Dior designer John Galliano in March 2005. (Horacio Villalobos, EPA )
As Paris Fashion Week began on Tuesday, there was only one thing anyone could talk about. The venerable French haute couture house of Christian Dior, credited with putting Paris fashion back on the map after World War II, was rocked in scandal. John Galliano, the flamboyant fashion designer at the helm of the luxury label, and a man known for his over-the-top runway collections, romanticism and love of the bias cut, was being fired. Not because of a collection of clothes but because of a collection of words.
The fast-moving chain of events began Thursday night when Galliano was arrested in the Paris bar La Perle, accused of hurling anti-Semitic insults at a nearby couple in an alleged violation of French laws designed to curb anti-Semitism. Dior, where he's worked for nearly 15 years, suspended him Friday pending investigation. On Saturday, another woman came forward with a similar complaint. And on Monday, video began surfacing on the Internet apparently showing an earlier incident involving Galliano, who appears to be drunk, taunting two off-screen women, saying he "loved Hitler" and that their ancestors should be "gassed … and dead."
The controversy's repercussions reached around the world to Hollywood, where Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman — the celebrity "face" of Miss Dior Chérie perfume, issued a strongly worded statement disassociating herself from Galliano.
"I am deeply shocked and disgusted by the video," Portman said. "In light of this video, and as an individual who is proud to be Jewish, I will not be associated with Mr. Galliano in any way."
On Tuesday, Dior — long a go-to designer for France's First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy— announced it was taking action to terminate Galliano, even as the police investigation continues.
As of press time, the Christian Dior women's ready-to-wear collection, which Galliano was set to show on Friday, and his eponymous label (in which Christian Dior has a minority stake), remain on the Paris fashion-show calendar, and representatives for both brands indicated that the shows would go on.
The 50-year-old designer was born in Gibraltar, raised in Britain and is a graduate of the prestigious Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design. He was named designer at the LVMH-owned Givenchy label in 1995. In late 1996, he was named to the top spot at Christian Dior, which owns a 42.4% stake in LVMH, the French luxury conglomerate that includes Louis Vuitton, Moët & Chandon Champagnes and other interests.
Galliano is widely credited with rebuilding Dior's fortunes, and his collections for the label — drawing from influences as disparate as geishas, Pocahontas and the homeless — were among the most hotly anticipated events on the Paris show calendar. In 2007, he celebrated Dior's 60th anniversary with a blockbuster collection and party at the Palace of Versailles attended by a slew of celebrities ( Charlize Theron, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba among others), several of whom have promoted the brand in ad campaigns.
Although the brand has enjoyed financial success for the last several seasons — with revenue of about $28 billion in 2010 — Dior's collections have not been influential in moving fashion forward. Speculation about Galliano's successor has of course begun in earnest, with Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci and relative unknown Haider Ackermann being mentioned.
Even though Galliano is responsible for the design of 12 collections a year — including ready-to-wear, haute couture at Dior and the men's and women's collections for his label — some think that the Christian Dior brand could go on without a big name designer, just as Gucci went on after Tom Ford's departure. One of those is Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the New York-based Luxury Institute research and consulting firm.
"The job of any designer who isn't the founder of a label is to interpret the brand according to its DNA — which I think Galliano did — but there's a deep pool of eager talent to draw on to provide stewardship to Christian Dior. There might be a little turbulence for a few seasons but the brand is so strong, and it has such a heritage, I don't think this will have any intermediate or long-term effect on the brand," Pedraza said.
"For now, yes I think it'll take a small hit — nobody wants to be associated with that kind of negativism, nobody wants [to back] the Hosni Mubarak of the luxury world — there's just too much potential for significant and swift financial backlash," he added.
And there's every indication that the organizers of Paris' fashion week are eager for the whole thing to blow over as well. "The thing is, this has nothing to do with fashion, so I do not have much to say," said Didier Grumbach, president of the Fédération Française de la Couture.
When asked if Galliano's dismissal would cast a long shadow over the Paris leg of the global fashion circuit, Grumbach expressed confidence that it wouldn't.
"By the end of the week, you will have forgotten about it — if we show you enough things."
Adam Tschorn reported from Los Angeles, and Booth Moore reported from Paris.