John Galliano has made his comeback, but can he ever be forgiven for his anti-Semitic rants?

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Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
John Galliano took part in the documentary about his rise, fall and comeback.
John Galliano took part in the documentary about his rise, fall and comeback. Credit: Supplied

Among those who have infamously blown up their careers, British fashion designer John Galliano numbers among the most dramatic.

In 2010, in the Parisian bar La Perle, a drunk Galliano said to a group of Jewish women, “I love Hitler… people like you would be dead, your mothers, your forefathers would all be f**king gassed”. A video of the incident surfaced in early 2011 when the designer was accused of offensive remarks, including anti-Asian comments, in two other instances.

He was immediately fired by LVMH, where he was the creative director of Christian Dior. Later that same year, he was found guilty by a French court of “public insults” and fined €6000. At the time, many wondered if Galliano, who said he didn’t remember any of the encounters due to an addiction to alcohol and prescription medication, could ever come back from the damage to his reputation.

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Fast forward a decade later, and at the 2024 Met Gala, Galliano’s name and creations were all over the red carpet, considered to be the crème de la crème of fashion events. Among those who sauntered his creations were Zendaya and Kim Kardashian – the latter even posed with Galliano for photos.

Is Galliano now redeemed?

High & Low: John Galliano is in cinemas on May 30
Should John Galliano be forgiven? Credit: David Harriman/Supplied/David Harriman

“There’s no other artist I can think of in any field who has had a comeback as extraordinary, after such a huge catastrophe,” Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald told The Nightly. Macdonald is the director of High & Low: John Galliano, a documentary that charts Galliano’s rise, his spectacular fall and his slow road back to public acclaim.

McDonald, who has made narrative features including The Last King of Scotland and documentaries about Whitney Houston and Bob Marley, spent a year filming with Galliano, including almost 30 hours talking on camera, said this film has prompted the most robust post-screening conversations he’s had over his long career.

“On the one hand, people would say, ‘Would you leave this poor man alone, he’s an alcoholic, he didn’t know what he was doing’ to other people saying, ‘I can never forgive that guy, I hate him, if I saw him in the street I would punch him’.”

That question of forgiveness is crucial to Macdonald’s film, and every conversation Galliano provokes. It’s also what drew Macdonald to the film, which also talked to Galliano’s victims as well as industry figures including Kate Moss and the Jewish head of Dior, Sidney Toledano.

He wanted to explore the idea of forgiveness in a post-religious age, when the process wasn’t as simple as a few Hail Marys and you could move on.

“With social sins, with cancel culture sins, there isn’t any kind of recognised formula or means to seek forgiveness, it’s very ad hoc and dependent on ‘Oh, you’re talented, we’ll let you back’.

“What is the statute of limitations on cancel culture crimes? When should society start to forgive?”

High & Low: John Galliano is in cinemas on May 30
Kevin Macdonald with John Galliano while filming High & Low. Credit: Supplied/David Harriman

The film’s release at a time of heightened anti-Semitism prompts another question, why did Galliano, who claimed he was not anti-Semitic, reach for those particularly ugly words? Why is it lodged in people’s subconsciousness as the thing you could say if you really wanted to be offensive?

“Well, why is that the thing? It’s not to say you are consciously to blame, necessarily. But it is a part of society. I think it’s valuable at this particular point when people are experiencing a real rise in anti-Semitism to ask those questions and to debate, again, why we have this problem in society,” Macdonald contended.

The filmmaker admitted he grew to be fond Galliano over their time making the film, and he witnessed a man much more in control of his life than when everything went down. He considered the Brit to be an incredible talent whose gifts are even more obvious in a moment when few other designers are working to the same level of inventiveness and flamboyance.

“You see in the film, a figure who himself hasn’t fully grappled with what he did, who has indeed apologised, who has indeed suffered because of what happened, who is indeed an alcoholic and an addict, and who has many excuses, but who hasn’t fully embraced or understood what he did.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t forgive him. It doesn’t mean that you don’t think that he should be able to carry on working. But I think there’s a lack of real responsibility.”

High & Low: John Galliano is in cinemas on May 30
John Galliano at the Dior archives. Credit: David Harriman/Supplied/David Harriman

There’s another name that comes up in conversations around Galliano’s return: Anna Wintour. The influential Vogue doyenne has been a Galliano champion throughout and with the convergence of Macdonald’s film, the Met Gala and glowingly received show from fashion house Maison Margiela, where Galliano has been creative director since 2014, some have speculated that Wintour orchestrated Galliano’s return.

Macdonald, who made his film with cooperation from Vogue publisher Conde Nast, rubbished the rumours, “It’s a bit naïve. You’d have to be the most evil genius in the world to put that together.”

But he did concede that the fashion industry hasn’t fully reckoned with what Galliano did, or wasn’t very cognisant of how those outside the industry might perceive everything.

“[The film] is a study of character but it’s also a study of this world, this industry, this cloistered world. It’s not unique in that lots of cloistered worlds are like that and take themselves very seriously.

“What is fascinating about fashion is that, to me, such great ugliness and such great beauty can exist side-by-side.

“It keeps its head up high and looks up at the clouds and determinedly does not look down at the mud on everyone’s feet. And I think that’s the nature of what the fashion industry is. If it was constantly rubbing mud over the clothes, nobody would buy it.”

High & Low: John Galliano is in cinemas on May 30

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