I haven’t been so overwhelmingly depressed on finishing a book since Dan Rhodes did away with the dog at the end of Timoleon Vieta Come Home. Which is a surprise as much as a disappointment, because I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to reading something more than Dana Thomas’s Gods and Kings.
I loved Thomas’s last book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, in which she didn’t so much sandpaper the veneer off the luxury goods industry as hurl a bomb at it in a knock-off Hermès Kelly bag, doing for Louis Vuitton what Fast Food Nation did for Jack in the Box burgers (extra E. coli with that?). No one came off well (apart from Hermès), and it confirmed what you already knew: much of the luxury industry is based on fraud. You’re not queuing like the idiot you are outside a Peter Marino-designed flagship in Hong Kong to buy a beautifully made bag, you’re paying for a multi-million dollar ad campaign and the ectoplasmic illusion of quality and glamour.
No one comes off well in Gods and Kings either, but the finalé is what’s most depressing
No one comes off well in Gods and Kings either, but the finalé is what’s most depressing. We haven’t just lost two of the world’s greatest designers (while Thomas acknowledges that Galliano is starting a new career at Margiela this year, she writes his entire backstory in the style of a eulogy). We have, she argues, lost any potential for creativity in the commercial fashion industry: there’ll never be another Galliano or McQueen, because it’s all about interchangeable creative directors at behemoth design houses. You might argue that to say that there’s no art in fashion and no hope is pessimistic and smacks of “They don’t make them like they used to” nostalgia: have there ever been anything other than hard times for innovative designers? And yet – looking at the industry right now, you have to admit she has a point. Where’s the stage for an iconoclast right now?
Many people are going to have a problem with this book because they feel too close to it – already, The Independent’s Alex Fury has written a hysterical (and not in the LOL way) takedown. Although Thomas is an insider – she was at many of the events she covers in the book – she writes from the perspective of the outsider, for the outsider. Which isn’t how “fashion writing” usually works very often; normally, no one criticises anything (and as anyone in the industry who has had dealings with the McQueen citadel knows, it’s a world that doesn’t take kindly to an attempt to criticise or analyse). But she didn’t write this book for me, or Alex Fury. She wrote it for a public who, largely, don’t care a whit about fashion: call it a beach read for the Primark monde.
Kate Moss was hardly a “butterfly on a wheel” when her cocaine habit was exposed by the tabloids in 2005
And really, who can blame people for disdaining the world of fashion, which has such a warped sense of responsibility? Kate Moss was hardly a “butterfly on a wheel” when her cocaine habit was exposed by the tabloids in 2005, and many of the brands she was so strongly aligned with took a micro step back. Fifteen minutes later, Lee McQueen wore a T-shirt on his catwalk with the message “WE LOVE YOU KATE”; a year on, Moss was commanding more money than ever before. What sort of message is that? You look at the video of Galliano, drunk, outside La Perle, slurring anti-semitic filth at a stranger, and it’s repellent. But no one’s going to roll up the sleeves of their brown shirts and get earnestly involved in fascism as a result of exposure to it. But you could look at a billboard of Kate Moss looming down at you, ten storeys high on Houston Street, a year after her misstep-from-grace and think, “See, didn’t do her any harm.” After all, it’s just rock and roll. It’s cool. But it’s also cardiac arrests in twentysomethings and gun-toting blood drenched warlords in South America.
She clearly has affection for McQueen’s work, if not his manners, but has venom in industrial supply for Galliano
In Thomas’s book, we learn to loathe Galliano long before his downfall. She clearly has affection for McQueen’s work, if not his manners, but has venom in industrial supply for Galliano. She has plenty to work with: Galliano’s branding a make-up range “Addict”, and creating homeless-inspired collections which inspired placard-wielding protests at the Dior flagship in Paris, are pure Zoolander. Then there are the tantrums and the creation of a twisted, Wizard of Oz empire of frivolous self-aggrandising nonsense. Galliano comes across as a horror, with little or no interest in the actual design process at all. It’s a vicious portrayal – and Thomas is so selective with her quotes, excerpting from negative critiques of his shows, that you might wonder whether anyone ever really believed in his talent to begin with. Which isn’t quite how I remember it.
McQueen, in contrast, is presented as crazed and coke-fuelled (fair enough, he had his sweet side – but he was both of those things too), but also fixated with the physical hands-on creation of the work. He’s a soup-stained idiot savant, and in his spiral of destruction he’s like one of the characters in his Michael Clark-choreographed “Deliverance” show, inspired by the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, in which exhausted couples drag themselves around the floor of a dance marathon. He had to keep working, keep going, keep moving… there was no choice.
apart from the whirls through Taboo and Blitz, it’s like undergoing regression therapy and being told that Fred and Rose West were your parents.
Alex Fury claims, in his attack on the book, “there is little to connect the work of Galliano and McQueen”. Yes, they are/were very different creatures, but both rose to fame in the same kind of hothouse London environment of clubs, drugs and St Martins, albeit 10 years apart. Both were iconoclasts. Both created their own instantly recognizable aesthetic, and fashioned their looks on idealising women. Both moved on from the avant-garde to global recognition. Both were gay men from working class backgrounds. There’s plenty to connect their work. When McQueen appeared, it was during a period of creative recession in London fashion. Alongside Hussein Chalayan, Owen Gaster et al, it felt like the 1980s all over again. Catwalk shows suddenly had the same energy and anarchy that Galliano, Bodymap and Richmond/Cornejo had championed. And one of the reasons why this book is so depressing is that it doesn’t let us look back fondly on otherwise great times. It’s wonderful to encounter John Flett again – Galliano’s late boyfriend, whose own design star was in the ascendant when he died at the age of 27 in 1991, and whose cashmere coat, bought from Bazaar in the late 1980s, I still keep boxed in tissue paper at home. But apart from the whirls through Taboo and Blitz, it’s like undergoing regression therapy and being told that Fred and Rose West were your parents.
Thomas’s book is a solid piece of research and journalism that takes all the sycophancy of fashion writing and throws it into a vat of acid. There are detailed descriptions of fantastical garments, which Thomas clearly appreciates and relishes, but as with restaurant reviews that detail the ingredients and style of cooking of dishes, rote, they never come to life on the page. And this book feels cruel. Do we really need to know about Galliano’s late, apparently Machiavellian assistant Steven Robinson, being a potential inspiration for an S&M themed collection after “being found by the housekeeper hogtied on the floor and dressed in women’s lingerie”? Well, no, but those sorts of gossipy details befit a would-be bestseller.
Like a lot of people who read this book, I lived through much of it. The way we wore… I remember when Boy George’s autobiography Take it Like a Man was published and bookshops were full of London “faces” grabbing it off the shelves and going straight to the index at the back to see if they were in it. The same is true of Gods and Kings. I’m in it (and yes, I went straight to the index) as someone who wrote praise for McQueen’s early “Banshee” show, and as someone who interviewed him several times during his earliest London shows. We were both part of the gossipy, Soho and East London scene of the time, and I went on to produce shows for his ex-boyfriend Andrew Groves. It was a thrilling time for design, and London generally – Groves’s work seemed as exciting to me as anything McQueen was doing. When I stopped working “in fashion”, I started work on a novel. It was to be a satire of the fashion world. I wrote six chapters and abandoned it. It was crap. I realised that fashion is, to the outsider, so inherently ridiculous that you can’t satirise it. The work itself can be beautiful – transcendentally so in the case of many of Lee’s collections, particularly “Dante” – but the creation of it doesn’t bear scrutiny by outsiders. The working title for my book was The Button Meeting, named after a two-hour discussion about whether the buttons should be bare or cloth-covered for a Groves collection. The detail had obvious significance to the garment in question, but at the same time I was somewhat preoccupied with my father dying of cancer a few miles away. The trivia of it all was so exasperating that I went for a walk down Brick Lane, and kept walking. When I had a text message sent to me some years later, received somewhat surreally as I was waking up with a view of the sunrise on Uluru, telling me about Lee’s suicide, I had a similar feeling. Surely nothing was worth all that? How could he do it?
We may never see that kind of raw, irrepressible talent in fashion again. What an infuriating waste.
While Thomas isn’t writing a straight-up biography here (the best biography of McQueen remains Judith Watt’s definitive retrospective of his career, Alexander McQueen: The Life and Legacy). The point of this book, via all of its frequently distasteful voyeurism and its irreverent attitude towards the fashion world’s sensibilities, is that it was the business that destroyed the talent. And that’s the ultimate tragedy: it’s a business without humanity that runs on the fuel of often fragile, insecure individuals. That’s not a comfortable reality, nor is this a comfortable read. C