Review, High and Low: ‘I’m not convinced Galliano’s mea culpa is entirely sincere’

A new documentary shines a light on the controversial fashion designer


Threadbare: a scene from High and Low. Galliano in his atelier.

High and Low –
John Galliano


Reviewed by Felix Pope

On 24 February, 2011, John Galliano was blind drunk. Back then, this was not unusual. He was well into his tenure as artistic director at Dior where he was producing 36 collections a year for the fashion house. In fact, he was frequently catastrophically inebriated, and also battling other addictions.

On this occasion, though, the designer’s self-destructive impulses spiked outwards, and he began heckling a woman at a bar in the Jewish district of Marais in Paris.

“Your voice is boring,” he told her, “please stop talking.” He told her she had no hair. “Your ugly Jewish face,” he said over and over. “Your dirty Jewish face.”

The story of how a working-class boy from south London came to dominate the Paris haute couture world before his career came to a screaming halt is told in Kevin Macdonald’s compelling new documentary High and Low. 

But the Academy Award-winning director’s real concern is redemption.

“I was interested in making a documentary about what happens when you do something utterly unacceptable,” he said. “How do you find forgiveness? Should you be forgiven?”

The result is a slick production featuring a cast of Galliano’s friends and hangers-on whose observations we hear against the background of a driving soundtrack and archive footage of the designer’s shows.

Born Juan Carlos in Gibraltar, to a Spanish mother and a father of Italian descent, Galliano moved to the London neighbourhood of Dulwich as young child.

The inner turmoil that would lead to the drug abuse and antisemitic diatribes of his adult years began, say his friends, in the bathroom of the Dulwich family home where the young Galliano, called John from the age of six, would lock himself so he could apply makeup in secret.

Outside the bathroom, his mother would slip white wine into his lemonade so he’d dance the flamenco, and on one occasion father beat him when he described a man he was watching on television as “gorgeous”.

Some years later at Central Saint Martins art school Galliano’s life got easier. His French Revolution-inspired first collection, Les Incroyables, left his fellow students in awe. “You thought, here is someone touched with genius,” says one friend who is now a fashion journalist.

For his part, Galliano says he could never relate to his father, “because I wasn’t really honest with myself” but promises that he will be honest in the documentary. “I will tell all, I will tell you everything.”

Does he? When he says to the camera early on in the programme – “It was a disgusting thing, a foul thing I did, horrific” – he delivers his lines with charisma.

And the designer, who at 63 is still handsome in a haggard sort of way, is indeed charming and witty throughout. You can see how his legendary ego, best illustrated in Paris where he would stride the runway after shows as if competing for a modelling contract himself, developed over the years.

He has an alluring force of personality.

However, when it comes to the business of memory Galliano cherry picks.

When he talks about the antisemitic outbursts that landed him in court, he appears confused when Macdonald tells him that there were several different such incidents, not just the one he recalls.

His entourage at the time have varying explanations for his ravings. Naomi Campbell says she won’t watch the footage because she knows Galliano is not a bigot.

“Anti-Defamation League apparatchik Abraham Foxman, who met Galliano, is less forgiving.

“You could have criticised a Buddhist, Chinese, the French. Why the Jews?”

The documentary also catalogues Galliano’s attempts to repent for his sins, showing how he and his allies look for a rabbi to kosher his apology and a Holocaust survivor to educate him.

But is his search sparked by guilt, by a humbled man’s desire to learn?

What is sure is that it didn’t take Galliano long to rejoin the fashion world.

Since 2014 he has been creative director at Maison Margiela, a return that culminated at his extraordinary haute couture show in January.

For my money, Galliano is not a bona fide antisemite. But I’m not convinced his repentance is bona fide either.

The documentary is in cinemas now, and will be on Netflix in the future

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