High & Low: the story of controversial fashion icon John Galliano

Galliano in a still from High & Low

A new documentary about the controversial yet iconic fashion designer John Galliano is coming to cinemas next week.  

High & Low follows decades of Gibraltar-born and Brockley-raised Galliano’s extraordinary fashion career, as well as its downfall in 2011 after his racist and antisemitic attacks on strangers at a bar in Paris were caught on video.

The film is directed by Kevin Macdonald, who is behind documentaries such as the Oscar-winning One Day in September, Whitney and Marley as well as historical drama The Last King of Scotland.

Kevin Macdonald. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

At a preview at Rio Cinema in Dalston on Tuesday night, Macdonald explained how the idea of the film came about: “It was during lockdown, and I was spending a lot of time on the internet as you do in lockdown. And I was just reading about so many people in the film world being cancelled for one reason or another.  

“And I just started to think about what does it mean when you’re cancelled? How do you come back from being cancelled? Is there such a thing as forgiveness? And how do you get forgiveness? And I was thinking I’m interested in making a film about that, but I didn’t know how to go about it and then somebody said ‘what about Galliano?’  

“John is one of the very first cancellations, it was before the word came along, and it was a video on a phone, something that happens all the time now, but I think that’s one of the very first things that was caught on camera.” 

Galliano after a Dior fashion show in 2010. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Galliano was found guilty of racist and antisemitic abuse by a Paris court in 2011, and fired from the position of creative director at Dior, which he had held for 15 years. At the time, he was struggling with addiction, and in the film, said he barely remembers the incidents.  

Reflecting on where the racist sentiments in the outbursts came from, something Galliano said he does not identify with nor stand behind, he touched upon his childhood in south London and the strong us-against-them mentality he experienced coming there as an immigrant at six years old.  

Macdonald said at the preview: “John had a very horrible childhood, and you hear a bit about it [in the film]. His father was violent towards his mother, his mother towards him… I think he was bullied mercilessly at school and all this. I didn’t want to make too much of that, because I didn’t want people to look at the film and go: ‘Here we go, they’re letting him off the hook saying that he had a miserable childhood’.  

“And it felt like anyway, it doesn’t make up for [the racist and antisemitic attacks]. It might be you know, why you’re unhappy. I think it also explains why he’s obsessive with his work because he’s escaped into this fantasy world. Escape is the key thing to understand his personality.” 

High & Low certainly isn’t letting Galliano off the hook – it includes interviews with victims as well as friends and colleagues hurt by his racist and antisemitic abuse. Other people featured in the documentary include Croydon-born supermodel and friend of Galliano, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.  

A Galliano menswear shirt with his signature newspaper print. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

After a couple of years left out in the cold by the fashion industry, Galliano returned as a designer for the label Oscar De La Renta in 2013, and is currently in his tenth year as creative director of the fashion house Maison Margiela. 

The fascinating deep dive into the phenomenon that is John Galliano comes to cinemas in the UK on March 8.  

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