10 things I learned from the new John Galliano documentary ‘High & Low’

By Clare McInerney

Fashion has never seen a rise, fall and renaissance quite as riveting as that of John Galliano. The new documentary High & Low chronicles Galliano's dramatic trajectory, with lesser-known details about the designer's life and career given air time along the way

Vogue Scandinavia is giving 50 Society members the chance to secure VIP tickets to the Stockholm premiere event of High & Low on Tuesday 7th May. Click here for more details.

Cancel culture is a common theme in the fashion industry. Sometimes it rears its head in response to minor missteps – a dubious decade-old tweet or quickly-forgotten red carpet faux pas – while other times, it’s rightly sparked by grave and monumental offences. The latter occurred in 2011, when iconoclastic designer John Galliano, then at the creative throne of Dior and his own eponymous brand, found himself at the nucleus of a storm as he faced charges of antisemitic public insult.

What does it take to bounce back from rock bottom? In Galliano’s case, a spell in rehab, more than 11 years of sobriety, and extensive exercises in remorse. After falling from the greatest height of fashion’s hierarchy, Galliano has experienced gradual redemption, quietly returning to take the helm of Maison Margiela in 2014 – enjoying a comeback to especially glowing reviews since his Couture showcase for the house in January.

Beyond the black and white of Galliano’s wrongdoings are many shades of grey in his genius-calibre talent and torment of addictions. Now, British director Kevin MacDonald chronicles this riveting rise, fall and renaissance in a new documentary High & Low in which Galliano himself participates with honest commentary on all that has come to pass – amid new insights from heavyweight peers and friends such as Kate Moss, Anna Wintour and former Dior CEO Sidney Toledano.

Galliano’s troubled tale is not a new one, but even the most informed amongst the fashion world will discover new details in High & Low. As such, here are 10 learnings taken away from the new release.

High & Low: John Galliano is released by NonStop Entertainment in cinemas across Scandinavia on 10th May.


He worked as a dresser at the National Theatre

When he secured a grant to study at London's Central Saint Martins in the 1980s, Galliano also took on a role as a dresser at the capital's National Theatre. “You saw clothes in an environment,” Galliano says in High & Low, “and one was interested in how that character moved or smelled” – signposting the starting point of the signature theatrics to come in his catwalk shows.

London's theatre scene also proved popular with the fashion school community when sales of the costumes would be held. The 19th century-style frocks and frilly garments inspired the ‘New Romantics’ aesthetic that Galliano and his fashion peers would wear when partying in Soho.


He had a strong connection with his mother

In one of many parallels with his contemporary Alexander McQueen, Galliano had a strong bond with his mother. Anita Galliano was a Spanish flamenco teacher who, in Galliano's words, was always “immaculately dressed” and prided herself on her family's appearance, often dressing him in elaborate outfits.

Despite the great influence of Anita in his life and creative pursuits, Galliano did not maintain a close relationship with his family once his career kicked off. His older sister, who always played a big role as his caretaker, comments in High & Low, that “he has kept his life so, so separated. He’s not forgotten us, but I’ve not seen him for years.”


Dead fish were thrown at his first runway show

Titled 'The Ludic Game', Galliano's first runway show at London Fashion Week in 1985 holds a place in fashion history for its game-changing mash of eclectic references. “That collection really stands out in my memory as the one of the top five fashion shows I've ever seen. It was absolutely astonishing,” says Vogue's Hamish Bowles in High & Low.

Lesser know is the props the models were equipped with. “One of [the models] hurled a fish at the audience – Suzy Menkes, then the doyen of The Times, caught it in her lap,” Bowles recalls.

Linda Evangelista walks in John Galliano's autumn/winter '94 runway show.

John Galliano and Kate Moss for British Vogue, 2013.


He would warm up the models before a show to help the bias cut to 'melt'

Galliano is well-known for wielding his scissors in a way that popularised the bias cut technique (cutting along the grain of a fabric, instead of against) amongst a modern audience. However, there was an extra step undertaken by Galliano moments before every runway show: warming up the body and limbs of each model to enhance the fluidity and drape of the bias cut garments.

“The fibres react to the body heat, so they'd become even more sensual, even more mercurial on the body,” Galliano explains. “We used to have so much fun backstage. We'd rub the girls quickly before they went on to create friction and the dresses would just melt."


His career-defining AW94 collection was created in only three weeks

In the early 1990s, Galliano ran out of funds. Vogue's Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley came to his rescue, providing financial support and a runway show venue courtesy of high society fashion patron São Schlumberger. Then, in just three weeks, Galliano pulled together 17 looks for his career-making autumn/winter '94 collection, most of which were cut from the same black satin-backed crepe (as he had no time to produce his own custom materials).

Kate Moss, Helena Christensen, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista waived their regular fee to support Galliano and walk the show. “He put a lot of the girls into those incredibly sexy black slip dresses, and for the next 10 years, women went out in slip dresses,” remarks Wintour in High & Low.


He was banned from 20 hotels in London

“He could really destroy a room,” says Dior's former CEO Sidney Toledano in High & Low. Echoing the sentiment, Jeremy Healy, a DJ and musician (and Galliano's long-time friend and collaborator) confirms that the designer was banned from around 20 hotels in London for causing general mayhem during a stage of his life that could be considered the start of a downward spiral.

In one particular incident, Healy says Galliano was in the lift of The Ritz hotel for at least four hours with no clothes on, “telling everyone he was a lion and growling at people”.

John Galliano returns to the Dior atelier in 'High & Low'. Photo: NonStop Entertainment


The death of colleague and close friend Steven Robinson tipped him over the edge

Iin 2007, Steven Robinson, Galliano's right-hand man in the design atelier of Dior, died of an overdose at the age of 38. Robinson was not only a close colleague of Galliano’s, but an important friend (in High & Low, an acquaintance of theirs describes the friendship as more of a “co-dependency”). Years later, when Galliano faced trial, he spoke of the depression that hit him following Robinson’s death, causing his further descent into alcoholism and drug addiction.


He could relate to McQueen's downward spiral into suicide

As working class London designers who shot to the top of the game in a certain era, comparisons were – and still are – often drawn between Galliano and McQueen. Under the same pressure as Galliano to produce an impossible amount of collections every year, and with the same tendencies to struggle with substance abuse and mental health, McQueen committed suicide in 2010.

In High & Low, Galliano comments that, when news broke of McQueen's death, he could relate to his fellow designer's choice to end it all. “I just wanted to the voices to stop and for there to be no more questions. I could have a conversation with a water pipe," he says. "I understood what that water pipe was saying. I was committing suicide slowly, I just wanted to sleep forever.” 


There were actually three incidents at Cafe La Perle

Galliano himself learns this on camera in High & Low. There were three separate incidents at Cafe La Perle in Paris, in which he spewed racist and antisemitic vitriol at the patrons around him. It was the third occasion in which the victims of his insults called the police, sparking his charges and hearing – resulting in his suspended fine of €6,000.


He saw designing Kate Moss' wedding dress as his “creative rehab”

“She dared me to be John Galliano again… It’s been my creative rehab,” said John Galliano of designing Kate Moss’s wedding gown in 2011. The commission from Moss came at a time when he had been ousted from Dior and ostracised from the fashion world, a time when Galliano says he “couldn't even pick up a pencil”. He designed a vintage-inspired gown for Moss' nuptials to Jamie Hince in the English countryside.

Galliano had come from rehab to meet with Moss, after discussing the vision for the dress over the phone. He brought with him, as she describes, "bags full of bits, and pulled tulle and sequins and veils and flowers... And then we just kind of pinned things together, like the old days, you know?“