John Galliano Talks About His Special Relationship With China

Inspiration is a tricky concept for designers. What is the difference between paying homage and exploiting for profit? Where is the line between honoring a culture you admire and stealing from a culture only when it suits you? We know that there's a difference from appreciation and appropriation, but it's worth it to constantly reexamine the relationship between artists and their muses, especially if a muse is something as storied and complex as an entire country.

One designer who's operated on both sides of this line is John Galliano. While at Givenchy, Dior, or Margiela, Galliano has been a masterful storyteller, especially when it comes to exploring his personal relationship with China. His own career — including the low points — has consisted of him playing out his fascination with other cultures' traditional artistry and his desire to bring it home. He explores one of his deepest, longest-lasting accords with curator Andrew Bolton in the accompanying catalog to China, Through the Looking Glass, this year's exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.
Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon
Dress, John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) for House of Dior (French, founded 1947), spring/summer 2003 haute couture; Courtesy of Christian Dior Couture.

The following is excerpted from the exhibition catalog  
China Through the Looking Glass by Andrew Bolton, with John Galliano, Adam Geczy, Maxwell K. Hearn, Homay King, Harold Koda, Mei Mei Rado, and Wong Kar Wai. Copyright © 2015 by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reprinted with permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press. All rights reserved.    

Andrew Bolton:
More than any other designer featured in this catalogue and related exhibition, you have found China to be a recurrent source of inspiration in your work. What drew you to China initially? 

John Galliano: "I was fascinated with the culture. In retrospect, I think it was because I knew very little about it. Before I visited China, it was the fantasy that drew me to it, the sense of danger and mystery conveyed through Hollywood. Much later, I learned more about the real China through research — paintings, literature, architecture. My design process involves in-depth research, and I make a scrapbook for every collection with images that show my current thinking. But, yes, my initial interest in China was fueled by movies, by their fantasized and romanticized portrayals."

AB: Designers often view China through the lens of cinema; that’s one of the main propositions of China: Through the Looking Glass. Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s — especially those featuring Anna May Wong — have been a particular source of inspiration.

JG: "Images of Anna May Wong have appeared frequently in my scrapbooks. The allure and mystique she projects are extremely powerful and seductive."

AB: She seems to have been a source for your spring ’93 collection, which you titled “Olivia the Filibuster.” It included several dresses based on the qipao. Some featured a spiraling dragon motif that reminded me of a dress Anna May Wong wore in Limehouse Blues.

JG: "Absolutely, she was the primary source of inspiration for those pieces. The fabric of the dresses was like licorice — black and super-shiny. The dragon motif was a heat transfer with gold leaf. Some of the dresses were slashed strategically at the hip, so when the girls walked, the slash opened and closed, revealing the flesh beneath. It was like a wink." 

Your first haute couture collection for Christian Dior (spring ’97) included two dresses inspired by Chinese export shawls, one pink and the other chartreuse. The pink version reminds me of a dress Anna May Wong wears in a rare, hand-colored publicity photograph.

 "Yes, that photograph was one of my points of reference. I’ve always loved Chinese shawls — the deep fringe, the exquisite embroidery. Nicole Kidman wore the chartreuse version to the 1997 Academy Awards. It was the first time that an actress had worn a major dress to the Oscars. It was quite a brave statement, that chartreuse."
AB: Your debut collection for Dior was partly inspired by China, and Mr. Dior himself drew heavily on Chinese references. He showed models titled “Chine,” “Pékin,” and “Shanghai” in 1948. Later, he featured models called “Nuit de Chine,” “Bleu de Chine,” “Hong Kong,” and “Chinoiseries.” During your time at Dior, did any of those models serve as a catalyst for your Chinese-inspired collections?

JG: "My models at Dior frequently referenced Mr. Dior’s, so yes, absolutely, they would have served as a catalyst. Probably not the main catalyst, though. They would just have been woven into my storyline."

AB: You’re like the Hans Christian Andersen of fashion. The characters in your autumn/winter 1997-98 ready-to-wear collection for Dior seemed to have time-traveled to Shanghai in the 1930s.

JG: "That collection was inspired by Chinese pinups, Shanghai calendar girls of the 1930s. I’d discovered these wonderful advertisements for cigarettes, toilet water, and other beauty products featuring beautiful women in tightly fitting qipaos. They were so inspiring."

AB: It included several dresses inspired by the qipao. Traditionally, qipaos are cut on the straight grain, but yours were cut on the bias.

JG: "The qipao is already a very sensual garment, but I wanted to heighten its sensuality further by cutting it on the bias, which exaggerates the contours of a woman’s body. It produced this natural drape at the knees, which I amplified in some of the qipaos. The fabrics I used were extremely beautiful: brocades, light silks with lace inserts, and heavier silks traditionally used for men’s ties and cravats."

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon
Dress, John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) for House of Dior (French, founded 1947), spring/summer1997 haute couture; Courtesy of Christian Dior Couture.
AB: The collection was shown in the same year as the handover of Hong Kong to China. Was there a connection?

JG: "I was certainly conscious of the handover, yes."

AB: I ask because the stories that unfold in your collections seem less motivated by politics than by personal interests. Take your autumn/winter 1998-99 haute couture collection for Dior, “A Voyage on the Diorient Express.” It’s an exercise in self-revelation. One of the dresses reminded me of a photograph of Anna May Wong wearing a blouse refashioned from a traditional Chinese skirt.

JG: "That dress was actually inspired by portraits by the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. Look at the silhouette and the placement of the embroideries. However, I did style it with jewelry inspired by the Miao people of China."

AB: The collection merged historicist and Orientalist references seamlessly. But, China was obviously only a minor source of inspiration, whereas it seems to have been the primary motivator in your spring ’99 ready-to-wear collection for Dior.

JG: "It was, at least for the first half of the collection. I was looking at Chinese military uniforms — the color, the gold accents. The touches of red, the small red beads, and silk armbands came from the uniforms of the Red Guards, Mao’s young disciples."

AB: You approach your collections like an ethnographer. You’ve often said that travel is a critical aspect of your creative process. When did you first visit China, and what were your initial impressions?

JG: "It was 2002. When I travel, I try to experience the culture firsthand, by soaking up the street life. That particular visit unfolded over three weeks, so I was able to submerge myself in the culture. I was blown away. Everything was so new and so inspiring that I wanted to know more and more. The colors, especially, made an impression on me. The streets of Shanghai at night were bathed in the light of red lanterns. And Beijing…the orange sun setting in a gray sky over red temples with green- and blue-tiled roofs, so unbelievably beautiful. The contrast of old and new was startling, too. Shanghai is an incredibly modern metropolis, but in 20 minutes, you could be in the countryside. We’d all trundle off in my van, listening to pre-communist music, driving through a landscape that didn’t seem to have changed for hundreds of years. There were women plowing the fields wearing the most amazing costumes — it was both terribly real and terribly unreal at the same time. You get so electrified from one of those trips that you don’t know what is going to surface when you get back home."

AB: What did surface?

JG: "Well, in concrete terms, my spring ’03 haute couture collection for Dior. In part, it stemmed from my meeting with Madame Song. Do you know Madame Song? She was Pierre Cardin’s business associate. [Cardin bought Maxim’s, the chic Paris bistro, in 1981, and Song opened its Beijing branch in 1983.] Madame Song looked after us on our trip. She introduced us to monks from the Shaolin monastery. Their discipline was so inspiring. I said to them, 'I want to meditate. I’ve tried this and that, but I can’t clear my mind.' They asked about my creative process, and I explained everything. They responded, 'Well, you don’t need to look any further. You’ve been meditating since the age of 13.' It dawned on me — my creative process is my meditation. The house could burn down and I’d not be aware of it, I’m so focused on my work."

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography © Platon
Dress, John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) for House of Dior (French, founded 1947), fall/winter 1997–98; Courtesy of Christian Dior Couture.
AB: Creativity is absolutely a form of meditation. Your 2003 collection, however, is a little difficult to decipher. I see Japanese influences as much as Chinese influences.

JG: "Well, my trip to China extended to Japan, so it’s a conflation of both cultures. But, ultimately, it’s just a fantasy. I never set out to recreate anything literally or religiously. Actually, visiting both countries in one trip was liberating. I think you can see this freedom in the collection—in the textures and in the shapes or volumes of the pieces.

AB: The textiles seem Japanese, while the shapes and volumes seem Chinese.

JG: "Yes, the shapes were inspired by Chinese opera costumes, as were the colors. I visited the Beijing Opera and was invited backstage, where I witnessed the preparations for the performance. It was incredible, the tradition, the ceremony, the layers of clothing wrapped and crisscrossed with string. We photographed everything. I didn’t understand a word of the opera, but the visuals were mesmerizing."

AB: Maison Martin Margiela’s fall ’13-’14 “Artisanal” collection featured two ensembles refashioned from Chinese opera costumes. And, the atelier showed a repurposed 19th-century Chinese jacket in its spring ’14 “Artisanal” collection.

JG: "Well, yes. Recycling, bricolage, deconstruction, decontextualization, whatever you want to call it, it’s part of Margiela’s DNA. It’s part of my DNA. It was my oxygen. It’s what pushed me creatively. It’s how I arrived at certain cuts and certain ways of draping."

AB: Your fall ’05-’06 haute couture collection for Dior featured several models that at first looked like studies in extreme deconstruction. In fact, they were studies in the construction of haute couture — garments in the process of becoming. 

JG: "What sets couture apart from ready-to-wear is the workmanship, the amazing attention to detail. Nothing is impossible, and imagination becomes even more beautiful. With those dresses, I wanted to show the magic of the draping on the form, how the block to the toile to the final gown is created, and all the stages in between. We did lots of “X-ray” fabrics, working with tulle so you could look through and see — and understand — all the layers of construction. The dresses reflected a kind of freeze-frame between the block and the belles of the ball. In hindsight, the collection was very Maison Martin Margiela."

Yes, you and Margiela share a similar approach to design. When it was announced that you had been named creative director at Maison Margiela, I saw it as a kind of homecoming. But, one point of departure is that Margiela has always struck me as a non-narrative designer, and you’re the greatest storyteller fashion’s ever seen.

"There’s definitely a narrative to Margiela’s collections. It may not be a front-of-stage narrative that we can read easily, but it’s definitely a backstage narrative. I’ve been going through his Polaroids of putting his collections together. There is a lot of emotion. His collections are written with emotion, they are conversations in emotion."

Fascinating. Margiela’s often categorized as a purely intellectual designer.

 "Yes, but there is so much poetry in his work. Because a lot of his innovations have become part of the fashion landscape, of the fashion language, people forget how radical, how revolutionary, he was. Many of the ideas he introduced changed the trajectory of fashion — in some cases, forever."

What are your intentions for Maison Margiela going forward? 

 "I’ll continue looking to other cultures, like China, for inspiration, as well as to other historical periods. Bricolage defines my work, as it defined Margiela’s. It’s a new journey for me and a new journey for Maison Margiela. I see it as a process of renewal, of discovery, of returning to my roots. I think there will be a new honesty and authenticity to my work. A new emotionality."   

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

R29 Original Series

Watch Now
Hey Hollywood - you can't win without women. We helped 12 female directors claim their power.
Watch Now
In fashion, what's seen on the streets is just as important as what goes down the runway.
Watch Now
The craziest trends, most unique treatments, and strangest subcultures in the beauty world.
Watch Now
A premiere series about the important moments, powerful women and pressing issues of our time.