John Galliano’s fall from grace

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Natalie Portman and John Galliano in happier times

After James Franco’s comatose body was wheeled off the Kodak Theater stage last Sunday night I stayed at my Oscar party to watch extra coverage, which included interviews the winners gave backstage. Natalie Portman appeared first on our screen. She looked exhausted, overwhelmed, almost sad. She answered questions in a small voice, most of which concerned her upcoming motherhood (“First of all, I do not know the sex of my baby” she responded to an impertinent question about watching the Oscars in the future with her son). Another interviewer was even more brazen: “You look beautiful in Rodarte. Is your dress a rebuff to Dior’s John Galliano, and what do you have to say about his recent anti-semitic remarks, considering that you are the new spokesperson for Dior’s Cherie perfume?” She looked stunned, frightened, and was quickly assured that she didn’t need to answer. Next question.

Portman issued a statement the following day that she was “shocked and disgusted” by the recent video showing Galliano profess his love for Hitler and went on to say “as an individual who is proud to be Jewish, I will not be associated with Mr. Galliano in any way.”

When Galliano was king

Just as Paris fashion week was getting going, it ground to a halt at the news that John Galliano had been removed from his position as Dior’s head designer due to his racist remarks. Without Galliano at the helm, Dior went ahead with its runway show this past Friday, and his eponymous line held a stripped-down show as well (only nineteen looks were presented at the John Galliano show, less than half of what a normal show might hold). Dior announced today that it would continue to financially support the John Galliano line, though it is unclear for how long. What is clear is that Galliano’s “glorious reign” (as Harper’s Bazaar termed it in a photo spread four years ago) is over. For now.

The New Yorker’s Michael Specter, who wrote a profile of Galliano in 2003 for the magazine, issued a short response last Wednesday to the fashion designer’s implosion. As Specter notes,

The recipe is getting old: take a savant, somebody who plays golf better than any other human, or can cut on the bias, or throws a lot of touchdown passes, and surround him with sycophants and barrels full of money. Praise everything he says or does no matter how solipsistic or selfish. And what do you get? Exactly what the adoring public deserves. Even Galliano’s drug abuse was seen by many of the most prominent people in fashion as an adorable foible, like wearing a monocle or writing with a fountain pen. “Oh, that’s just John,” one of France’s better known fashion people once told me. “Obsessive indulgence is his thing.”

Specter’s profile from eight years ago depicts an extremely hard-working man at the height of his career, whose ostentatiousness was tempered with diligence, his exhibitionism masking a shy demeanor. In a mixture of first and third person, Galliano crowed, “I would never put a limit on my goals. I would love to see what a John Galliano airplane would look like, or a hotel. I don’t want ever to say there is something that John Galliano won’t do.” A sad statement, in light of Galliano’s seeming jump off the diving board of sanity.

Sans crown, Galliano has grown horns

In the New Yorker profile, Galliano praised passing women on the banks of the Seine who had the John Galliano look: savagery mixed with refinement. It is the other extreme of this people-watching that got Galliano into trouble last week. Apparently, he felt personally affronted by a fellow Parisian restaurant-goer’s style, exclaiming, “Your boots are of the lowest quality, your thighs are of the lowest quality. You are so ugly I don’t want to see you. I am John Galliano!” He proceeded to assume that this woman was Jewish, and that’s where the anti-semitic diatribe began.

The New York Times published an op-ed tonight on the similarities between high fashion and fascism: “both surround a cult of physical perfection” and “rely on a handful of oracular, charismatic leaders who issue proclamations to (select) crowds. Fascist leaders offered their followers the prospect of an enhanced, mythic identity — a dream of youth and beauty, the same attributes promised by high fashion.” The French are especially sensitive to such a comparison, as Parisian designers collaborated with Nazi occupiers during WWII so that their city could remain the site of high fashion, a fact many French would prefer to forget.

Fashion is a dominant and powerful industry in our world, catering to the elite and making all of us aware of our hierarchical place. Clothing has been a primary signifier of status since the beginning of mankind–the fact that it continues to do so is a surprise to no one. Fashion becomes dangerous, though, when the superficial superiority imparted by one’s clothing gives that person the license to condemn the flesh of another.

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Jenna’s pick: J. Crew style

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I'm partial to the J. Crew catalog because of the "Jenna's picks" page

This past Tuesday I was at my weekly trivia date with a group of friends. One of my friends, usually brimming with hilarious stories from the past week, sat engrossed in the newest J. Crew catalog. When her silence was pointed out, she looked up and said, “I’ll talk in a minute; I just got this catalog and I need to see what our new styles are.”

This friend majored in textiles and is now a store manager at J. Crew. She’s given to saying things like “You have to feel our new rayon-silk-cashmere blend, it’s out of this world!” or “Cotton prices are on the rise, home-slice. Say goodbye to the days of t-shirts for $9.99!”

I’ve learned more about J. Crew’s brightly colored world from this friend than I ever expected to know. To sell the nicest clothing in the store, my friend acts almost as a walking model (which works because she’s adorable). As she put it, you don’t sell cashmere sweaters by wearing jeans and a t-shirt. This, apparently, is not a message that all of the Minnesota branches were familiar with, a fact made painfully clear in the New Yorker’s September profile of J. Crew’s CEO, in which he visits the J. Crew store just a block from my house and critiques it mercilessly. My friend was in a fit the week after that profile came out, worrying that if he had come to her store he wouldn’t have liked her. On the contrary, I argued, she seems exactly like the business-savvy and fashionable employee he would have picked out immediately to give him a sense of how her store was doing.

Work those curves, girl: Crystal Renn in J. Crew

Still perusing, my friend pointed out a few styles from this new catalog that she was excited about and gushed about the plus-sized model Crystal Renn, who was featured in the swimsuit section. When another friend asked if she would have to wear socks with sandals to work, as was shown in the pictures, my J. Crew friend rolled her eyes. “Probably. That’s the only way I’m gonna get ladies to buy our socks.”

Spanish fashion

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Before I moved to an Andalusian town in the fall of 2008, people gushed, “Spanish women are so fashionable.” I was intimidated. The gushing people were wrong.

A week after I moved to Arcos de la Frontera, my roommate and I got caught in a downpour. We had dance class but the clothes we brought were soaked through, so we quickly ducked into a Spanish clothing store. She pulled a few pairs of exercise pants to try on, and I found a few tops. After a few minutes, she emerged from her dressing room, horrified.

Why is your crotch at your knee? Why, for goodness sake, why?

“There’s something wrong with all of these pants. They…they just don’t fit right!” she exclaimed. And thus we were introduced to harem pants. We had arrived just as the trend really started to kick in, and soon it was impossible to go a day without seeing a young woman or man wearing pants where the crotch was at the knee. This trend was hideous enough that I expected it to expire within a few weeks, but, alas, we were subjected to it the entire year we lived in Spain.

The only reason not to wear harem pants, it seemed, was to match the shade of your pants exactly to your shirt. I’d see a woman wearing canary yellow from head to toe one day–yellow sweater, yellow jeans, yellow high heels–and spot her all in fuchsia the next day. I saw outfits constructed entirely of fire-engine red and outfits of Granny Smith green.

Can you spot the author amid the polka dots?

This trend, at least, seemed to have its origins in flamenco, a piece of Spanish culture that I deeply love. When a friend of mine who lived in Paris at the time came to visit, I took her to my favorite place in Sevilla: a flamenco dress store. Having come from a land where women had only two colors in their wardrobes–black and gray–her retinas burned at the bright colors.

Only bold statements could compete with bold colors for popularity among Spanish youths (no matter if these statements were in English and therefore completely incomprehensible to the wearer). There were the usual attempts at sauciness blazoned across one’s chest–“I’m too sexy for this shirt” or “My eyes are up here”–the kind that make you cringe on an English-speaker let alone someone who has no idea what they’re projecting to the world. English words were frequently misspelled on these shirts, and sentences verged on ludicrous. But there was one sweatshirt I saw for which the statement was such a mess that I stopped dumbstruck in the middle of the street and wrote it down as soon as I regained feeling in my brain. The message? “Every body lovering so we all love.”

Spain, you and your fashion sense are so crazy. I’ll never stop lovering you.

Oscar fashion 2011

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Ladies in red: Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Hudson

The best dressed women at the Oscars this year were not all those 20-somethings who took “Red Carpet” literally. Helen Mirren put her young peers to shame in Vivienne Westwood Couture, while Hailee Steinfeld was adorable and age-appropriate in Marchesa. These wonderful actresses showed that you don’t have to bare all to be beautiful. Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway was a one-woman fashion show, highlighting this year’s best and worst trends (was that one dress made out of blue vinyl?)

Helen Mirren, the queen

Hailee Steinfeld, the princess

Anne Hathaway, the indecisive host

 

How to be a fashion designer

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What you’ll need: 99% Inspiration, 0% Perspiration (you don’t want sweat stains on your satin)

Songlist: Suffer for Fashion by Of Montreal, The Dress Looks Nice on You by Sufjan Stevens

Further reading: Richard Avedon’s Versace: The Naked and the Dressed

My grandmothers loved gardening. The scent of petunias immediately brings me back to my Grandma Joan’s community pool, where she and I deadheaded the purple flowers together. Bougainvillea covered the walls of Grammy Phyllis’s Caribbean house, and she created her own hibiscus hybrids in a shade garden outside her bedroom. When I was about 8, I was looking at a flower catalog with Grammy and realized how these plants so closely resembled elegant dresses. I got out my sketch book and created an entire collection of flower-inspired dresses on the spot.

Granted, my designs were somewhat unconventional. I didn’t understand much about textiles, and paired a lycra top with a crushed silk skirt. I also didn’t have a frame of reference for trends–my collection included styles from every decade in the twentieth century, without much in common from one dress to the next.

Hen and Chick plant: my inspiration

Seventeen Magazine hosted a contest in which readers could send in their best dress design and the winner’s dress would be created for her prom. I was maybe 13 at the time (the average age of Seventeen’s readership, ironically) and didn’t care at all about prom, but knew I wanted to have the winning design. While my earlier sketches were crude, I spent days working on my drawing of a dress inspired by the Hen and Chick plant. The dress was a forest green ball gown with white and pink embroidery that mimicked the shape of the leaves and, let me tell you, this dress would have been stunning. I was sure this would be a winner.

Months later, I opened my new issue of Seventeen and saw the sketches of the finalists. The runners-up were relatively bland, and the winner was a bright pink ball gown with sparkles on every available inch of cloth–the kind of dress that screams out prom.

I didn’t design too many dresses after that, and have since then realized that my fashion sense is nonexistent. In middle school I had three pairs of pants in rotation: high water khakis, button-up track pants, dark denim bellbottoms (serious bellbottoms). I haven’t gotten much better. But sometimes I wonder what would have happened if that forest green ball gown had won. Would I be sewing banana peels together on Project Runway or debuting lycra-silk dresses at New York fashion week? Seems unlikely, but maybe, just maybe, that Hen and Chick dress would have propelled me to the top. Watch out, Versace.