Well, I'm not because I know the creative process, but I wouldn't want someone like Valerie walking in and saying ‘what is that?’. It's work in progress. Then they Polaroid and Polaroid and Polaroid. Then we look at the Polaroids all together. Again sometimes it's too literal, or sometimes we like a piece of this, or we like this shape because it works with this coat and collar, but we prefer the texture that the hair was in the first section, and ‘Pat we love what you've done here with the gold lace but let's try it with that Brassai kind of twenties lips’ and then taking that icon gold lace and mixing it with that. Then with Orlando's 18th century draw, it becomes something new and really exciting.

CM: Hearing you talk, I think students probably don't realise just how important it is to have a broad cultural openness really. You're talking about Brassai, you're talking about the Twenties, you're talking about Japanese culture, Russian culture, that's something which you've developed over the years.

JG: Yeah, over the time, and being curious.

CM: I think couture really has to be curious.

JG: Oh yeah, you know going to museums, going to libraries. I mean initially it was all fired by great people like you and Sheridan Barnett who introduced me to that library at St. Martin's, and then once you're hooked, once you've been introduced to Mondigliani, you want to find out about Montparnasse. You want to find out what they were drinking, what happened, what they were wearing, and you start to create these whole things in your head. You know, what was the light like, things like that. Then that sets you off and then before you know it you'll want to know what Japonism is and why, and what Great Exhibition, and then it goes on. One door opens, another door, it's really exciting, it's my research time which I love.

CM: Before we start talking about the specific dresses, what do you feel at the end of it all? I mean, I come behind, say hello to you and you look absolutely drained, and yet there's a fantastic glow of vitality and energy in you at the same time. When you come down do you just feel so empty when it's all over?

JG: You feel very, I mean when you see me back stage, I'm probably still quite high.

CM: You're still high with all the excitement.

JG: Because you're keeping that energy going for the girls, you're still keeping people…you know it's still like ‘Orlando that ponytails in’, ‘Stephen she's got a tissue cut’, and you are all over the place and probably don't make any sense to anyone. But the people that need to hear what you're saying are hearing it, so at the end you're a bit kind of all over the place still, and of course you're very…

CM: Do you have a slump the day after?

JG: Yeah, you have a big, not depressed, but a big kind of decompression, which is a nice feeling too, then you need just two or three days to just keep…you've been going at it for so long and it's so intense. It's like even with the gym thing and the healthy diet and all that you still need time to decompress, and then just take your dog out for a walk and do normal things. Go to a Boulangerie, or just to see a blue sky in the morning, when you're getting up that early it's dark. So, just little things like that, and then you start it all again.

CM: They way you describe it, it makes it sound almost like you are the General in a battle, you know you've got to take an overall, and you have to notice little bits that are going on, tell people what to do.

JG: It is like a military operation.

CM: It's a bit like sort of Wellington at Waterloo.

JG: Oh I don't know, there does have to be this discipline and Stephen is fantastic, but Stephen also makes sure that he has these endless lists. By the end of that day those things have to be done, otherwise ‘John that means the embroiderers aren't going to get the things and that got to be’. You know, it has a knock-on effect, so Bill as well, like he's kind of like directing the kids that work with us on what part of the embroidery they should be drawing first, what t-shirt they should be thinking about, so it's like an enormous jigsaw puzzle if you like. If everyone keeps to their side, you know, comes up with the things on time then, still there's that scary moment because the embroiderers…you know, if you gave them six months they spend six months, if you give them six hours they'll do it in six hours. The embroiderers, they're special, of course it's so enjoyable to do that.

CM: And there are always going to be things which are unexpected, something doesn't turn up.

JG: Then you find creative solutions and that's, I'm quite good at that. You know, if someone suddenly says ‘you've exploded the embroidery budget John’ and we're all like ‘tell us news’. You know, so we won't send this to Lesage, let's do it in-house, let's do it with felt, let's do it as a potato print, is so Leon Bakst’ and then it becomes even richer. Always there's a creative solution you know. Things always look better in the morning.

CM: We're talking about how the picture's made, let's talk about these, which are really some of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

JG: Barbie goes to Tibet (Autumn-Winter 2001).

CM: Barbie goes to Tibet. Now what was the evolution of this?

JG: Well it looks like a bow doesn't it? This amazing bow. Well, I tell you what the original idea was, it was all this Tibetan imagery we had and then this kind of larger than life, you know how girls are obsessed with dolls? I think, well the original idea for the shape, I made a great friend in Tokyo who is Mytoya, who work for Kyonan theatre, and he's a national treasure.

CM: Yes, I love that.

JG: He's fantastic isn't he? Yeah, so neither of us talk either language but we just got on really well, and he invited me to go and see him at the theatre. It's like Shakespeare but in Japanese, but I actually got really excited by it, and then of course he introduced me to all the costumes and we've become great friends, so that's where that shape, this kind of awesome, uncompromising almost shape came from.

CM: A very powerful shape.

JG: Very powerful, you can imagine them like coming towards you, the menacing almost, menacing.

CM: But it isn't heavy.

JG: No, well that's the magic of Raphael at the haute couture salons, this was then all done layers by layers and then they were decorated by different embroiderers, and you could see like hair clips and things, and then he's got this lovely, almost like cellophane, packaged doll vibe going there which I thought was really charming really. Inga's wearing that, it's gorgeous.

CM: The workmanship, quite apart from the thought and the evolution of it that you and Stephen were working on, the actual workmanship must have taken a long time, but also it must have been a bit scary for the ateliers. How long did it take them to grasp what you were after, because it's not like anything they've every had to make before is it?

JG: Well, I mean I did it with Raphael the tailor, which I wouldn't normally do, but I'd shown him. It was so kind of, you know, it needed that sense of balance and it needed the tailoring you know, the structure, it needed to look light and en plumes it was embroidered as well. I mean, so we gave it Raphael. Well, we showed him the sketch and he laughed, then I showed him my back-up work and then he got into it. That whole idea of the kind of like menacing shape if you like, and it was done in scrim. You know, like the toiles, stiffer than toile. That just kind of went up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. Then it worked, it worked, and then we put it with these sexy jeans underneath that were beautifully cut and embroidered and re-embroidered. The really beautifully sprayed-on jeans.

CM: What are they wearing there? What have they got here, she's got a…

JG: That's a camera, a video, and she's videoing us watching, you watching them.

CM: The model watching you watching her? Exactly.

CM: Now this is by any standards a pretty amazing statement. Can you tell us a bit about it?

JG: That was from the Tibetan Barbie. No, yes, it was that collection, ‘Goa’, kind of like these chic hippies smoking cannabis.

CM: Sort of seventies feel.

JG: A little bit, a little bit yeah, Zandra (Rhodes), those looser shapes, Bill Gibb, very kind of London vibe and the little beads, smoking joints, walking down the beach that vibe for that kind of dress just seemed the right, you know worn with these like backless sporty trainers and Rosemary (Ferguson) is wearing that, and that was painted by George Krivoshey, and tie dyed too, but done in this amazing design. There wasn't anything left to, it wasn't haphazard, it's quite amazing colours.

CM: And that's really what makes it very contemporary really because these aren't quite the sort of London colours.

JG: No, and not a literal copy of ethnic things. It was all like Karma Sutra, look at these two here what they're doing. André ordered pyjamas but he wanted us to remove the breast so there was more of a, of kind of hermaphrodite, and he looked amazing. Like Pukka Pants, and then look at that suppressed air behind the plastic, it's like echoing the shape of the dress it's fab isn't it?

CM: Yes. So it's almost like the centre of a huge flower, you know, like Georgia O'Keefe, like a lily picture or something, he's got that sort of quality, it's going out like huge petals.

JG: Yes, it you squint it is a bit like the, it is you know, because those greys and the white petal and then this intense colour in the middle.

CM: Georgia O'Keefe would understand that absolutely perfectly, that picture.

CM: What about this one, which is great fun?

JG: That's Karen (Elson) and that's Ben (Dunbar-Brunton), who you met earlier.

CM: Oh right, yes.

JG: The strong man.

CM: This is the strong man brought in to support it all. What's the mood of this? What collection was this from?

JG: This I believe was worn by Annilise in the Opera collection, it has that very delicate, feminine ‘Josephine’ vibe to it. Beautiful embroidery again like cloth flowers and velvet ribbons and then re-embroidered, and that's just the lining of the coat by Lesage, and I just love this whole irreverent feeling to it as well, with the balloons, it's so happy and ‘up’.

CM: The riches and fare which make you think of great grandeur you know, Catherine the Great.

JG: Plastic helium-filled balloons.

CM: That feeling of Catherine the Great coming through the snow on a sleigh you know in the winter in Russia.

JG: And her colouring with that red hair, and there she is.

CM: And then there is a party going on.

JG: Yeah, it's Blackpool isn't it, it's like a contemporary Lartigue?

CM: It's marvelous, it's a pyramid of fun really, it's great.

JG: And all the streamers, yeah, it's lovely that.

JG: I was fascinated with Baldini, the painter Baldini as well, and recreating, and still the, this was the first haute couture collection at Christian Dior with that Masai influence and that beautiful Baldini silhouette.

CM: The incredibly elongated…

JG: Well there you can see the corset and these fantastic necklaces inspired by the photos of Mirella Ricardi and La Robe Siren. Kind of that Edwardian, totally. I mean it was cut on the bias this dress and then it was hand painted which was really, really, you know it was hand painted by Geneviève. Just the way, you can see it give it a kind of ethereal quality, that the dress moves so beautifully, and it was flattering, you know it fitted in all the right places and only begun to flare just above the knee, so the silhouette was there. The way, we padded their bums slightly to bring that slightly African theme, to make the waist look smaller. I mean, they had major corsetry going on, you don’t even see that, but that was major corsetry, when the girls came in for their fittings we had to feed them bits of chocolate every three hours because they would be fainting. These girls had never worn corsets before, they were horrible things to like endure throughout the fitting, but the silhouette that was achieved was subtle but was there.

CM: It was modern in feel.

JG: Yeah, but the whole dress was cut on the bias so this fabric really moulded the structure we already had underneath, of course, because of Mr Dior's obsessions with under garments and things I was very aware of it at that point, being my first haute couture collection at Dior. I love the way Nick's kind of, the representation of it as well. You know when he first started, I mean his idea was to…I mean it's just so modern and contemporary that backdrop of this cellophane and the way it reflects the light. He wanted as well to treat it in a slightly irreverent way for clothes, but to make them kind of contemporary and today and work with each girl's personality, how she would wear it, not this kind of ‘don't touch me’ look… That was really exciting and contemporary to do, whether it be on Stella or Kasia or Liberty, it was really exciting.

JG: That's Jacquetta.

CM: Those are trainers aren't they, I just love that.

JG: That's my baseball cap she's wearing there.

CM: It's your cap is it?

JG: Yeah. Going with Jacquetta's personality and how she was feeling that day, and the fantastic embroidery, that was from the collection (shown at) Château de Versailles (Matrix), inspired by Persian miniatures. That's the way we showed it on the runway, this is how it's been reinterpreted for someone like Jacquetta to wear today. Yeah, initially that was Persian miniatures, and that was embroidered…

CM: It has that sort of delicacy doesn't it?

JG: Very fine beads.

CM: That must be an enormous amount of work.

JG: Yeah, that was amazing workmanship (on) that one. Beautiful. Because you know like when you've cut those pieces as well, what I forgot to say earlier, and those pattern shapes have been thread-marked and it’s all on the bias. So it kind of moves everywhere the fabric, it's just moving constantly. That then has to be re-attached onto a frame before a beader can even start to bead, the grain has to be meticulously reproduced again on this frame so that the bead…you know when the whole thing comes off it even, and moves with the fabric.

CM: It still works and moves the way it has to. I think it's almost, not mathematical, but it's almost scientific in a way, there's a lot of serious science thinking behind it to make it…

JG: Of the ateliers, absolutely, and you know shapes.

CM: Because I think people don't normally realise.

JG: Because you can create a shape, I mean we can bang together a shape like that, but when you see the haute couture ateliers do it and it and moves like a cloud and it's so light, the volume is exactly what you want. Bill and I can knock it up and get an effect but you couldn't just glide down the runway. They know how to do it, where to put the tool underneath the skirt to create that volume, and what's the best fabric, how the crin's laid on to make that skirt flare out, I mean it's techniques, it's amazing.

JG: This is a lovely coat, it's worn by Kasia, and this coat was from the Opera collection, but again here you're seeing it worn with like paint-splattered…these jeans were great. When Nick was setting up the shot, one of his assistants had these jeans on and I though it was so cool to put them with the coat.

CM: So you took him off of him?

JG: They just looked really cool.

CM: But that's what makes it modern of course.

JG: Yeah, and that chain saw.

CM: Yeah, right, the chain saw's a bit worrying but at least the paint's green not red, that would have been a bit more worrying.

JG: So that's a beautiful embroidery by Lanel.

CM: How long does it take to evolve an image like that?

JG: You know, with Nick you lose all sense of time, and he has this amazing team around him. I really don't know how long, you lose all sense of time.

CM: But are we talking three or four hours per shot until you get the final one?

JG: It's normally three or four hours before you start.

CM: Right, well what are you doing in those three or four hours?

JG: (Nick)'s thinking about the picture, the light, how this thing is going to be composed, what we're trying to say, setting the whole thing up before you even start to work with the girl.

CM: How much do you sort of brief the girl, get her into the mood.

JG: Well Nick's the one that gives the…

CM: He does all of that does he?

JG: Yeah, I mean because at the end of the day it's him and her there, I mean she knows about the garments, she knows how to, but he's…you can stand right behind Nick but you're still not seeing what he's seeing. I mean, he's the one that edging her along.

CM: Yeah, the electricity between them, the girl, the dress.

JG: Yeah, she's feeling great because of the make-up, we've hopefully made her feel really great, you know the hanging out with her, and Val (Garland)'s made her look the most beautiful, and Sam (McKnight)'s…worked on the hair. So, she's feeling pretty cool and great, and then he's like edging her this way, that way, probably make her do things to produce this incredible shape. So she doesn't even realise he's doing it and only he knows that. He's seeing that through the lens, and then of course, the team click in when they see that lighting and they see what's happening and the reaction, the thing that's going on with Nick. Then they see how the make-up's reacting on film or Polaroid and how the hair's reacting. Should it have wind? Should it not have wind? Should we cut those jeans? Should we tie it, should we make the…then everyone clicks in when we all see what's coming out on film.

CM: That must be a very exciting moment.

JG: Yeah, because it's changing, it's changing it, and that's why you lose sense of time, because then he'll try a different idea, I mean he'll kick it. That's what I like about Nick; he'll kick it around for hours and then when you think you've got the shot he'll go back to the first item to get it even stronger, but I think that's what's great.

JG: That's a Liberty (Ross) with a snake and that's a fantastic piece of workmanship from Gossens, which is one of the kind of like finest jewellery makers in Paris.

CM: How much work is there in there, how many hours?

JG: Oh I would say about three weeks, because it's all put together as real jewellery would be put together, and that was from the Maharajah-inspired collection, the Jardins de Bagatelle, so it was a very important part of the silhouette and what we were trying to say, and I don't know if you can see in the picture, you've got those enormous earrings as well. Huge, they're actually held down with a metal Alice band.

CM: Oh, they weren't on the ears at all?

JG: No, her ears would have been dragging on the floor!

CM: Made with the African feel as well.

JG: Yeah, and the Jardins de Bagatelle as well had this kind of Nouveau vibe going on, and so that all started quite in advance and it was a beautiful piece, and also it was trying to establish this kind of aristocratic profile. Yes, of course, the initial idea was inspired by the Masai and how they stood, very high necklaces, so that was really, the inspiration came from that and that was the Jardins de Bagatelle.

JG: Alek, Alek Wek. How African can you look you know?

CM: Tell me a bit about this one.

JG: That's fantastic, that was from the Freud collection (Sado-Maso Autumn-Winter 2000) and it was part of the nightmare sequence. We started with the twisted webbing where they all looked very happy but they were all really not happy at all, and then we moved into that theme, when daddy starts to lay the law down. That feeling of this young child looking through the keyhole and seeing what the real world was about, that mummy was sleeping with the chauffeur and the chauffeur was having it off with papa, and this, well, this is one of his nightmares. We were recreating the New Look silhouettes but with all this African imagery which was really beautiful. We were talking about the crin and stuff like all the layers of toile that they, which happened by chance as Alek was kind of giving it her all here. It was amazing, I love this, I love this one really a lot because to me I imagine that if Mr Dior was still alive - hold it away and squint - this would be his like ‘oh I'm feeling this kind of shape’ and then talk to the ateliers, he'd just get it down, do you know what I mean? It's like that initial sketch which is fantastic to bring back into the fire, into the pictures, capture that initial fifties sketch vibe somehow, give that to an atelier and that would really inspire them, and then you'll see your toiles and then it would, imagine, it would be great. Nick could do that.

CM: Actually that is a terrific picture I agree, a marvelous picture.

CM: Now we have one of the most amazing ones I think, one of the most extraordinary fashion pictures ever taken in my opinion, Erin with a long nose. Tell us.

JG: Well challenging people's views of beauty really, why not? Originally, it was from the nightmare sequence of the Freud collection (Sado-Maso Autumn-Winter 2000), it was you know every kid's nightmare that their dolls come to life, it was like a Marie Antoinette doll you know with the powdery wig and everything, and suddenly she would come to life, some kind of like I'd imagine an Edwardian nurse really.

CM: And there's the lovely big key as well there, you know when she's wound up, but she's an evil doll.

JG: Yeah, I think she is definitely, definitely, and then she got this lovely kind of balletic wrap, and her eyes are pulled back in a very kind of like pre-stage make up if you like, and she's not being very ladylike is she?

CM: No, not a bit ladylike.

JG: There was a great sequence to these pictures, because he captured the whole destruction of the piano as it went on.

CM: It finally was nothing.

JG: Oh yeah, it was completely destroyed, but I just love the passion, I love the Gaffa tape, the pink tape holding that plastic down, and the shape she was making. She's wearing them over, I mean, you can see she's barefoot with almost like potter's clay on her feet, and just these like wide pin-striped pants. There's such a good energy in that picture, it's so cool.

CM: Enormous energy, it's one of the most amazing modern pictures, an extraordinary picture. That must have taken a long time.

JG: Well yeah, because if you look closely, you have to see the real pieces, but there (were) pictures. Oh we need a lupe really, but there was like, it was very humorous, it looked completely the period and the colours and the embroidery, but on closer inspection, see all these little sheep with their neck cut and there was blood running down, and she was powdering her cheeks and nose before the guillotine came down and she was eating like cakes in another part, all these…

CM: Unaware.

JG: It was completely mad, little scenes going on but very beautifully done. This very kind of illustrative line that was used and then it was a really sweet dress, a very sweet dress.

CM: It's lovely.

JG: And there you can see all the inner structure.

CM: Yes, absolutely. What I like is this has an undressed feeling…

JG: And the electrical wire and the plastic, the behind the scenes, beautiful isn't it?

CM: It is, it's marvelous. That could be almost Versailles, those things coming down.

JG: That's just beautiful, beautiful on the picture.

JG: Stella, look at Stella.

CM: Tell us about the collection of this one.

JG: That was from the Pocahontas-inspired collection.

CM: This was the one that was at the station (Gare d’Austerlitz).

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