Thursday, September 8, 2011

Does antisemitism diminish genius? John Galliano only the latest in a long line of less-than-upstanding fashion designers.

I was upset to hear the news of John Galliano’s antisemitic tirade in a Parisian bar earlier this year. As a historian with a Master’s degree focusing largely on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, I was obviously troubled by Galliano’s actions. At the same time, as a fan of both the House of Dior and the Galliano brand, I felt uncomfortable with my mind’s willingness to absolve Galliano’s actions simply because I believe him to be an artistic genius. 
When someone is an artist are we able to separate the creator from the man? Does the fact that Galliano has been found in a Parisian court to have committed antisemitic actions mean we must shun the art this man produces? In the end, is his art antisemitic if he is? I’m not sure. My inability to completely boycott all things Galliano adds to my discomfort. 
Still, the 6000 euro fine will hardly make a dent in Galliano’s pocketbook. This is, on paper, a classic case of the slap on the wrist. The maximum sentence for such a crime is a 22,000 euro fine and 6 months in prison. To some, particularly American observers, even this punishment is too much. Curtailing Galliano’s (drunken) rant is seen as an obstruction of his speech rights. However, most of these commentators ignore the context under which Galliano committed his “crime” and was charged. The French have felt their own discomfort at remembering the Occupation years and the tens of thousands of Jews that were sent by the collaborationist government to the Eastern European extermination camps. Antisemitism in this nation, with such a long historical record of religious and racial prejudice, is now taken at least a little more seriously. 
But Galliano hasn’t escaped his indiscretion with this verdict. He has lost his position as creative director for the House of Christian Dior as well as a stake in the company named for him. A few fashion industry friends like Kate Moss and Jean Paul Gaultier have stood by him, while others, like Natalie Portman, have publicly announced their disappointment. Galliano has even drawn the attention of the American watchdog group, the Anti-Defamation League. Essentially, Galliano’s reputation has undoubtedly suffered, as lawyer Yves Beddouk states, this public pillory is the “real punishment.” 
Galliano’s only released design of the year has been Kate Moss’ famed wedding dress. Of this project, Galliano states, “She dared me to be John Galliano again. I couldn’t pick up a pencil. It’s been my creative rehab.” 
Christian Dior himself mentioned in his memoirs that there were two Christians. One was born in 1947 with the advent of his famous “New Look,” and aesthetic that propelled Dior into the fashion limelight and Paris out of its Occupation slump. Dior’s contemporary, Italian-born Elsa Schiaparelli noted around the same time that “Schiap” was a famous designer, but that she was someone else. Schiaparelli often referred to “Schiap” in the third person as if talking about a completely different entity. Galliano’s feelings of distance from himself seem almost symptomatic of being such a famous figure. 
But then, his actions are not new either. During the Occupation of Paris Coco Chanel attempted to use the Nazi anti-Jewish laws to her favor to regain control of her company, Les Parfums Chanel, from two Jewish brothers. During this time, she was having an affair with a Nazi, Hans Gunther Von Dincklage. Her actions could certainly have been construed as antisemitic or even treasonous. Yet, despite a number of biographies revealing this information, the House of Chanel has remained nearly unscathed after all these years. Karl Lagerfeld, creative director at Chanel, has publicly denounced Galliano’s actions. 
Other famed Parisian designers like Marcel Rochas, Jacques Fath and Nina Ricci were rumored to socialize with the Nazis, all taking in Paris’ vibrant nightlight. Rochas was even said to have crossed the street to avoid passing Jews on the sidewalk. The House of Rochas has opened and closed throughout the years and in 2006, when the house of Rochas faced closure, New York Times magazine published a lengthy article on the current creative director, Oliver Theyskins. The article contains no mention of the man for whom the brand was named or any of the aesthetic styles that may have been characteristic to Rochas during the height of his success.

Two years later, when the House re-opened, the Wall Street Journal mentioned that Theyskins had moved onto to work at Nina Ricci, another brand named for a woman who was known to rub elbows with Germans.
Of course, the actions of Chanel, Rochas, Fath and Ricci can be attributed to the extreme circumstances of wartime. France has historically had a problem coming to terms with its somewhat collaborationist past, and the records of designers have not-so-mysteriously disappeared. But at the same time, fashion houses have become much bigger than the people for whom they were named. This is especially true of Chanel and Dior. But what of Galliano? His actions have put his face in newspapers around the world, drawing attention to him and not the brand he has created. He was ousted from the House of Dior and its collections have been released on time without him. 
We’ve been willing to forget the actions of designers whose indiscretions took place while the war was happening. No one knew how long the Occupation would last--survival seemed to be the most important factor, even if that meant accommodating the Nazi occupiers. In the earliest years of the war, it was still impossible to imagine the extent of Nazi terror. Now we know, and now we take antisemitism seriously.  For me, Galliano’s artistic genius and talent mean his designs are among my favorites, but I still can’t sort out in my own head how I feel about the man. 
As it turns out, this “ghost of himself” doesn’t seem to have figured it out yet either. 

Posted by: Carla 


  1. what a great article! I adored all the previous cases you presented and how historically accurate it was.
    I've had such a "hard time" with this issue myself, because I was blaming myself for somehow not being rough enough on Galliano... to me, it was not only a matter of tolerance towards a great artist and his "excentricities" but also of understanding that his tirade had another motivation than pure hate, such as his own personal distress over something else.

    anyways, I love your blog, fashion-centered but intelectually stimulating at the same time and I'm definitely a follower here and on twitter (where I discovered it, actually)

    jo from

  2. That's great! Thanks so much. I know what you mean about blaming yourself. Its a hard thing to wrap your head around.