If youre someone who follows international fashion, or celebrity gossip, or even general interest news, youll doubtless know that two weeks ago, right before Paris Fashion Week and the Oscar red carpet, a drunken John Galliano was caught on camera spewing vile anti-Semitic remarks in a Paris café.
In the wake of his arrest (public anti-Semitism is a crime in France because they remember what happened when it wasnt) and his eventual ouster from his vaunted position as head designer for iconic French fashion house Dior, the fashion community waded about in a mercenary tide of condemnation and apologia the flotsam and jetsam of every modern celebrity meltdown.
Chanel scion Karl Lagerfeld was first up, issuing a scathing rebuke. But, upon subsequent reading, its not so much about what Galliano said that fateful night that made Lagerfeld furious, so much as the damage his comments might have on the entire industry, where image is, quite literally, everything.
Celebrity stylist Patricia Field led the defenders with bizarre and obtuse references to Gallianos theatricality and Mel Brooks Nazi satire in The Producers.
Actress Natalie Portman made her stand by entirely shunning Dior on the Oscar red carpet. A Jew born in Israel, Portman was also the face of Diors fragrance Chérie. Vowing never to associate with Galliano in any way again, she took home the Oscar that night for Best Actress wearing Rodarte.
Canadian supermodel Jessica Stam held the difficult middle ground, tweeting that she Loves the Jews and what he said was awful, but she was sad Galliano was leaving Dior.
Next came the medias hand-wringing attempt at uncovering why the designer had gone off on a Nazi-loving rant. Suzy Menkes wondered in the New York Times if Galliano is an alcoholic who finally collapsed under the pressure of constantly having to produce new designs in an internet-paced world. Maybe he is. But so what? Theres no excuse his repulsive behaviour. Especially now, when so much of the U.S. political discourse reduces policy disputes into charges that one side or the other is Fascist. Closer to home, an elementary school in Richmond was defaced with Swastikas and anti-Jewish and anti-Chinese slogans.
When Nazi is used to describe anything and everything you disagree with, it loses its meaning. In Gallianos case the meaning was as clear as his undeniable design genius. His tirade allegedly began with him insulting the handbag of the woman seated next to him. I love Hitler, he slurs into the camera. Adding ever so chivalrously, Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be fucking gassed.
On paper, Galliano seems an unlikely Nazi. An openly gay, self-described gypsy who often claimed Sephardic Jewish ancestry (and once famously wore payot ultra-orthodox ringlets in front of the ears on a Paris catwalk), he certainly wouldnt have fared well under the Führers rule. One wonders how he would have accessorized his pink triangle in the camps...
But as much as Gallianos outburst has hurt his image, it has also, as Lagerfeld alluded to in his public statement, rattled a few skeletons in the French fashion industrys massive anti-Semitic closets. Scandal-loving journalists have triumphantly printed that the venerable House of Dior stayed afloat during the Occupation by creating dresses for the wives of Nazi commanders. Dior was hardly the only Parisian designer whose wartime behaviour was suspect.
According to author Stephanie Bonvicinis Louis Vuitton, A French Saga, the Vuitton family supported the Vichy puppet regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain, who colluded with the Germans in the deportation of French Jews.
Then theres the curious case of Coco Chanel. Neither of the two hagiographic biopics on her life released last year (Coco avant Chanel and Coco & Igor) broached her shameful conduct during the war, when she was shacked up at the Ritz with her lover, German officer Hans Günther von Dincklage, or when she attempted to steal the manufacturing business of the Jewish family that produced her perfumes using Aryan ownership laws.
Dior, Vuitton, Chanel. The undisputed apogee of French fashion today, thanks to a which-ever-way-the-wind-blows policy during WWII. But that was wartime. As the Holocaust proved, morality becomes subjective during a time of war. Those houses were just employing the Gallic Système D survival philosophy: Getting by however you can.
Whats Gallianos excuse? What war is he caught up in other than a petulant, ego-driven campaign by a pampered enfant terrible to self-destruct?