5 Lessons About Self-Destruction All Creative People Should Know

Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.
Page one of Dana Thomas' Gods and Kings details the drunken spat that would end a chapter for designer John Galliano. His identity is withheld for most of the passage, but it’s an anecdote anyone with an interest in fashion will recognize. Yet, leaving our antihero nameless is surprisingly effective: His behavior is so ugly, so monstrously human that, as I read, I couldn't help but relate to him. 

Take that as liberally as I mean it. Geniuses (including Galliano and Lee “Alexander” McQueen, the other subject of Thomas' book) take on a certain mythology. Their triumphs and failures define them, while all the mundane details of the in-between are absent from the narrative. So, when this book opens with the rock-bottom moment of a nameless person, it prepares the reader to see Galliano not as a fallen fashion god, but as a regular creative person who struggled all his life to be great and still failed — often and loudly.

Gods and Kings is a rich text, brimming with both personal and fashion history. But, most vital to me is the What Not To Dos, which apply to artists of any medium. The book is not just about the rise and fall; it details all of the little missteps that lead to a downfall. It’s a relevant primer for creatives at all stages. Here are five wrong turns you should avoid making in your own creative aspirations. 

Galliano: Photo: Associated Newspapers/REX USA.
Advertisement


1. Assess your inner circle. Galliano surrounded himself with impressive women, but no one was as integral to his growth as Amanda Harlech. She designed his sets, encouraged his ideas, and sent him gifts in the mail to stimulate his creative process: poems and pebbles and pictures. She truly wanted to help Galliano realize his visions, and inspire new ones.

But, she was no match for Galliano's assistant, Steven Robinson. According to Galliano's team, this was by design: Robinson was mean, manipulative, and ravenous for power. Early on, he kick-started Galliano’s addiction by controlling him with alcohol, then took on responsibilities that distanced Galliano from his own work. He even succeeded at removing anyone who might pose a threat to his position, including and especially Harlech: When Galliano took over at Dior, Robinson was in charge of negotiating Harlech's new position — and salary. "I thought it was missing a zero," she said. Karl Lagerfeld eventually snatched her up.

Robinson died shortly afterward, and with him gone Galliano struggled to take ownership over his company, descending further into addiction. Much as Galliano loved Robinson, he was also enabled by him, and by the time other friends and colleagues could interfere, it was too late.

Thanks to the Internet, finding a creative community is easier than ever — but so is finding people who don't have your best interests at heart. If someone is enabling your worst self, encouraging you to blow your deadline to hit happy hour, or keeping you alienated from the people who supported you early on, you might want to question their motives instead of assuming they just want to be around you because you're great. (Side bar: You are great, but that doesn't mean you should trust everyone who says so.)

2. Learn enough about business to not get dicked over. It took both McQueen and Galliano years to attain a semblance of business savvy. McQueen would show up to meetings in a dirty T-shirt, missing his front tooth; Galliano refused to design dresses that accounted for breasts, and took 10 years to trademark his own name. He also left a number of financial backers in the red. Not all creative people need to moonlight as mathematicians, but having a basic grasp of business — or trusting someone who does — is a necessity, especially for self-employed creatives.

3. Work at your own pace. Many of McQueen's and Galliano's contemporaries struggled with the unsustainable expectations of the fashion industry: Tom Ford became depressed after Gucci fired him (ostensibly because he'd run out of ideas); Marc Jacobs did two stints in rehab; Steven Robinson died of a cocaine-induced heart attack before age 40.

Thomas writes that globalization caused a major shift in production: "…In fashion, […] the bottom line became more important than the hemline." Designers who prided themselves on researched, unique works struggled to keep up. The game changed from underneath them: At the beginning of his career, Galliano was producing two collections a year; when it ended, he was responsible for 32. In an unpublished 1991 interview, he reflected on the impossibility of his position. "I can't think of any other trade where every six months you have to come up with completely new ideas, ideas that have to be tried and tested. That work, that dry clean, that won't shrink, that you can live in, that make you feel beautiful. I can't think of any other trade where you have to go through that."

For artists who make a living online, this breakneck pace may sound familiar. Even if you're not required to publish new work daily, doing so sure improves your name recognition — and the chances of getting staffed. But, at what cost? For designers who got into fashion-as-art, keeping up with industry standards ruined something they loved. So, make the call: Are you in it for money? Fame? Art? The answer should affect how you treat your craft. Even the most talented artist can't consistently pump out magic based on someone else's Q4 goals.

4. Be conservative about compromise. "All these big companies don't care about you as a person. You're only a commodity and a product to them and only as good as your last collection," McQueen said as Givenchy courted him.

This is a universal truth for creatives who work with brands (and yes, publications count as brands). Corporations and companies have their own concerns — it's your job to care about the individual, to negotiate on behalf of yourself. It’s your job to decide what you can and can’t live with. I hate the concept of “selling out,” but it’s true that people have their own personal boundaries, and once they’re crossed, it’s hard to feel excited about what you’re doing. 

Galliano felt this for a few seasons when forced to work on his failed Galliano’s Girl sportswear line, and despite McQueen’s self-awareness, he also lost control of his work as his mainstream acceptance ascended. "You would see McQueen's show, and then you would walk into department stores and see his rack and think, 'What are these clothes? Where did they come from?' Because they had nothing to do with him," a former British Vogue editor told Thomas.

5. Not everyone will love you (but don't make them hate you, either). "I wasn't born to be loved," Galliano told Thomas during an interview. McQueen was even less popular, in ways: While Galliano's eagerness to refine himself earned him a fawning press and financial backing (fleeting as it was), McQueen gave no fucks about appearances and refused to deny the darkness that made him — and his art — such a rarity. It scared people away from him, and his success was more of a slow burn: America was quick to approve of his art; the London press took much longer to warm up.

It's healthy for an artist to realize that not everyone will adore them or their creations. Art that wants to be liked by everyone will be loved by no one. But, there's a difference between staying true to your vision and acting like a dick. Galliano, who relied on free help from both friends and top-tier models well into his career, became so taken by his own hype that he tried to stiff his staff and atelier hands out of tickets to a show they'd been working on for weeks. He also took to trash-talking compulsively — no one was off-limits. He'd been this way since childhood, when he was bullied relentlessly. His upbringing was not insurmountable, though: McQueen also grew up poor, gay, bullied, and sharp-tongued, and remained that way throughout his career. But, mostly, he tried to do right — first by his art, then by the people around him. At his funeral, his friend Shaun Leane said, "It was your personality we loved. You were always true to who you were, when we laughed we laughed until we cried and when we argued we argued with you until we cried. But that was the beauty of your extremes."

Both men struggled with addiction and depression throughout their lives, which no doubt impacted the way they responded to stress, insane demands, and even the people they loved. So, I can’t suggest that you treat people better without the caveat that “people” includes yourself. Recognize when you’re being taken advantage of. Recognize when you’re acting self-destructively. Recognize when you need a break, and take one! If you must find out what happens when you don’t, do so through Thomas’ book. The lessons are just as resonant. 
Advertisement