John Galliano has been appointed the new head of Maison Martin Margiela, an announcement made Tuesday that the fashion press ate up like petits fours from the tips their delicate and painstakingly manicured fingers. Even Kanye West tweeted. Margiela, one of the most revered Paris fashion houses, has been without its namesake since 2009, and Galliano is one of fashion's most beloved designers, wildly creative but cast in limbo for three years, because he is a racist asshole.
In 2011, Galliano was convicted and fined in a Paris court for making horrific anti-Semitic statements, a violation of French law. He told a group of people seated next to him in a cafe that he "loves Hitler," and that "people like you will be dead today… your mothers and fathers… would be fucking gassed." The tirade was captured on video. A week before that, during an argument with a French couple at the same cafe, he made racist statements as well—"dirty Jewish face," "fucking Asian bastard"—for which he was initially arrested. Dior subsequently fired him as its creative director owing to his "odious statement… which totally contradicts the values which have always been defended by Christian Dior," said Chief Executive Sidney Toledano. Natalie Portman, a Dior spokesperson and herself Jewish, refused to be associated with him. Galliano protested that he was drunk, and said that he was sorry.
Giorgio Armani excused his behavior: "You can't expect exemplary behavior from a man like him," he said. "Exemplary behavior," as though Galliano had made a mild transgression, as though his drunken rant were as an "eccentric," that he is a "bad boy," as he has so often been called. But "bad boys" and "eccentrics" don't invoke the Holocaust when they're inebriated, unless they are racist. It's a simple concept to grasp.
After apologizing, Galliano sought treatment for alcohol addiction. He went to rehab and did damage control. He admitted to his racism, in 2013, to Vanity Fair: "I have been trying to find out why that anger was directed at this race. I now realize I was so fucking angry and so discontent with myself that I just said the most spiteful thing I could." He said that he was blacked out, and didn't remember what he had said or done. "It's funny — when this all first happened I was like, I can't be racist. I can't be. I grew up in South London, in a melting pot. South London saw the first immigration of Jamaicans, Indians, Greeks."
Three months before that interview hit stands, Galliano infuriated the public once again, by stepping out of a Manhattan townhouse dressed in a top hat with his hair curled near his ears a la peyos, in what the press termed his "Hasidic look." He was on his way to fashion week, where he was showing the fruits of his residency with Oscar de la Renta, one of the most recognizable and storied fashion houses of all time.
Why are people so quick to allow a pass for people we perceive to be exceptionally talented, no matter how vile their actions? The question of ethics and morals versus talent, is a constant fuse, ready to ignite, and nearly impossible to resolve. We seem to believe the balance hinges on the subjectivity of the beholder, and that our boundaries are malleable, ever progressing (for now). There easiest way to deal with vile behavior is simply to not reward it.
But commerce often gets in the way, and that is a major motivating factor behind this Margiela appointment—and it's a "weird" one, as The Cut's Véronique Hyland puts it, noting the sleek austerity and mystery that Martin Margiela built his house upon, in contrast to Galliano's boisterous, attention-hound showmanship.
"Many of his collections had borderline-offensive inspirations," she writes, "like spring 2000's couture looks imitating the newspaper-clad homeless people he saw on the banks of the Seine, fall 1998's Pocahontas-based romp, or a 'trailer park' collection for spring 2001." We're at a point right now that this type of inspiration is certainly salable: controversy attracts clicks (just ask Miley Cyrus). It's one thing for a person to make efforts to change, to apologize, to strive to be better, but when an entire industry throws open its arms at even the slightest gesture, something smells distinctly like shit. (Of course, in such a notoriously white industry, it's possible that it seems to his new employers that a little boozy racism here and there is just NBD.)
Over the weekend, I watched Love at the Store, the new HBO comedy special by comedian Jerrod Carmichael. Carmichael's particular style is somewhat provocative, in a conservative, he-jokes-about-wanting-to-be-Republican-but-maybe-isn't-joking kind of way. (I was shocked that a premium cable network gave a full comedy special to a seemingly random dude, but then I realized the reason I had never heard of him is because he keeps company like Daniel Tosh.) In one bit, Carmichael makes a joke about seeing the movie Robocop: "It was so bad that it made me forgive Woody Allen," because "talent is more important than morals." He said, "What is Woody Allen worth to Hollywood?" Pause for punchline. "One daughter."
Carmichael was skewering this concept (I think he was, anyway), but also brought up the important point that many of the world's favorite artists have an incurable affliction of assholishness, or worse. Carmichael's examples, beyond Woody Allen, were R. Kelly and Chris Brown, two musicians who have acted unforgivably, but whose music still resonates with a wide audience, an audience who is so entranced by the music they are willing to overlook that a person is an abuser, or a predator. (I will still bump both in the privacy of my own home, old music and new, and feel bad about it before, during, and after. I even sometimes sleep in a XXL-sized, R. Kelly promotional t-shirt, gifted to me by his label in the mid-'00s.) A more salient example of our collective tendency to overlook transgressions is Sean Penn, who was charged with felony domestic assault against Madonna when they were married—in the late '80s, as prominent a couple as Brown and Rihanna were in 2009—but who has over time reinvented himself as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
I love Galliano in theory, too. I still remember how breathless I felt, years ago, the first time I YouTubed his Spring 1994 collection, marveling at the theatricality of the clothes and the models, who raced down the runway as though they were noblewomen escaping an encroaching army. It still thrills me to this day:
Galliano is a creative genius, and I would be happy to see more of his work. But he's also proven himself to be openly racist. By allowing him back in, fashion is saying to him that there are spaces in its ranks for racism, and that emotional violence is intolerable only until it's not.
But I suppose it's also a teachable moment, as it were, in the complexities of atonement—the Anti-Defamation League, for one, forgave him last year, even as he donned his Hasidic getup. As Jess Cartner-Morley put it so eloquently in the Guardian, "Fashion cannot lay claim to a platform of cultural significance, showing off about the way in which catwalks and clothes intersect with the wider world, and then retreat into an ivory tower. The closest the official announcement of John Galliano's appointment at the Margiela label came to acknowledging what makes this big news – Galliano's past – was by describing him as "non-conformist." That's a pretty, gentle spin to put on the ugly self-destruction the designer brought on himself, and the kind of bullshit responsible consumers should look out for.
And ultimately, with a behemoth of this size, we can only control how we react. The Washington Post's brilliant Robin Givhan reported on Relish, a store in Georgetown that carries Margiela, and is owned by Georgia Pearlstein. "As a person, I find John Galliano disgusting," Pearlstein said. "As a Jew, I find him disgusting. … I would find him disgusting if he said things like that about anyone. But if I'm Jewish, I should also be able to forgive and give someone a second chance."
Pearlstein told Givhan she is "reconsidering the relationship."
Photos via AP and Getty. Mustache via Jim Cooke