on the big screen this week | high and low: john galliano

The enfant terrible of fashion John Galliano is once again in the spotlight, firstly due to his latest collection for Maison Margiela, which was met with widespread critical acclaim, and secondly due to a gripping documentary charting his meteoric rise and his even more dramatic downfall. High and Low: John Galliano is a must watch for fashion fans, but it tells a tale that is fascinating even if you don’t know a beret from a bergère, namely one that explores themes of atonement, addiction, grief, betrayal and cancel culture.

For those new to this story, John Galliano rose to stardom in the 1990s as Creative Director for Dior, but from the get-go, the Gibraltar-born and London-raised lad was destined to go down in fashion’s hall of fame. His 1984 graduate collection at Saint Martin’s made waves and, only three years later, he was crowned British Designer of the Year – a title he would hold four times. Less than a decade later, he became the first British designer to head a French haute couture house (Givenchy). Galliano’s work at Dior (as well as on his eponymous label) would make him one of the most lauded and influential fashion designers of all time, but in 2011, his fame turned to infamy and disgrace. He was caught on camera, inebriated and viscous, hurling racist and antisemitic slurs at complete strangers (behaviour he would go on to be prosecuted for), thus ending his career at Dior.

It seems the fashion world is fast to forgive. The same year, Galliano designed Kate Moss’s wedding dress, in 2014 was appointed Creative Director of Maison Margiela, and the documentary is populated with many of his supporters from Anna Wintour and Edward Enninful to Penelope Cruz and Charlize Theron. However, this is anything but a film glorifying Galliano and glossing over his murky past. High and Low opens with footage from one of these racist outbursts, informing the viewer that there will be no skirting around the subject. Next, we cut to a close up of Galliano, in one of several in-depth interviews conducted for the documentary. When asked if he will speak about how he got to ‘that’ place, he responds, “Yeah, I’m gonna tell you everything,” and he sounds like he means it.

Now ten years sober, the designer seems eager to open up, not only about that controversy, but also regarding childhood traumas, the toll his career took on him (parallels are made with Alexander McQueen), alcohol and prescription drug abuse and how the loss of close friend and colleague Steven Robinson further trigged his spiral into self-destruction. Leaning in and staring unflinchingly into the camera lens, he appears candid and genuine, but his memory of the racist outbursts is somewhat blurred. He concedes when he is corrected in thinking there was only one.

It’s also worth noting that Galliano had no editorial control over this production, and not all the commentators are 100 percent complimentary about him. We hear how he would descend into drinking and depression after each runway success; how he began to say unkind things; how he once occupied an elevator at The Ritz for four hours, naked and growling at guests, claiming he was a lion. We hear from Philippe Virgitti, one of the victims of Galliano’s verbal attacks, about the ongoing effect it’s had on his life. But we also hear how Galliano taught a young Kate Moss to walk, how Naomi Campbell wanted to be part of his ‘magic’, and how a boy from humble beginnings became the ‘King of Fashion’ (and helped to turn high fashion into a multi-billion-dollar global industry), all through sheer talent, passion and hard work.

High and Low neither condones nor condemns, and this can be attributed to a director who is an outsider to the fashion industry and neither adulates Galliano, nor suffers from the disappointment of a disillusioned fan. Academy Award Winner Kevin Macdonald has not only made gripping documentaries, but acclaimed feature films such as The Mauritanian, The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void, and you can tell. Just shy of two hours, the run time might seem a long watch for some cinema audiences, but it’s pacey and the editing is tight with not a single second wasted. Of course, it’s a visual feast with all the footage from the catwalk and backstage, and the cast of characters is compelling, but it’s also funny, poignant and leaves you questioning whether it’s okay to feel totally conflicting things about the same subject.

“I was interested in making a documentary about what happens when you do something utterly unacceptable; how do you find forgiveness and redemption? Should you be forgiven?” says Macdonald. “I intended this film to be thought-provoking and nuanced… it’s been fascinating to see the differences in opinion from those who have watched.” Well, there’s only one way to form your own opinion… Go and see it.

High and Low: John Galliano is in cinemas in UK, USA and Ireland from 8th March.

words. Huma Humayun

images. Courtesy of MUBI


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