John Galliano’s anti-semitic outburst in Paris cafe cost him the top job in fashion. He had already lost his closest friend and colleague, Steven Robinson. The sordid reality of Steven’s death and its impact on the designer has gone unreported – until now. David James Smith investigates.
John Galliano had become famous over the years for his bold appearances on the runway at the close of his fashion shows. He might be dressed as an astronaut, a butterfly collector or a matador. The disguises seemed like the showman stunts of an extrovert, a man brimming with chutzpah and self-confidence, but of course things are rarely quite as they appear, especially in fashion.
The truth is, those disguises enabled Galliano to hide himself and the strain and uneasiness that were his regular companions. As he got older and more anxious about ageing he would use a special model’s trick, a Mark Traynor Isomertic Beauty Band – a kind of invisible headband that pulled back the skin on his face and smoothed out some of his wrinkles. Significantly, he turned 50 last November, marking the occasion with a party at the Savoy in London, where close friends and colleagues were entertained by a cabaret of impersonators. He seemed a shadow of himself that night, I was told.
I thought of all that as I sat in the public gallery in June and watched him, in his baggy pantaloons, standing trial on charges of racism and anti-semitism. Stripped of any disguise, facing the possibility of jail for the alleged stream of abuse he had directed at a couple in a Parisian cafe in February – just a few months after his birthday – he seemed contrite, his body shaking as he stood at the bar and answered the judge’s questions.
In the 17th chamber of the Correctional Court of the Palais de Justice in Paris, Galliano gave testimony to the pressures he faced in his work, and how they had led him to succumb to the triple addictions of alcohol, Valium and barbiturates which, he implied, had caused his offensive outburst.
He also spoke movingly of the impact upon him of the death of his closest friend and colleague, Steven Robinson, who had died in 2007 aged just 38, apparently of natural causes. Press coverage at the time suggested he had suffered a fatal heart attack. They had been together for 20 years and he told the court how, after Robinson’s death, he started drinking seriously.
Robinson had joined Galliano as a teenage intern, back in London in the late 1980s. He started out sewing buttons for the struggling designer, but over the years had become central to Galliano’s success, the key figure in the background, leaving Galliano to take centre stage at the House of Dior. “He protected me from everything,” Galliano told the court, “so I could just concentrate on being creative.”
From humble beginnings in Norfolk, Robinson had established himself, quietly, at the apex of the fashion world. A familiar behind-the-scenes figure in his trademark polo shirts, he seemed shy and reserved to many – a big, cuddly teddy bear, was how one woman described him to me – but he had a wild side too.
Galliano was deeply affected by his death but he had not taken the time to grieve, he said. he had simply gone back to his fittings. Another show was never far off. What Galliano did not disclose during the trial were the true, sordid circumstances of Steven Robinson’s death. The details remained hidden for years, sparing the reputation of Dior, France’s greatest fashion house, its then renowned head designer John Galliano and his “chief lieutenant” Steven Robinson.
At the time of Robinson’s death, Dior was about to celebrate its 60th anniversary at the Palace of Versailles – an event Robinson had helped to organise, and at which his memory was honoured. We have discovered that a year later a drug dealer was convicted of “involuntary homicide” for his role in Robinson’s death, and that John Galliano himself gave evidence in open court. Incredibly, there was no news coverage of this trial at all, as there would have been if it had happened in Britain. Somehow, the dramatic proceedings were missed by the entire media circus that surrounds the Paris fashion industry.
Robinson’s body was found by a housekeeper arriving to clean his first-floor apartment above a falafel shop in the Marais district of Paris, which might loosely be called a bohemian quarter of the city. It’s also the traditional Jewish quarter – Galliano lived in that area too. La Perle, the cafe where his alleged racist outburst had occurred, was close to Galliano’s home and only a few hundred years from Robinson’s apartment.
I understand that Robinson’s body may have laid undiscovered for 12 hours or more after his death.
Dior staff are said to have attended the scene and, despite clear evidence that drugs must have played a part, the cause of death of only ever described in the press as a heart attack. The full details of Robinson’s demise could remain hidden because there was no public inquest, as there would have been in Britain, and French privacy laws do not allow for open access to records such as death certificates, which, again, would be readily available in this country.
Robinson was far more than just a back-stage figure. As head of studio for both the Dior and Galliano brands, he was the linchpin of Galliano’s world. The two men had struggled together for many years before finally ascending to the top of the great French fashion house. They were not a couple in the romantic sense, but Robinson was always at Galliano’s side and the commanded a business worth millions to Dior’s owners, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), the world’s largest luxury products conglomerate whose turnover last year topped 20 billion euros. While the Galliano brand struggled to break even, revenue at Dior rose from 127 million euros in 1994, when Galliano became head designer, to 826 million euros last year. Being Dior’s head designer was arguably the greatest job in fashion – but it came at a price: be careful what you wish for, Galliano had told a friend in recent months.
By the spring of 2007, Galliano and Robinson had been at Dior for 11 years. The pressures were immense and mounting, with the recession biting and Galliano’s own label struggling financially, as he disclosed at his trial. The sheer effort of producing an endless cycle of designs and shows was taking its toll. Galliano spoke in court of crashing after his shows as he tried to cope with the anti-climax that always followed. Fellow designer Alexander McQueen had experienced the same difficulties and had spoken of terrible, depressive lows he would sink into after his shows – a pattern that would contribute to his suicide in February 2010. He too was found by his housekeeper, at his flat in London’s Mayfair. He had hanged himself in his wardrobe.
Fashion shows are short but huge productions, only achieved by sleepless nigh and intense attention to detail. Robinson had told a New Yorker writer as far back as 2003, “this is so much work for 20 minutes you can hardly believe we keep doing it.” In the year he died, someone recalls seeing him high as a kite after one of the last shows, screaming hysterically. He had a reputation for using drugs such as cocaine, long after others, including Galliano himself, had stopped. Insiders will tell you that at Dior, as elsewhere in the fashion industry, illegal drugs were commonplace. I was told that, after the last show before his death, Robinson had told Galliano he did not want, or feel able, to continue their work together. Usually at this break in the cycle of shows they would have gone on holiday together. Robinson was invited but declined, so Galliano and some friends went off and Robinson stayed at home.
The person who first told me how Robinson had died was so “paranoid” about giving the story away that they could not even speak the words. Instead they wrote down in my notebook “500 x lethal dose cocaine”.
For a long time that was all I knew. There was a fear about speaking out, among some people, as well as a desire to protect those involved and also perhaps for some, to protect their own jobs or relationships with friends and colleagues.
Then, many weeks later, I had a breakthrough at the French courts. Just over a year after Robinson’s death, in July 2008, a Senegalese migrant with no legal papers, Alassane Seck, was convicted of involuntary homicide (the French equivalent of manslaughter) in the death of Steven Robinson, and of carrying and dealing drugs. Seck’s lawyer, Francois-Henri Blistene, told us that Robinson had died of a massive cocaine overdose, toxicology showing he had between give and seven grams in his body (around five times the potentially lethal dose), which he had apparently snorted.
Robinson had a history of being a cocaine user, and a drug user in general, and it came out in open court that he had been treated for a history of severe depression. (I was told by someone who knew him that he was a “friend” when it came to cocaine.)
Seck had denied selling Robinson the drugs that killed him, but he was found with the cash that Robinson had withdrawn from a cashpoint to pay for the drugs. He said Robinson was one of around 30 prestigious clients he sold to. According to his lawyer, the dealer was friendly with all his customers and on good terms with Robinson and his social set. he had built up trust with them, even though he was not Robinson’s only drug supplier.
Seck was in his late thirties and had been a drug dealer for 15 years. By day, he sold African souvenirs around locations such as the Eiffel Tower and the Acr de Triomphe. His lawyer, Blistene, would not identify the other “big names in the fashion world” with whom the dealer associated, but said they were mostly from the “old guard” who used to go to Le Palace, a popular nightclub for designers and models in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the end, some 40 people had testified to Seck’s business as a drug dealer, but his lawyer would only name one other client to us: Francois Baudot, a government cultural adviser and godfather to Carla Bruni’s son, Aurelien Enthoven. Baudot committed suicide last year, aged 60.
Galliano testified at Seck’s trial, claiming not to know that Robinson was taking drugs and, according to Seck’s lawyer, speaking movingly about Robinson as a wonderful young man who had been his protégé. Seck was sent to prison for seven years. He appealed in April 2010 when the conviction was upheld, but his prison term was reduced to six years. He had since been released, having served half his sentence. Somehow, these proceedings went unreported, and their connection to Dior and Galliano was completely missed. This is the first time they have been made public.
I was initially told by someone who knew Galliano that Robinson’s family had been kept in the dark about what had happened, but that cannot be true as they were represented at Seck’s appeal – their lawyer was apparently paid for by Galliano personally. How and why Robinson came to take such a huge overdose, whether he intended to take his own life or inadvertently killed himself in pursuit of temporary oblivion, is impossible to know. There are certainly those who believe his death was suicide, brought about by the unrelieved pressure of work. I have wondered how Galliano must have felt. Terrible, I guess. Very guilty, probably. He was on holiday and his friend died alone.
I tell this story not to smear Robinson or pour more hurt on Galliano, but because I think it goes to the heart of a wider concern that, put simply, the fashion industry destroys its greatest talents and fosters a romantic myth about drugs and glamour. Some people around Galliano who still care about him (others alienated by his outburst in the La Perle cafe and feel let down, even angry with him) feared that he took could have gone the same way as Robinson and Alexander McQueen.
Galliano’s solitary presence in the cafe, nursing his addictions, casually getting into an unseemly row with a couple and being racist and anti-semitic towards them was worrying, just as much as it was unpleasant, for anyone who cared for his wellbeing.
Even if Galliano’s troubles predated Robinson’s death, there is no doubt that the loss of his friend exacerbated them, and perhaps, led to his deteriorating relationship with Dior. He and the head of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, were said to have disliked each other and there were endless difficulties with the Dior head, Sidney Toledano. I could not persuade Toledano to talk to me in detail for his article. We had no more than a brief conversation backstage at a show, but I know that Galliano felt undermined by his bosses – particularly when the appeared to be interviewing potential replacements while he was still in his job. “They interviewed everyone,” was the story I heard.
Galliano’s behaviour became increasingly difficult and bizarre as the strain increased. By his own admission, he sometimes started drinking in the morning and took sleeping pills during the day to try and cope with anxiety. in addition to the loss of Robinson, he was said to have been deeply affected by the suicides of both Isabella Blow, in 2007, and McQueen, in early 2010. He knew that McQueen – eight years his junior – had at one stage been coming up as the young pretender, perhaps, deliberately placed by LVMH in the same role Galliano had once held, as the head designer at another LVMH brand, Givenchy.
Galliano had felt the threat of McQueen’s talent, I was told. But they had become friends, out of their common bonds: they both came from ordinary London backgrounds, had both known they were gay from a very young age, and were bound together, too, by their talents as designers. You wonder if each of them knew that the other was fighting a losing battle with his demons.
Bath Galliano and McQueen had spent time studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, albeit some years apart, at the start of their careers. Bobby Hillson, who had known and admired them both while she was running the MA course there (for which she hired McQueen to teach), knew that it was not easy to help her students to manage the conflict between creative desire and commercial expectation.
“Of course, you try and prepare them, but you can never really prepare anybody for the sort of pressures they are going to face. You try and explain that it’s a business, but that’s an especially difficult message for the really creative ones like Lee (McQueen) and John, and that in itself can take everything out of you – let alone preparing for the next collection and looking at what’s sold and what hasn’t.”
Galliano had been in a relationship when he was starting out with another Saint Martins graduate, the designer John Flett. He too had been eager to make his name, independently of Galliano, who was already becoming well known. Galliano’s 1984 graduation show, Les Incroyables, had been bought up outright by then-leading London fashion retailer, Browns of South Molton Street.
Flett never got the breaks Galliano did. An outgoing, extrovert character, he met the Paris designer Claude Montana in a night club and began working for him, but struggled to build a reputation in his own name, while continuing to be a keep party-goer and, it was said, drug user. By the end of the 1980s he and John had long since separated and he was in Italy working for another designer, waiting for him to deliver on a promise to launch his own-name brand of clothes. He died of a heart attack in a hotel in Florence in January 1991, at just 27 years old. Some say it was a drug-induced death; others suggest he felt the strains and disappointments of his trade.
Meanwhile, Galliano himself was struggling through most of those years after graduation. After the split with Flett he was in a relationship with another rising designer, Jasper Conran. It appears they had different attitudes to their future, Galliano believing that publicity and a famous reputation would be the makings of him, while Conran was focused more on the financial security and success that eluded so many of his contemporaries.
Galliano’s first backer, Johann Brun, financed his shows and tried to persuade him of the need for a commercial aspect to this work. But Galliano was being feted by Vogue and others in the industry, and assumed financial success would soon follow. When it didn’t the two men got into disagreement and eventually their company John Galliano/Brun went into liquidation – the first in a series of Galliano “bankruptcies”.
Brun recalled how hard Galliano worked and how he drew people to him easily, already assembling the team that would stay with him through the years, including Bill Gaytten, Galliano’s pattern cutter who has since stepped out onto the runway as Galliano’s replacement designer. “He was always angling,” said Brun of Gaytten. Other members of the inner circle, in addition to Robinson and Gaytten, included the milliner Stephen Jones, the DJ Jeremy Healy, and the production designer Michael Howells.
Brun also remembered how Galliano was concerned not to let his parents find out anything adverse about him. Galliano told the New Yorker interviewer in 2003, not long after retuning from his father’s funeral in Gibraltar, that there had been many things left unsaid between them, including the truth about his sexuality:”It was all very Latin and complicated between me and my father.”
Ti his irritation, journalists latched on to the fact, from his earliest publicity, that Galliano was a plumber’s son from Streatham, where his parents had lived when they relocated to England in 1960s. His father, John Joseph Galliano, was Gibraltarian and his mother, Ana, is Spanish. Galliano, who has two sisters, was born in Gibraltar in November 1960. Fabulously, Galliano has always claimed in interviews his real name is Juan Carlos Antonio Galliano-Guillen. He even announced that name to the court at his trial. But this turns out not to be quite the case. I ordered his birth certificate from the Gibraltar registry and in fact he was named John Charles Galliano.
Whatever tensions existed in Galliano’s life in the 1980s, they must have taken their toll; he told Johann Brun he had suffered a mini nervous breakdown at that time, according to Brun. They went clubbing together sometimes, said Brung, but he and Galliano were never really close.
Brun said he never took drugs, and never saw Galliano taking them either, but Galliano has said before that he was a keep part of that avant-garde and slightly out-of-control 1980s club scene in such places as Taboo and Ascension, where everyone, including him, had very often taken something. There was sexual abandon too, especially among the increasingly open and liberated gay community.
Susana Vida opened one of the first designer shops in Soho, selling Galliano’s clothes above a peep-show parlour opposite the Wag Club. The store stayed open until 3am and Galliano had to come in and show the assistant, a two-metre tall transsexual, how to dress the customers in his complex outfits. Customers might be greeted by a naked dancer emerging from behind the shower curtain Susana put up to separate the dancers from the stairs to her shop, which she provocatively names Kunst (the German for art, before you complain).
Later, when Galliano was desperately broke and preparing to leave the city he loved, Susana was selling his sample clothes direct from another store in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, and paying him straight in cash. She says she gave him money for his flight to Paris – cash profits from the sale of his clothes – and recalled him as a poorly-turned-out ragamuffin who elected to travel to Paris in a motorcycle suit.
Galliano and Robinson were reunited in Paris. Galliano had a brief but unsuccessful stint with the fashion brand Plein Sud before he and Robinson were once again on their uppers, when Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley from Vogue scooped them up, found them some backers and fed them burgers from McDonald’s to keep them going.
The turning point appears to have been the 1994 show that featured the world’s most famous fashion models – Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington among them – giving their catwalk services for free, parading a series of beautifully cut black dresses, with just two splashes of pink. Galliano’s muse then was the creative consultant Amanda Harlech. They parted ways when he went to Dior and did not make a role for her; she has worked for some years now with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. The 1994 show featured Stephen Jones’ hats, dry ice and rusty keys for invitations, but it left the focus on the clothes, and is widely remembered as a transforming fashion moment.
The head of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, soon began negotiating with Galliano for him to replace Hubert de Givenchy, who was retiring as the head of his own fashion house. Galliano was only at Givenchy a year before he went to Dior in 1996. Galliano has likened the shock of his own arrival at Dior, a punk storming the Bastille of haute couture, to the “scandal” that greeted Christian Dior’s original New Look designs of the 1940s. He certainly scandalised with some of his collections, such as the 2000 show inspired by the homeless people he saw on the banks of the River Seine in Paris. He claimed to be honouring the vagrants, but was widely perceived as mocking them. Other wondered if he was having a joke at Dior’s expense – an “avant-garde f*** you” to the home of fine fashion, as one insider described it.
The seasons fragmented and grew in number, and John had his own brand too, though Dior also owned the Galliano name. Just two days after his June trial, I attended a Galliano menswear fashion show at which an anonymous figure in a denim shirt stepped gingerly out from behind the curtain to take a bow: Bill Gaytten, John’s pattern cutter, who had been thrust into the limelight as the new head designer. The show had nothing to do with Galliano himself. Think of it as Galliano the brand, not Galliano the individual, a press officer told me. Dior still owns 92% if the label. But then of course, they had owned all of John, until they sacked him. He had become a hamster on a wheel, simply working to maintain what he told his trial were his two “children”, Dior and Galliano. He described a dizzying annual round of shows for both labels, menswear, womenswear, young people, beachwear, underwear, jewellery, sunglasses, shows…
Before Steven Robinson said, I was told that sometimes when Galliano was very anxious and alone – he was in a long-term relationship with Alexis Roche, but he was not always around – Robinson would go and sleep at the foot of his bed. Perhaps they both derived some comfort and protection from that. it isn’t hard to imagine how the loss of Robison must have hit him.
Galliano was said to have been barely functioning by the time of Robinson’s funeral service, 10 days after his death in April 2007. It was a measure of Robinson’s importance that more than 1000 people, mainly from the fashion industry, paid their tributes at the American Cathedral in Paris. Designers and heads of fashion houses were there; Naomi Campbell came with Andre Leon Talley. Galliano could not speak but Stephen Jones read a Yeats poem, while the set designer Michael Howells read from Winnie the Pooh.
It was about this time that Galliano began to feel insecure about his job. He was said to have been mortified by a letter from Anna Wintour, advising him to change some of his team, and believed that Delphine Arnault, the daughter of the LVMH boss and thought to be one of the richest women in the world, had been brought in to find someone to replace him.
I was told he had never gone for treatment for his alcohol addiction and could sometimes go for days without alcohol, but then he could behave badly. Some friends believed he wanted out of Dior, but didn’t know how to escape. Where was the exit? As it turned out, the exit was in La Perle cafe where he sat alone and unleashed his torrent of racist and anti-semitic abuse.
Dior moved swiftly to dismiss him as head designer at Dior and were, of course, able to dismiss him from his own label too. Galliano, finally, went for treatment, at Cottonwood in Tucson, Arizona. He was expected to stay for three months, but left weeks earlier and appeared to be back in control as he went to Switzerland and holed up with his lawyer to prepare for his trial.
Nobody knows if Galliano will ever go back to the world of fashion, but he is said to be getting plenty of offers. The story of his decline and fall is a sad but salutary lesson, and at least Galliano is still here to tell the tale himself. It is too late for John Flett, Steven Robinson and Alexander McQueen, but if others learn from the fate of these men and act to clean up fashion and support the great but vulnerable talents of the future, then they will not have suffered and died in vain.
Source: re-printed from The Sunday Times Magazine, 21 August 2011
Photo source: John Galliano in Vogue Paris December/January 2006-2007 (photography: Nick Knight)