Yet a glimpse of one small, black-clad figure in the background elevated a workaday product launch into something far more intriguing. In the fashion equivalent of Where’s Wally?, some of the more eagle-eyed attendees spied none other than John Galliano, pinning happily at a fabric in a corner of De la Renta’s spacious 25th-floor workshop. He was “smiling and confident, like he owned the place”, reported USA Today.
If rumours are to be believed, Galliano owning the place may one day not be too far off the mark. As one of the most successful designers in the world, De la Renta belongs to that small but elite club of fashion designers who are household names; one who dressed a shoal of household names. Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton may have cemented his reputation, but a new wave of punchy young female celebrities are equally in thrall to his elegant gowns: they include Kristen Stewart, Mila Kunis, Zooey Deschanel, Allison Williams and Rihanna.
De la Renta’s dresses might be immortal, but the man himself is 80 and could hardly be forgiven for being preoccupied with his legacy. Though his talent is irreplaceable, only a man less astute than he would be failing to make contingency plans for the future. Could Galliano be the designer who is quietly being groomed to take the house of De la Renta forward?
Last month it was reported that after two years in exile, Galliano would make a shock return to the fashion world with a three-week tenure at De la Renta’s studio in the lead-up to New York Fashion Week. “I am grateful to Oscar beyond words for inviting me to spend time with him in the familiar surroundings of a design studio,” Galliano told Women’s Wear Daily. “His support and faith in me is humbling.”
“John and I have known each other for many years and I am a great admirer of his talent,” De la Renta added. “He has worked long and hard on his recovery and I am happy to give him the opportunity to re-immerse himself in the world of fashion and re-acclimate in an environment where he has been so creative.”
Galliano’s fall from grace is well documented. Dismissed from Christian Dior two years ago for gross misconduct after an anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bar, he has been a virtual recluse since parting ways with the house that for 15 years he headed to great acclaim. Other than designing Kate Moss’s wedding dress in July 2011, he has been lying low, reflecting on his actions and seeking help for his addictions.
“I am an alcoholic,” he admitted. “I have been in recovery for the past two years. Several years prior to my sobriety I descended into the madness of the disease. I said and did things which hurt others, especially members of the Jewish community. I have expressed my sorrow privately and publicly for the pain which I caused, and I continue to do so. I remain committed to making amends to those I have hurt.”
While Galliano’s conduct was disgraceful, there are many in the industry for whom his forgiveness cannot come too soon. And none more so than Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue. For if Moss is Galliano’s most loyal friend, Wintour is surely a close second. She was spotted dining with him at the Ritz last July — hardly a clandestine location — and was instrumental in arranging the three-week stint with De la Renta. “Anna and Oscar go way back,” said an insider. “So do Anna and John. Whatever he did in the past, if Anna is seen to be standing by John it’s a fair bet that the rest of the industry will follow suit.”
As one of the most powerful figures in fashion the editor of US Vogue has form in brokering alliances: it was she who suggested to Donatella Versace that her fashion house might benefit from the hand of Christopher Kane. But her influence extends far beyond the fashion world: she also rallied designers to support Barack Obama’s election campaigns and was one of his most significant fundraisers.
When Wintour was recently passed over for an ambassadorial role, De la Renta was one of the first to come to her defence, saying: “When you are editor-in-chief of an extremely successful magazine, you don’t need an ambassadorship for four years. Ambassadors were great in the 18th century. Today it’s going to the opening of a cafeteria. She should be named secretary of state.”
While John Kerry need not lose sleep just yet, De la Renta is unlikely to give a fig how any of his remarks, however outlandish, are received. After all, this is the man who last year took out a full-page ad in Women’s Wear Daily in response to one critic’s review of his show. Asked recently if he would ban said critic from forthcoming presentations, De la Renta was emphatic. “No,” he said without a hint of irony. “I’m not going to make it that important.”
“Oscar is brilliant fun,” someone who has worked closely with him says. “He is disarmingly unpretentious, incredibly loyal and always outspoken. But he has been quite ill recently. He seems to be at an age where he’s past caring what anyone thinks and just goes ahead and does things.”
Galliano’s exact role in De la Renta’s team is unconfirmed, although the designer told WWD: “While I’m working on a collection I sit with all of my assistants around me. I’m not a loner. I listen to everyone. I wish the Virgin Mary would come and sit next to me. I love to be surrounded by people.”
Whatever his position, his presence has elevated a hot ticket into an unmissable one. The recent De la Renta show at New York Fashion Week, was one of the season’s must-sees. “My most highly anticipated show in New York, period,” tweeted influential blogger BryanBoy. Or as one Twitter user noted: “John Galliano is back after the whole bigot thing, very excited to see what he has in store for Oscar de la Renta.”
If “the whole bigot thing” appears to have been forgiven by the fashion industry, more significantly it has also been forgiven by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organisation that fights anti-Semitism, and a critic of Galliano’s remarks two years ago. Abraham H Foxman, ADL’s national director, said: “We believe that individuals can change their hearts and minds as long as they demonstrate true contrition. Mr Galliano has worked arduously in changing his world view and dedicated a significant amount of time to researching, reading and learning about the evils of anti-Semitism and bigotry.
“Along his journey to recovery he met with us on numerous occasions. He has accepted full responsibility for his previous remarks and understands that hurtful comments have no place in our society.”
In the light of these comments, some would say it was a churlish person indeed who would begrudge Galliano his comeback. Others would argue that the fashion industry likes to turn a blind eye to those who serve it best.
As De la Renta says: “Everyone in life deserves a second chance, especially someone as talented as John. I think that life is about forgiving and helping people ... I think John is doing all the right things.”
* The Times / NI Syndication