John Galliano | Les Incroyables, London, 1984

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All scandals aside, John Galliano’s seminal 1984 Central Saint Martins graduation collection remains, like Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947 and Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking tuxedo of 1966, part of fashion folklore. This summer’s V&A exhibition, From Club to Catwalk, is a celebration of an era in London defined by Galliano, Bodymap, Leigh Bowery, Richmond Cornejo and the Taboo guest list. Now tragically exiled from the fashion house that bears his name, Galliano spoke to James Anderson about Les Incroyables, the collection that made him an overnight star and helped put a new wave of London designers on the global fashion map

John Galliano interview

John Galliano’s graduate collection, 1984, Central Saint Martins, London

Three decades before his spectacular fall from grace, rehab and Vanity Fair confessional, the Galliano legend began via his graduate collection Les Incroyables, which earned him a First Class Honours Degree from Saint Martins in 1984.

Impoverished of funds, but rich in ideas, the designer referenced a distant French past, to create a thrilling, fearless, fantastically-madcap vision – in which those who dared could dress up the here and now. As the audience gasped, cheered and hollered, a mix of models-proper, mates, cohorts and club kids – who just somehow looked right – swung down the catwalk to the spliced-up sounds of then-fledgling DJ Jeremy Healy.

Something very special was happening here, that much was clear, something that would pass into fashion legend, and be celebrated again as part of the V&A’s 2013 summer show, From Club to Catwalk. Esteemed boutique Browns promptly snapped up the whole lot, giving the flamboyant creations pride of place in the windows within 24 hours of them first being shown; London’s reputation as a city that fosters the most incredible fashion talent would be forever sealed. For Galliano, though, the surface had only yet been scratched… 


Any graduation is a form of rebellion as you charge into the real world – well at least that was how I saw it at the time. My graduate show was inspired by the French Revolution, the attitude as much as the style.  I called it Les Incroyables, which basically means “The Incredibles”, and that’s what I thought of these characters that stood up and defied the situation around them. I wanted my clothes to speak and to capture a moment as incredible as theirs.

John Galliano interview

John Galliano’s graduate collection, 1984, Central Saint Martins, London

I was totally into the collection, still am. It completely took over me.  Yes, I was very into the club scene – and all the distractions around Saint Martins and Soho – but when I got into this collection everything else kind of went into slow motion and I was sucked into this incredible world of revolution.  It was electrifying, which sounds weird to say because it was hard work, I can remember that still, but it possessed me, drove me, inspired me. I just had to keep up with the world I was creating.  Every tiny detail mattered and had to be perfect.

The collection wasn’t a big budget affair. I used anything I could get my hands on – furnishing fabrics in parts, for example, as not only did that fit the character, it was cheaper.

I can remember charging through cobbled streets in all that amazing organdie. Jackets were worn upside down and inside out, romantic organdie shirts were accessorized with everything from magnifying glasses – smashed, and worn as jewellery – to rainbow-coloured ribbons sewn onto the insides of coats. It was a reflection of me but sort of wild and unkempt – not like the fashions of the time. I poured my heart and soul into that collection – well you do – and I scrimped and saved and scoured all over for all the bits I needed, it was everything to me.

John Galliano interview

John Galliano’s graduate collection, 1984, Central Saint Martins, London

Before the show I think I felt every emotion all at the same time – electrified, nervous, liberated, terrified yet excited all at once, it was a very intense period. There was nothing to lose and everything to gain – it was as if your entire life so far had to be cut and draped and hung into the pieces that were to step out there.  Everything felt like it had been a dress rehearsal building up to this moment. It was sink or swim time, yet it was like swimming upstream, learning to fly and then jumping off a cliff! It was everything you had learnt, hoped and dreamed poured into this one collection. It really was a bit like Charles Dickens – in A Tale of Two Cities he opens his novel about the revolution, writing: “It was the best of times and worst of times”. That was exactly how my revolutionaries felt to me…

It was a student show so, as I said, not big budget, but every look had to have the right face to go with it. There was Camilla Nickerson [now-legendary stylist], Paul Frecker [stylist-turned-19th century photography dealer], Barry Kamen [model and artist]; people whom understood me and understood the spirit of change. It was a combination of the two, friends, friends of friends, friends who were models, who knew models, or who had faces that would suit the part.

The show was mental! It was beyond anything I could have imagined and set the bar high for everything that followed. Really high! It literally went crazy – one minute I was a student, the next I was a designer, everyone seemed to know who I was. I don’t think the models had even taken the clothes off before Mrs Burstein at Browns had decided to take the lot – my collection was in the window of Browns the next morning! She was amazing. It was sort of a whirlwind – there was no time to think things through, you just had to keep up with all the magic. I would be wheeling the rail of clothes down Oxford Street, working every hour of the day to keep up with it all – getting my mates over to help me produce more and more and more! It was intoxicating madness!

John Galliano interview

John Galliano’s graduate collection, 1984, Central Saint Martins, London

I am still really obsessed with the collection now, it’s very much part of the Galliano DNA, it defined me. I feel very proud of it, and have very fond memories of it. I know people who have pieces from Les Incroyables – friends and collectors – and I have managed to find a few pieces for myself. I found a cap a few years back and it was like being reunited with an old friend.  It’s great to see early work again, but its also great when it goes out there and parties… that’s what I did it for! C

 

James Anderson is the Fashion Features Editor of i-D. He recently collaborated with Michael Costiff on Michael and Gerlinde’s World: Pages from a Diary