Interview with Dana Thomas

Dana Thomas is an American journalist and best-selling author of Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano (2015). She began her career writing for the Style Section of The Washington Post, and served as culture and fashion correspondent for Newsweek in Paris from 1995-2011. She is currently a Contributing Editor for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and has written for the likes of Vogue, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Bazaar.

TW: Descriptions of suicide, violence, sexual assault and Antisemitism

This interview took place at Hazlitt’s Hotel in SohoLondon, the city’s fashionable, gay district, on a street filled with jazz clubs, bars, cafés, and theatres. Based in Paris, Dana Thomas was in London to ‘check in’ with The New York Times officeThough her day has been packed, she kindly speaks with me for an hour over tea.

TW: I’ve been reading your wonderful book Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano for the past week. For those who don’t know about Galliano and McQueen, could you summarise their stories and how they relate to each other?

DT: Galliano is a Gibraltar born English designer who came of age in the early Eighties. He grew up from the age of six on in Peckham, on the South Bank. He went to Central Saint Martins back when the campus was here in Soho, just behind us, and lit the fashion world on fire with his degree show and immediately went into business here in London. He eventually moved to Paris and landed at LVMH as Creative Director for Givenchy and then at Dior, where he stayed for fifteen years. About five or six years later, Alexander McQueen rose up from similar humble beginnings in the East End of London. Galliano was the son of a plumber, and McQueen was the son of a cabdriver, so very humble working-class families. McQueen had a different track. He started at Savile Row and went to Central Saint Martins. They could see that McQueen had great talent so they put him directly into the Masters degree programme at Saint Martins, six or seven years after Galliano was there. With his degree show, he lit the fashion world on fire, started out his own company but did it in London. McQueen was also scouted and hired by LVMH to take over Givenchy when Galliano left to go to Dior. So they kind of ran these parallel tracks that then intersected in Paris. There was this pinnacle moment in January 1997 when Galliano sent out his first collection for Dior and McQueen did his first for Givenchy. It was these two ruffians, Englishmen from working-class roots running French couture houses that had been founded by Givenchy - an aristocrat - and Dior – a super-old-bourgeoise. Super snobby, establishment companies. So their appointments were seen as a serious disruption to the whole status-quo of the industry, the business, and the couture world. They competed with each other terribly, and then they both flamed out within a year of each other, with McQueen killing himself in 2010 and Galliano with a drunken, anti-Semitic rage in 2011. He said that had he not been fired and sent to rehab he would have been dead in six months too.

Dana Thomas   Image credit

Dana Thomas

Image credit

And you started writing the book at that time. It took you three years to write it and it came out in 2015?

Four years. I wrote a piece for The Washington Post about Galliano getting fired from Dior and his flameout. And in it I wrote that there had been a lot of casualties on the creative side of fashion in the last year or two. Marc Jacobs wound up going to rehab. Tom Ford talked about having depression after leaving Gucci. This young designer Christophe Decamin, who had been at Balmain, landed in a mental asylum. And then Galliano flamed out. And I just said, ‘There’s something going on here. This is a story. This is more than a story, I think there’s a book here.’ I called my editor in London and I said ‘I think I’ve got a book’ and she said, ‘Okay, let’s talk it out. That’s a story you are telling me, how do we turn it into a book?’ We spent about half an hour on the phone, and I then saw how to do it. I sat down and started working on the proposal right then, days after Galliano was fired, maybe even the same day. Within six weeks I had the contract and I was off to the races.  

Where did the title come from, Gods and Kings?

It’s a Biblical reference, from the Old Testament, which I thought was important for the Galliano flame-out since he had done this anti-Semitic tirade. And it’s about how Gods oversee everything, and the kings go. Kings build up these fabulous kingdoms and they then fall apart or disappear. Their reigns come to an end, but Gods keep on going. I felt that’s how the bosses were with these designers, who are often referred to as Kings – Dior was known as ‘the King of Fashion’. Karl Lagerfeld was known as the ‘Kaiser of Fashion’. I got the idea when I went to Galliano’s last Dior couture show, and there was a guy walking around with a sign saying: ‘THE KING IS GONE’. By the time I got home from the show I’d come up with the title. 

When exactly did you start covering the shows?

My first Galliano show was the ‘Pin-Up’ show in October 1994. I remember it very clearly. It was just such a scene. I’d been to fashion shows with catwalks and gold chairs along the aisles and everyone was sat in a horse-shoe around the runway. It was up high and everything was glitzy with spotlights. But this was all over the place with not just chairs, but love seats and sofas and benches so already that was cool. Then, I was sitting there waiting for the show to start and I looked up and across from me was Madonna, who was at her pinnacle of insane stardom. I went over to talk to her, asked her why she was here and she said ‘I’m going to see him to see if he’ll do some costumes for one of my videos.’ So I thought, ‘this is gigantic.’ Then the show itself was like something we’d never seen: the girls vamping around and it was very retro and the tailoring was like no one else was doing. It was such a completely different scene and I walked out thinking ‘Wow, I’ve just witnessed something important. This guy’s special.’ And I went and interviewed him days later for The Washington Post.

You can see a shift in perspective in your book where your own point of view comes in. Particularly when you recount McQueen’s ‘It’s a Jungle Out There’ 1997 show. You write that you ‘sensed the uneasy energy as if a riot was going to erupt.’ Was that your first McQueen show?

It was. That was insane. It was February so it was dark, it was cold, it was raining, there might have been sleet, it was miserable. It took place in Borough Market which was before it was gentrified and so it was still just a market. And we go there and it just smelled of rotten produce, the trains were rumbling overhead, and it was outdoors. There were all these groupies and kids and they were all drunk. They were giving out mini tequila bottles so everybody was hopped up on tequila and who knows what else. This was rough for a fashion crowd. You had these retailers in their proper, prim suits and high heels. The car caught on fire right in front of me. And again I left and called the Newsweek office in New York - I was working for Newsweek in Paris at the time - and said ‘There’s nothing else like this going on in the industry. Can we put him on the cover?’ This book is kind of like a memoir, it is and it isn’t. I try and throw myself in there to show I had a birds-eye view, but also to talk about this era that I covered and that was also forming my career and how journalism was then from a reporter’s point of view.

“I called newsweek in New York and said ‘There’s nothing else like this going on in the industry.’”

You could say the book is also a history of journalism. You write about the ‘seismic shift’ in the mid-1990s ‘from the business of creation to the business of hype.’ The tycoons were ‘most concerned about the media attention’ and made the equation publicity equals sales - which worked. 

Exactly. That also affected how I covered the business. I became a business writer. Before I was writing for ‘the back of the book’, as we called it at Newsweek, which was Arts, Culture, Style, and suddenly I was writing stories for the business section. Luckily the CEOs were kind enough to take the time to explain how these things work.

You got access from these tycoons, didn’t you? They wanted you to be there. I wouldn’t expect a fashion journalist to go backstage, I’d think you’d have to stay front row. Was that new?

Yeah, they were psyched to be in Newsweek and not just in the fashion pages. They were being taken seriously and going backstage was new too. And in part, it was because I was a newspaper reporter who had been trained to do that. I’m one of the few who come from that background. Most people who cover fashion are fashion people who are dying over shoes. And I came from a news background and I would cover it like any other beat. I’ve written about everything. At The Washington Post  I wrote for every section except Health, TV Guide, and Book World. So I knew how to write Sports stories, Business stories, Foreign stories, Op-Eds, Entertainments and Arts and Parties and Politics and Breaking News. I can do any of it! I could go into the street and come back with a story. So that’s how I’ve always covered the fashion industry. People say: ‘Are you a fashion journalist?’ and I say ‘No, God no, I’m a journalist who covers the fashion beat.’ 

The media hype led to highly theatrical shows. You write that McQueen’s shows ‘crossed the frontier of fashion into performance art.’ You highlight ‘Deliverance’ in 2003 as his ‘masterpiece’. When do fashion shows become performance art?

‘Deliverance’ was amazing. But it’s the same with the robots painting the dress [in ‘No. 13]. I mean, that was fantastic. That was performance art. And the one which Michelle [Olley] in a box with the moths doing the Witkin picture [in ‘VOSS’]. But they were statements usually at the end of the show. The tableau at the end, that for me was cool. I remember one when models were walking along this wind tunnel, and there was snow and branches coming at them and their clothes were being blown. They had to wear special goggles because the wind machine was so strong. It was crazy. That again was a tableau. It’s like he was saying ‘thank you for sitting through it and looking at all this stuff that we have to show you, now I want to show you what I really want to do.’ I loved that. But ‘Deliverance’ from beginning to end was like watching a poem in motion. It was so beautiful. I loved the blending of the professional dancers with the models and it worked seamlessly. It showed how the clothes could be worn because of movement. It wasn’t parading like you’re walking down the street. 

You can see performance art in the models, too. Like Erin O’Connor ripping off her clam dress in ‘VOSS’, or Kate Moss running down the catwalk in ‘Princess Lucretia’ (1994). I think that’s what’s different watching the shows now. The models today are like automatons. 

It’s so boring. The average length of a fashion show when I wrote the book was eleven minutes. Now it’s down to seven. I went to the Louis Vuitton and the Valentino couture show this year. I hadn’t been to the shows in a long time because I’d been busy writing books. Everyone just raises their phone and snaps pictures, starts Instagramming, and in ten minutes it’s over and they’re in their cars and gone. Before when I went to the shows us journalists took notes of what we saw. There was nothing to take pictures with. But there were some people, like Hamish Bowles [at Vogue] – I loved sitting next to him – who had books and pens and even pen and ink. They’d draw what they saw as it came down the runway, incredibly fast, and the sketch looked like it. They’d have beautiful bound books for each season. That was their Google library. Nobody does anything even close to that anymore. So the shows were slower – most of those shows went on for 45 minutes - because you had people drawing, you had people taking notes, but you also absorbed it. You had to think while you were watching it, as opposed to snapping, recording, leaving, and not having to think about it. Now the models scroll by like we scroll through a Facebook feed. Everything just whips by to the point where I feel like it’s eating itself.

But the theatricality of the shows began to trump the clothes?

Absolutely. The clothes started becoming, for Galliano, costumes for the show. There wasn’t much that could be commercialised. He would always say ‘Oh, but couture is like the laboratory where we’re doing all our experimentation that then fed down to the ready-to-wear.’ But I don’t think it was. It became very clear to me, and I said this to my editor Amy Spindler back in ’99, that I felt that John was already making clothes for the museum retrospective. He was thinking about his legacy. He was not making clothes for today, but clothes that would look good in the V&A. She said do that story with that in mind, that he sees himself as the greatest designer of all time. And she said: ‘Take him out, and don’t worry about the advertisers.’ So I did. It was a tough piece and it got me banned from Dior for a really long time.

You got blacklisted? So to what extent can you be critical as a fashion journalist? Suzy Menkes, Sarah Mower or Amy Spindler would take them out. 

Well I’m a reporter, I’ve never been a critic.  

What’s the difference between the two?

It’s like a film reviewer versus a Features writer. I don’t write reviews of shows. Vanessa Friedman who I write for at The New York Times is the critic. She reviews the shows, I don’t do that. It wasn’t my thing. I wouldn’t say whether it was good or bad I would just say what is was. I was raised to be an objective journalist and not to throw opinion in. People say ‘you’ve lost your access’, but then I’ve managed to write this book. I got access. 

“I told my editor Amy Spindler that John was not making clothes for today, but clothes that would look good in the V&A. He was thinking about his legacy. And she said: ‘Take him out.’”

You write in your ‘Acknowledgments’ that you used over 150 sources, including the fashion journalist Amy Spindler. 

Who I used to work for at The New York Times. Who I loved. 

Her writing is wonderful. She described the failure of Galliano’s La Bohème show, following the huge success of ‘Pin-Up’, as if ‘an all-night revel had rudely met the dawn, with dead Champagne, smudged make-up and the models longing to be safely home’. 

Isn’t it wonderful? That’s why I put as much of it in there as I could because I wanted to honour Amy [who died of brain cancer, aged 40, in 2004]. Her writing was so beautiful. It was so smart. 

How did you work with all these sources when writing the book?

First of all, I went down to my basement where my filing cabinets are. I pulled out all this stuff and ended up having much more than I imagined. That was because, before Google, you had to keep everything. If you wanted to find something, you had to have it. So I had these amazing clip files. I kept everything from the ‘90s, I kept it all. 

DANA THOMAS SPECIAL TO THE, WASHINGTON POST, 1995, Jul 12. For Givenchy, the Clothes of an Era: Fashion Legend Steps Down to Be Replaced by John Galliano. The Washington Post (1974-Current file), 2. ISSN 01908286.

DANA THOMAS SPECIAL TO THE, WASHINGTON POST, 1995, Jul 12. For Givenchy, the Clothes of an Era: Fashion Legend Steps Down to Be Replaced by John Galliano. The Washington Post (1974-Current file), 2. ISSN 01908286.

Not just from your publications, but others?

Yeah, so I’m reading Paris-Match and see they’ve written a story about Galliano so I ripped it out and threw it in a file. I made my own library clipping service. Also, when I’d cover the shows in March, for example, I would keep all the press kits and the invitations and all the handouts that they gave us. Then I’d pull out all the stories that Women’s Wear [Daily], Suzy [Menkes], Paris-Match, Le Figaro, and I’d throw them all in a file for that season. The press-kit would tell me what the clothes were and what they were made of and I’d have my notes from the show- if I’d gone backstage and done some quick interviews, or if I’d done a profile on somebody. This is how we worked then. So I started with all those clips, and they’d we’d fill in the gaps. Then I started talking to everybody who’d worked for either one of them.

You also include interviews with the designers themselves. What were they like?

I first saw McQueen at an incredibly stressful time in ’97. That was days after the ‘Jungle’ show and before his first collection for Givenchy. He was completely overworked, out of his mind, and he was so young. I’ve since learned that he was completely strung out on cocaine too. And it kind of felt like it. But he was sweet, and he was overwhelmed. I could tell that it wasn’t going to end well – not his life, but that gig because LVMH had just dropped this kid with no guidance into this huge thing. I could tell that the bourgeois, French executive wing of the company was not going to figure out at all how to deal with this East-End kid. It was going to be a huge culture-clash. 

 What about Galliano?

The first time I met him was after his ‘Pin-Up’ show. He was overworked too, he was tired. But there was an arrogance about him that was really quite extraordinary, that McQueen didn’t have. McQueen was sweetly humble. He was an arrogant person too, but he was humbled by the environment he was in. Galliano was the king of his little studio. He made me wait for an hour or two and he was just in his back-office horsing around. Somebody else showed me the collection. He didn’t have respect for the press and he made that very clear.

The argument of your book is that Galliano and McQueen are the casualties of capitalism, the commercialisation of fashion. Could you explain more about that?

John took over at Givenchy from Hubert de Givenchy, who had founded his own house. That was a pivotal moment. The houses, not just the French ones, were changing from family- and founder-owned and run to corporate owned and hired guns. Gucci was the same, as was Jean Paul Gaultier. The Fendi sisters sold to LVMH. All these different designers who had founded their houses were selling them – partly because they were old and they had no heirs, or the heirs wanted to cash out. These tycoons all saw the value of the brand and could see it could go global. And I’ve always said these companies aren’t actually luxury companies; they’re real estate companies. The value of LVMH is that it owned one third of the vineyards in Champagne, that it owns half of the Avenue Montaigne, that it owns buildings off Fifth Avenue. The real value of those companies is in the property.

“Deliverance’ was like watching a poem in motion. It was so beautiful.”

Is that argument a rare one? You wouldn’t be able to publish that in a magazine like Vogue, which depends on the commercialisation you’re attacking?

I could write these kinds of articles in Newsweek because none of the companies ever advertised there. So I had great freedom. But in terms of the argument, when I wrote it for The Washington Post, nobody else had said that. Partly because of fear, but also because nobody quite saw it. Like I said, because I’m not a fashion journalist, I see myself standing outside of that sphere. I’m not an insider. I cover the insiders, I study them, I watch them. I’m not part of it. So that’s why I’m able to have more of a 360-degree view. I’m able to see the big picture of what the story actually is, rather than being mired in it, and just talking about hemlines and heel heights. I also studied History, and so I can see the play-by-play of things and then step back. I used that same historian’s way of looking at things when covering the industry.

And the tragedy of the book is that this commercialisation has sacrificed the creativity in fashion. You end the book on the three damning words ‘It’s just business.’

‘It’s just business’, exactly. Which is the subject of the new book.

Tell me more about that.

It comes out the first week of September. It’s called Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. It’s really the third in this trilogy. The first book [Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre] is about the sacrificing of integrity for the sake of profit. The second is the sacrificing creativity for profit. The third one is about sacrificing humanity and the planet. It’s about the backlash against globalisation, the return to craftsmanship, the importance of sustainability and circularity. 

I also wanted to talk about Amanda Harlech and Isabella Blow. One assistant described Harlech as ‘incredibly important’ to Galliano’s creative process and how Isabella Blow discovered, nurtured and supported McQueen. But both designers betrayed them in a very brutal way. Why did they do that?

Because they both had very complicated relationships with women, each in their own way. But it was definitely a class thing too. [Both women were aristocrats]. And they were arrogant men who believed they didn’t need these women to tell them what to do which is heart breaking. With both of them, they were true love stories. Look at the picture of McQueen at Isabella’s funeral [in 2007]: he looks like the widower, completely devastated. John didn’t even think he needed Amanda at Dior, that he could do it. It was really a shame, because I would have loved to have seen what the two of them could have conjured together at Dior. Talk about beauty - that’s what Amanda brought to John’s work, beauty. She’s such a beautiful woman, inside and out. She would send John boxes of beautiful things she found. Her whole life is about beauty, about appreciating and honouring beauty. John talked about beauty but she harmonised it, directed his eyes to it, made his focus clearer. As did Isabella with McQueen, more so. They’re relationship was a little more pygmalion. She educated McQueen in a way that Amanda did not need to educate John. Isabella would take him to art galleries, or the theatre. He was Eliza Doolittle. 

“I’m not an insider. I cover the insiders, I study them, I watch them so I’m able to see the big picture of what the story actually is rather than just talking about hemlines and shoes.”

You mention their complicated relationship with women. McQueen was known for the violence of his shows, especially towards women, like ‘Highland Rape’ (1995/6). In your words, ‘models wandered out, seemingly dazed, wounded and scared […] and the clothes were ripped or lopsided, like someone had tried to tear them.’ Critics were livid, writing that ‘Rape victims staggering in dresses’ was ‘a sick joke’, ‘an insult to women and to his talent.’ McQueen disputed charges of misogyny, as did Amy Spindler, and so do you. Why are his shows not misogynistic? 

They were shocked. A friend of mine used to work for him and she said that his clothes are hard to wear and by the end of the day you were tired. Because they demanded a lot of you, they demanded you be a very strong woman. I found John’s suiting and tailoring very hard to wear too because it was based on the Edwardian cinched waist and tight skirt. I had a skirt that came up to the bust, it was corseted at the waist, it was confining. I have some Galliano pieces from the ‘Pin-Up’ show, that I love. But they both set to defend you. McQueen makes you strong, and Galliano makes you voluptuous. In one way you’re this strong, armoured woman like a knight who will take you down – that’s McQueen’s clothes – and with John you’re looking like Venus de Milo up on a pedestal to be admired. And that’s their different approaches to women in general. So McQueen wasn’t a misogynist, no. He really felt the need to empower women, like Saint Laurent did, because his sisters had been so embattled at home. He also saw it everywhere he went. His eyes were open to it. He put it out there, no filter.

You spoke in another interview about the Shakespearean aspect of the book. You can see that certainly by the end when you have these bodies littering the stage: John Flett, Steven Robinson, Isabella Blow, then McQueen. It’s also like Faust, the designers selling their souls to the devil. Did that affect the way you constructed the narrative?

Yes, completely. I thought about Faust, I thought about Greek tragedies and it’s Biblical. There’s a lot of death in the Bible too. After I wrote McQueen’s death scene, I’ve been taken to task by the Samaritans for it [because of how explicit it is]. But I based it all on public documents, on reports published in the newspapers – The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Daily Mail. I just changed the point of view. As if you’re watching in the room- I made it active instead of passive. The reports said there was this on the bed, there was this on the floor. Instead, I said ‘he did this, he did that…’ But it was really hard to write. 

Do you regret writing it like that?

No, not at all. I felt you needed to see the torment he was feeling and what he did to himself. It takes a lot to get to that point, to feel such despair. I wanted that despair to be obvious. No one is going to read that book and find that scene surprising. Everyone knows he dies by suicide. It ends badly. When I wrote it I was listening to Bach’s ‘Mass in B Minor’ by chance – I was singing in a Paris choral society. As it was playing, when I got to the point I was writing about his death the ‘Credo Crucifixus’ was playing. [She plays it]. It just happened. Read that section listening to this and you’ll hear it.

Okay: ‘He bled, but not enough. He staggered into the bedroom and turned on his laptop. He opened the Yahoo page on the Internet and looked up: ‘When someone slits their wrists how long does it take for them to die?” You can hear it.

And when that piece finished, I finished writing that section and I was crying. Then I went to bed, and I spent the rest of the day in bed. This part [we listen]. That’s the bit where he searched the internet. It took me six minutes to write it. I was completely gutted. It sent me to a dark place for the rest of the weekend. I was heartbroken. I wrote it early, a year before I finished the book, because I knew if I waited until the end, I’d never be able to write it. 

You write about a turning point in McQueen’s work following his ‘No. 13’ show in 1999, of ‘an unspoken understanding among those who attended McQueen’s shows […] that we were witnessing a once-in-a-generation talent maturing into something remarkable right before our eyes. […] McQueen was indeed an artist […] and his work was bordering on genius.’ What was McQueen doing that made him a ‘genius’?

It’s hard to say. It’s like asking an Arts writer what made Picasso a genius. He wasn’t letting any of the conventions confine him. We say ‘breaking rules’ but it was more than that. Because he had mastered the tailoring skills, he knew what the fabric could do for him. That’s why I say he’s like an artist. I remember seeing, for example, paintings that Mondrian did of landscapes in the 1910s that were inspired by Van Gogh’s paintings of the haystacks. They were very traditional landscapes, from the man who did the geometric blocks of colour. You watched how he mastered the classicism and then took it all apart. He knew what the paint could do for him. Then he chucked all that stuff and got down to the core of experimentation, took it down to its starkness. It’s what Picasso said: he could draw like Raphael when he was sixteen but it took him a lifetime to learn to draw like a child – meaning without constraint, just making stuff. McQueen was doing that by then. He’d crossed over. He had the money, he had the talented atelier behind him that could execute whatever he came up with. He challenged them and they’d challenge him back. There was a really lovely dialogue with the petit mains – the hands – that helped him create things which nobody had ever seen. He could push the boundaries because he knew the boundaries himself. 

And he could then create clothes of intoxicating beauty…

He just got possessed by beauty. We talk about beauty a lot, especially in fashion, and designers are always pushing for beauty. But he found it in a deep down, primal way that I’d never seen anyone else come close to getting. Even when it was dark, it was just so…profound. I mean that show, where all the dresses were made out of flowers that were full-blown and fading – it was a beauty that was just so extraordinary. And it was also because he was not afraid of death, which is a weird thing to say. That meant he could push things more than other people would, there was no going too far. Now, there were times when both designers explored some really dark stuff. But John’s was coming through in his work that was very mean-spirited and violent, whereas McQueen’s was coming through in a kind of mind-opening way. It’s like – I’ve never done it – but what people talk about when they’ve done LSD. When they open their minds to things that they didn’t see before. McQueen was going through things in his life that did that for him, and that translated into beauty.

Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano is available in Blackwell’s Art and Poster Shop or online here.

You can pre-order Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes here.