John Galliano was always a star. When I started on my Foundation course in the early 1980s at Saint Martin’s School of Art, as it was then known, he was already a supernova of the fashion department, his exquisite drawings setting him on a sure path to becoming an illustrator. He inspired me to decide on a career in fashion rather than costume design (I had been torn), and after the Foundation course, I stayed on at Saint Martin’s to pursue just that. As John worked on his degree collection the following year, he holed up in the college library, hidden behind stacks of reference books that served a double purpose: They defined his private work space and helped to shield his jealously guarded sketches from prying eyes. As it turned out, John had taken inspiration from the Incroyables—the male and female dandies who emerged in the wake of the French Revolution with their own exaggerated versions of revolutionary style. He even burnt the edges of his drawings and dripped candle wax over them to create the illusion that they had been salvaged from an aristocrat’s ransacked mansion.
The collection was sensational—Joan Burstein, who ran Browns, London’s most fashionable boutique, bought it in its entirety. John couldn’t afford a taxi to transport it, so he wheeled it on a dress rail all the way to South Molton Street, where Mrs. B put it in her window and Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross bought pieces right out of it: They were his very first clients. John turned down a job offer to become an illustrator in New York and instead set up his eponymous brand there and then on a wing and a prayer.
I wore pieces from that first collection—waistcoats made from patches of 18th-century-style upholstery silks and sprigged cottons, jersey long johns, and vast organza shirts tying at the throat with a huge jabot. (John has re-created one of these looks to complete an ensemble built around a coat from this collection that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume department has recently acquired and that is showcased in Andrew Bolton’s brilliant “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibition.)
The following season, John didn’t have the money to stage a fashion show, so he did a presentation instead in an old artist’s studio off the King’s Road. This collection was based on a 1920s cartoon, in the satirical British weekly Punch, titled Afghanistan Repudiates Western Ideals, and it explored a collision of Occidental and Afghan dress in John’s characteristically intriguing way. One of my ensembles from this collection—including a knee-length skirt that caused a sensation in Paris when I wore it to the collections that season—is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s exhibition “Gender Bending Fashion.”
As soon as I heard the theme of this year’s Costume Institute show, I thought it would be the perfect moment to work again with John, who has found expression for his unquenchable creative force once more at the Maison Margiela. John had already made me a bias-cut black satin evening suit that evoked Shalom Harlow’s look from his unforgettable Fall 1994 show in Paris socialite Sao Schlumberger’s empty Louis Seize mansion.
To my great delight, John was soon on board. I sent some inspiration images of my eclectic pantheon of camp icons, including Mrs. Slocombe, the character with the Elnett-hairspray-bottle hair in ever-changing pastel hues, from the British sitcom Are You Being Served?; Quentin Crisp; Barbara Cartland; and Jazz Age aesthete Stephen Tennant. Together with John’s partner, Alexis Roche, we looked at looks from the Maison Margiela Artisanal Men’s Spring 2019 collection and isolated some silhouettes that we thought could work for me.
At Saint Martin’s, John and I shared an inspirational mutual friend in the indubitably camp form of David Harrison, who was studying in the Fine Art department, had once improbably been scouted to front a punk band to be called the Sex Pistols (Johnny Rotten got the gig), and worked a Teddy Boy look that he accessorized with white winklepicker shoes, a peroxide quiff, and a pom-pom clipped white poodle dyed shocking pink who often appeared in his artworks. John’s studio had produced a frenetic collage print that was worked not only into the clothes but the runway itself, and that incorporated an Yves Klein blue poodle in everything from jacquard to tufted embroidery. I wondered if the poodle couldn’t go pink in homage to our camp friend?
Meanwhile, John’s studio sourced a jacquard cravat in mauve from Charvet, the storied Parisian men’s outfitter, and a selection of textiles in shades of grape and wisteria. (Charvet also made the shirt, and I found some Pepto-Bismol pink cufflinks in my own closet that the sculptor Andrew Logan had made for the John Waters high-camp superstar Divine in 1987. These would be my talismans for the night.)
When I went to Paris for my first fitting, after an initial visit to take measurements, John wasn’t in town, but Raffaele Ilardo, Margiela’s inspired head fitter, and his associate Jung A. Park were there to attend to all the finer points. There was already an amazing sample of the jacquard with the electric-pink poodles, and of the ostrich trim that John had instructed be embellished with metallic lurex threads to catch the light on the red (pink) carpet. (“Invisible to the naked eye but will pop in pictures, trust me,” he said.) Ilardo apprenticed with the legendary tailor Paquito (who carved Karl Lagerfeld’s most amazing suits at Chanel Haute Couture in the ’80s and ’90s), and he had made the most beautiful toiles, with a jacket that sat perfectly on my shoulders without adjustment and had a beautifully constructed rising roll at the top of the sleeves. The cape was constructed like a Victorian visite, with openings for the arms and subtle shaping in back. It was so perfectly constructed that I could have worn the toile itself.
“I advise that cape is rehearsed up and down steps if you can,” said John after he reviewed the fittings videos from afar. “No angle must be left to chance but still must look spontaneous. Every swish must be ingrained in the subconscious, and always imagine that Avedon is following you. A sudden knock at the door works wonders for that frozen-eyes-to-the-left look. Never forget Avedon is your focal point.”
A little over two weeks later, with the clock ticking before the Gala, I returned to Paris for a final fitting with John in the house. To my amazement, the entire ensemble had now been made, including the wide-toed Mary Jane shoes, shown in patent but specially remade for me in violet satin. There were two options of subtly different lilac, for a sheer sock dotted with a point d’esprit effect that was faintly obfuscated by the crushed hairs on my legs and would definitely be showcased, as the short pants hovered only a little below the knee. John gave my lower calves a long, hard look. “You’ll wax them just before the gala,” he instructed firmly (“Always better when viewed through sheer, tons of moisturizer 15 mins before socks are put on,” he advised nearer the day).
“It’s unbelievable,” I said when I saw the cape arranged on a tailor’s dummy in John’s light-flooded Margiela atelier. “It’ll only become unbelievable when you start to wear it,” said John. And, sure enough, when I put on the cloak and began walking up and down the studio and it caught the air in its massy volumes, it lifted up like a cloud, and, despite the thick feather fronding, seemed almost as light as one. “La légèreté!” John proclaimed exultantly. “It looks like a canvas, like you’re coming out of a painting.” I used the Margiela staircase to rehearse maneuvering the cape up and down the pink carpet, and I tried to work it from every angle, thinking by turns of Dietrich and Dovima and Proust’s beloved Comtesse Greffulhe. (“I love that little coyness!” said John. “It’s a Dorian Gray moment!”)
I’d asked John’s longtime collaborator and my great friend Stephen Jones for thoughts on something for the head (he concocted the custom top knots for the “Camp” exhibition mannequins), and he designed a wonderful tiara bandeau made of Swarovski crystals that were custom-produced in the required lilac hue and, like those Lurex fronds, would add some pink carpet dazzle. John pronounced it a “very cool touch” and suggested “surfer pink” hair to match.
On the eve of the gala, I submitted to leg waxing and sundry other beautifications (“Lymphatic drainage on face the night before always refines,” John had counseled, and thank you, Tracie Martyn, skin alchemist). On the morn, I went to the Greenwich Hotel to be ministered to by the brilliant Teddy Charles and his assistant Satoshi Ikeda, alongside Amber Valletta, and then I hied up to the St. Regis in a white Maserati to meet John, Alexis, and Raffaele and practice some more swishing and strutting in the hotel’s ballroom under their watchful eyes. “The Japanese kids are going to go mental for it,” said John of my Savile Row meets School Boy meets Comtesse de Castiglione lewk. Stephen fitted the tiara, which perfectly framed those Teddy-tweaked waves.
“Command your space!” said John as I headed out. “Hamish, it will be a riot!” How right he was.
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