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Book Review: Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano

Two years ago the Victoria and Albert Museum was hosting its most popular exhibition ever: Savage Beauty. A spectacular extravaganza of an exhibition, displaying some of fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s most innovative work.

When seeing the exhibition one can not deny the extraordinary talent McQueen had. The exhibition told the story of McQueen’s life through his clothes, from developing superb technical skills as a Savile Row Tailor to becoming a designer who drew inspiration from the gothic, romantic, historical, nature; before his tragic death at the age of 41.

I am in awe of McQueen’s work and have wanted to learn about how he rose to become one of the most influential fashion designers in the world. I came across Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano by Dana Thomas, an American Fashion Journalist. This biography is unique as it tells the story of two British fashion designers, who came from humble backgrounds then went on to establishing their own design houses and being head designers of Parisian Haute Couture houses.

The book begins with the early life of John Galliano, he was born on 28th November 1960 in Gibraltar to Juan Galliano, a Spanish Plumber, and his Gibraltarian wife Anita. At the age of six, Galliano and his family emigrated to England and settled in Peckham, London. Galliano is know for his creative spin on Historical and romantic styles, so it’s not a surprise to read that he was really influenced by the Punk and New Romantic movements during his youth in 1970s and 1980s London.

Galliano graduated in Fashion Design at Central St Martins in 1984. After graduation, Galliano set up his own clothing label and became a very successful designer. He was attracted many buyers however, according to Thomas his designs were flawed as many of the clothes did not fit properly. As a reader I found this was really interesting as it illustrates how important the technical aspect of fashion, or any type of design, actually is. To create a successful clothing brand you don't just need the creative design talent but you need to understand that a garment needs to be practical.

Lee Alexander McQueen is introduced in Chapter Four. McQueen was born on 17th March 1969 in Lewisham, London to Taxi Driver Ronald and Teacher Joyce McQueen, and was raised in Stratford, East London. When leaving school at age 16 he became a Savile Row Tailor Apprentice, then went on to work at a theatrical costumiers and he interned for Romeo Gigli in Milan. In 1992 he graduated with a Masters degree from the same university as John Galliano.

The book was quite hard going to begin with, this could be because I had never read a biography before or that I was more interested in learning about McQueen. As the book went on I was increasingly impressed by Dana Thomas’ detailed descriptions of Galliano and McQueen’s collections. Thomas not only talks about what the models are wearing on the runway but she describes the setting and the audience’s reaction, thus evoking a sense of the atmosphere and enabling the reader to imagine what it was like without being there or seeing photographs.

An excerpt of page 118, Thomas describing the opening of Alexander McQueen’s Nihilism Spring Summer 1994 show:

‘The show began in near silence, with a heavily pregnant model with a shaved head dressed in an ample black Elizabethan-like gown and the name MCQUEEN stencilled in silver on the side of her scalp. McQueen based the look on Dutch master Jan van Eyck’s 1434 masterpiece The Arnolfini Portrait. This was followed by the suite of Ancient Greece-inspired pieces made of plaster of Paris. One model wore a long white dress that had been covered with the plaster that was smashed when dried, so as she walked, the pieces clinked like a wind chime.’

Thomas was quite critical when describing John Galliano’s collections and she drew sources from journalists who were condemning his designs as too historical and not appropriate for the modern woman. It could be argued that Thomas was being critical to demonstrate that she was not biased and that Galliano was not a God or king of fashion, but merely he was just a human being. On the other hand it could be argued that Thomas is biased, in favour of the work of McQueen over Galliano. According to Thomas, McQueen had talent and the skills to create his clothes, whereas the more successful Galliano became, the more he relied on others following his commands. There are times when Thomas’ criticisms of Galliano makes me wonder why did she decide to write a biography of him at all?

At first you think that Thomas decided to write about John Galliano and Alexander McQueen within the same book as there are some obvious similarities between the two of them:

  • Both were British

  • Both came from working class backgrounds

  • Both studied at Central St Martins

  • Both were known for pushing the boundaries of fashion design

  • Both staged theatrical fashion shows

  • Both were head designers of Givenchy

This is not a success story, but it tells the story of Galliano and McQueen’s downfall. Lee McQueen sadly committed suicide on 11th February 2010. Just over a year later John Galliano lost his job as creative director of Dior for drunken anti-semitic outbursts. Majority of the book focuses on the business side of fashion. The two designers were at the top of their game in the 1990s when fashion was evolving into a corporate business. Thomas speculates that the downfall of both designers was probably due to the pressure of designing a multitude of collections for their own brand as well as a historic couture house each year.

I would recommend this book for those who are interested in fashion and in the work of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen as this is a hefty biography covering three decades (1980s-2010). After reading this book I do feel I have not only gained a better understanding of the how they built their brands, but I know more about the business aspect of fashion. It was fascinating, although disturbing, to learn about risks of fast-fashion and the constant search for the next big thing.

This book was difficult to read at times, so I wouldn't recommend it if you are not interested in an in-depth read into the lives of these two men. Thomas has interviewed many people who were close to the designers, although this gives us a better insight into their lives it can come across as a bit too gossipy. If you’re not that familiar with Galliano or McQueen and would like to purchase a book then I would recommend a gorgeous glossy coffee table book.

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