Prompted by his enjoyment of communicating through various digital hybrids during the pandemic, John Galliano balked at the prospect of returning to the old stripped-down white runway format for his Artisanal collection. To him, it’s an inadequate arena for expressing the intense, allusive narratives which have always fueled his creativity. An epiphany came when he saw a stage production of Dracula by the British theatre company Imitating the Dog, who in the words of its director,“stitch together” videos of actors in real time. “I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to embrace fashion, theater, digital—all the cultures?”
The producers collaborated with him to realize Cinema Inferno, the multidisciplinary fantastically-costumed American psycho-drama of dreams and nightmares that played out on stage, screens, and livestream from the Palais de Chaillot. Galliano’s model muses—the cast who’ve worked with him throughout the pandemic—plus a few grand supermodels lip-synced to a script following the misfortunes of a desperate pair of young lovers on the run.
“They’re Hen and Count, driving through this mythical Arizona desert. They’re shot up,” Galliano narrated. “Then, we have what we call ‘spectral cowboys’ who come to assail them. Representatives of abuse of power, whether it’s the judge, the preacher, medicine, certain toxic relationships, patriarchal societies, and on and on..”
In a preview at the theater, astonishing clothes were laid out waiting to embody the bloody, romantic tale in fragile whooshes of pastel tulle, brutally-cut tailoring, and twisted takes on 1950s haute couture and prom-scene Americana.
The bad men—who came bristling with guns—had sandstorm-weathered coats whose shadowy, creviced surfaces were created with micro-beading, dégradé jacquard, and flocking. “Because this,” said Galliano, “is haute couture. The highest form of dressmaking!”
Of course, Galliano has known his way around the highest form of dressmaking since his time at Christian Dior—and even before. Since the days of his eponymous collection, ideas revolving around characters from the ’20s to the ’50s have populated his collections, and the deconstruction and reconstruction of period clothing. So this was in every sense, a show set in Galliano’s mental landscape. This time, though, there was an inescapably darker haunting of trauma and violence behind the stunning sequences of clothes—of nurse’s coats in the mint-greens of hospital scrubs, the watermelon pouffes of the evil mother’s gown, the diaphanous trapeze dresses and abstracted prom dresses constructed from several gowns sewn together.
Why choose this time to delve into an American narrative? Superficially, it was about the movies: “Films that have had a huge impact on the man I am today. A Streetcar Named Desire, Natural Born Killers, Suddenly Last Summer.” But beneath that runs a more personal thread. It’s no coincidence that Arizona, where the performance was notionally set, is the state where Galliano underwent rehab in 2011. It’s the place where he faced his demons.
Did that make these recurring nightmares swirling around sin, sex, death, and parental and societal abuse subconsciously autobiographical? Galliano nodded. At the end of the show there was a smashed ‘black mirror’ dress, a symbolic reflection of the psychological impossibility of fully escaping memory—even in ‘recovery’—if ever there was one. “Because, as you see in the show, our protagonists keep falling into these dreams. The whole thing is based on a loop. An endless loop.”
There is much more of this self-revelation to come next year when a documentary about Galliano, made by director Kevin Macdonald, will premiere. Galliano says it’s been “like going to confession.”