Her Majesty is nothing if not magnanimous, this just one of the things I gleamed from the book everyone is reading in haute couture-land, Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
Waltzing my way this week through this fascinatingly exhaustive book about the making and unmaking of two of the greatest showman in recent history – McQueen and Galliano both making for an excellent prism into the very business of fashion, at precisely a time when Parisian labels went from musty fashion houses to being part of a high-stakes, snakes-and-ladders global luxury market. I stopped in my tracks on page 195. It's where biographer Dana Thomas relays the story of a 1996 visit to Buckingham Palace gone rather awry. Galliano, ever the enfant terrible and still then head designer at Givenchy – not having yet mounted the peak that was Dior – was invited by the Queen to attend a private dinner for President Jacques Chirac of France. So far, so jolly.
Galliano travelled to London from Paris on the same Eurostar as Chirac and checked into a hotel. But on the night of the event, he didn't show. Didn't call the palace to let them know he wasn't coming, either. Later, he told the French press that he'd had a “migraine.” Later, later, he confessed that it had actually been something else all together: “I got completely dressed – oh, I wish you could have seen it, the jacket was so fierce, and there was lots of jewelry – and then had a serious panic attack. I thought, 'My God, John, you're going to the Queen's for dinner. What are you going to say?”
Fast-forward five years, and there was Galliano again – firmly entrenched at Dior, having taken a tepid brand and given it so much oxygen that it went from six stores worldwide to almost 100 during his tenure – and he was in front of Queen Elizabeth II, at long last. He'd come to receive the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Standing her up had not been fatal, after all! Amazingly, as the biography then tells us – and it is a book that soars with this precise kind of insider detail – Galliano gave the medal to Vogue's Andre Leon Talley, who'd been very supportive of him during the early years when he could barely string two pennies together. “I have something for you,” the designer said to Talley, presenting him with a small box.
Talley took it, though with one caveat: “If you ever want it back, you can have it.” This was, of course, some time before Galliano self-imploded all together with his anti-semitic remarks, and his various addictions, leading to his ouster from LVMH and a persona-non-grata status that he's yet to fully escape, here in 2015.
McQueen – whose story intersected in strange ways with Galliano's and took the place of his greatest creative foe – will not even have an opportunity, of course, for a second act: he took his own life in 2010, as most will remember. He gets perhaps the more sympathetic portrayal in Gods and Kings, his genius cinching the idea that great designers are great artists. The book also reveals that Alexander was HIV positive.
The Queen, as it turns out, gets an alluring cameo of her own in McQueen's own saga – this when he, like Galliano, sallied up one year to Buckingham Palace to get his own decoration from the Empire. Relucant to accept the honour at once (ever the rabble rouser and son of an East London cab driver!), McQueen finally conceded, and later told his parents that when he came eye to eye with the monarch – Queen to McQueen! - it was “like falling in love.”
“How long have you been a fashion designer?” she asked him.
“A few years, milady,” he responded.