How Marc Jacobs and John Galliano Made Fashion Interesting Again

REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
A model presents a creation by designer John Galliano as part of his Fall/Winter 2020/21 women’s ready-to-wear collection show for Maison Margiela during Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France February 26, 2020.

There have been several moments over the past few years – especially over the past 12 months – where if you find yourself sitting at a fashion show you have to think, “What is the point of all this?”

Amid global warming, war and a troubling political landscape, what’s the point of thousand-dollar coats and pants?

Not that we shouldn’t distract ourselves, or find some escape – but clothes have taken on the dull corporate churn of bottom-barrel streaming content, as if designed not by humans but artificial intelligence. (That being said, people who complain that fashion shows are a waste of time and brain cells never seem to think the same about streaming hours and hours of television or watching and reading about lengthy football games.)

But already this year, two designers, Marc Jacobs and John Galliano, created shows that recharted the conversation of what fashion’s purpose is right now – that the most meaningful thing a fashion show can be at this moment is a space to play. To imagine. To experiment.

On Friday night, Jacobs showed a Fall 2024 collection themed around wonder, set around Robert Therrien’s huge folding chairs and table, “No title (folding table and chairs, beige)” from 2006. As the models came out, in slightly jumbo clothes and comically huge wigs, we were like little kids under the table, a makeshift house to play with our dolls.

Jacobs, of late, has designed like an avid teenage fan fiction author, writing love notes through garments to influences like Vivienne Westwood, Yves Saint Laurent and Claude Montana. Copying other designers is considered a sin, but Jacobs does it as an act of gratitude. Here, the obvious homage was Comme des Garçons, whose designer Rei Kawakubo made a collection of paper doll clothes in Fall 2012. Then, her pieces read like a critique of the fashion show as an increasingly two-dimensional spectacle, seen through the phone or computer instead of experienced in life.

Jacobs’s use of the effect was more tender – chunky skirt suits, tomboy get-ups and naive sequin gowns. Kiddo Jacobs brought all his favorites icons to play: Kawakubo, plus the late Lee Radziwill, who was a close friend, and her Swan pals, with their Kenneth-inspired bouffants wobbling like extraordinary French pastries; the Supremes and other girl groups, glittering on late night TV in their sequins, like heavenly angels on the altarpiece of their time. The collection wove in the oversize skater boy grunge of someone like Chloë Sevigny and the elbow grease bombshell quality of Debbie Harry, who were both in attendance.

Glamour can be demanding and hard, mercurial and tough to embrace, especially if it’s not your natural state. (The reason “Capote vs. The Swans” is causing such a stir is that we get to see women who insisted on living at such a remove in such disgusting proximity, replicating the effect of Capote’s “Answered Prayers.”) Jacobs, designing as if with a crayon on construction paper, brought glamour not down to earth but close to the heart. He just adores these women, clearly, but his admiration is that of a boy, open-mouthed on the floor of his mother’s closet, watching her clip on enormous earrings before going off to a mysterious night of cigarettes and drinks in tiny delicate glasses. How does she get so perfect, so mysterious? The question is more beautiful for being unanswered.

A few weeks earlier was Galliano’s Maison Margiela couture show, over which the internet – not just the fashion world – is losing its mind. Scores of Brassaï-inspired urchins lurched into a nightclub, corseted and dressed in meticulously draped rubber and mesh.

Critics are calling it one of the most important fashion shows of this era. Pat McGrath, who created the show’s porcelain doll makeup, spent a week on Instagram teasing the reveal of the products she used. The talk before Jacobs’s show was that Galliano snapped everyone back to life – every designer will be shaped his insistence that bizarre showmanship and creativity can be the stuff of a viral fashion show.

These two shows shared a lot of interesting if superficial qualities – the designers are both in their early 60s, both were instrumental in creating the history of early 2000s fashion, with Jacobs at Louis Vuitton and Galliano at Dior. Both have, in this era of their lives, turned their public persona toward something quieter, more private, preferring mostly to share their tastes in art and culture and even other designers. Neither took bows after their show, and neither gave backstage interviews.

And both shows used doll imagery, which, thanks to the inescapable Barbie, has been a dominating cultural theme of the past year. (Incidentally, Martin Margiela, when he was at the helm of the brand that Galliano now designs, made a doll’s wardrobe for his Fall 1994 collection.)

But more important than any of that was their insistence on imagination and world-building – that play and originality and dreaming are the route to good clothes and good ideas.

Fashion doesn’t need to justify itself by showing its allegiance or connection to politics, or making claim that it is on the level of art. Actually, one of the most fascinating things about fashion is its total embrace of its commercial necessity, unlike art, which pretends to be above it though it’s absolutely not. You never look at a painting in a museum and think, God, I need to be that – it will change my life!

The big argument on fashion TikTok at the moment is how to develop personal style – some promise to use some kind of scientific or psychological methodology, others say you have to become a more cultivated person to have style. Of course the latter is correct, and what we can learn from Jacobs and Galliano is that passion and exploration are what makes clothing – and making clothing, and wearing it – worth it to begin with.