Representing the creative future

High & Low – John Galliano : The documentary

What we learned and how to watch it

The new documentary High & Low – John Gallianoby Kevin Macdonald has just been released on MUBI: a two-hour long film diving into the designer’s total story, from childhood experiences growing up in Gibraltar and abuse he experienced as kid, to his student days at Central Saint Martins, his insane work output at Dior and Galliano concurrently (basically more than 30 collections a year), which led to his eventual severe burnout and disgrace.

The documentary revealed a lot about Galliano’s life and work through interviews with him and close collaborators – not necessarily to redeem him, but to attempt showing what happened from different viewpoints and leave the viewer to make up their own mind. Watching it left us with plenty of thoughts, many questions and a big urge to discuss with our peers. A few days ago, we hosted a special screening before the film was released in collaboration with MUBI for a crowd of 50 designers and got the opportunity to discuss our thoughts and main takeaways with them.


Calling somebody a ‘genius’ may come with repercussions. A phrase uttered early on was: “Here’s someone who is touched with genius.” But what actually makes somebody a genius or, rather, at what point do we endow somebody with this status? John Galliano was undeniably singular in his vision at Dior which, paired with an unrelenting work ethic, separated him from his peers. His graduate collection was highly praised as well as his subsequent collections. The problem lies here: the idea of ‘genius’ propels designers to a status that they are likely not prepared for. What does it do to a creative, most of whom have deep vulnerability and are sensitive to their surroundings? We don’t have the answer. But we recognize how media hype can contribute to interpersonal issues later down the road; not just in fashion but in any artistic field.

What we think of as ‘genius’ is often a collaborative effort. Galliano could hardly have created his high-level collections with such consistency and success had it not been for his close collaboration with right-hand-man Steven Robinson. In the documentary it becomes clear how instrumental Steven was in leading the teams and ensuring the work was executed, while being a steady shoulder for Galliano to lean on during tough times. Similarly, it becomes clear that Amanda Harlech pushed Galliano to do bias cut dresses for his early collections, for which he eventually became known.

From his early eponymous collections on, Galliano deeply crashed after each collection, which in his case led to alcohol dependency. The creative cycle is a rollercoaster of emotion fuelled by deadlines and constant stress about finances and viability. It’s clear that at the time of Galliano’s early career there was a lack of support to avoid the deep lows, but has the industry evolved much since then? With constant demands, there seems to be little respite for designers, even though we’ve now arrived in the age of ‘wellness’. A central question that came to mind was: how can we create a more holistic way of doing work, where we don’t crash and continually have to pick ourselves up?

“Creatively exciting, financially unstable” is an enduring fashion motto. This is how Galliano’s early work was described, but it seems to still ring true for every single emerging designer out there. Whether or not you are on the roster of a support platform, making a living in a healthy way appears to be one of those unicorn illusions.

Designers are often shy creatures. John Galliano certainly was – not that we would imagine that, but hey, alcohol helps. Being pushed into the limelight has become the norm for creative directors today. The documentary revealed how Galliano needed to give press interviews right after the shows (even when his father passed away a day prior), and entertain clients and press during dinners and events on a consistent basis. Alcohol or other intoxicants can help with easier connection for shy or socially awkward people, but therein lies the danger of dependency if you have to keep it up. It feels problematic that as an industry today we expect designers to be charismatic, as if you cannot be a successful designer unless you’re also the face, the spokesperson, the influencer.

Galliano returns to Dior archive for the first time since 2011 by Derek Ridgers

Just because your employee doesn’t communicate they’re unwell, doesn’t mean they’re well. Sure, we live in a culture today where seeking mental health support isn’t quite as frowned upon. We have all heard the names Esther Perel or The Holistic Psychologist and every now and again sit down for a short breathwork session. In the documentary, Sidney Toledano, the former Dior CEO, says: “You could never tell he had problems because he would never say he wasn’t feeling well.” Speaking up is scary, speaking up in fashion is even scarier because of the competition. But what if you don’t even know that speaking up exists? Do we expect too much of our designers, creatives and industry leaders? What happens when you’ve suffered trauma, went to art school, but never actually had a chance to seriously address your interpersonal world before being catapulted into an industry that swallows you whole? There’s a real problem around transparency and communication if you’ve never been shown the way to communicate openly. Galliano was punished in his childhood for being himself truly; it is no surprise if he self-censors because he’s internalized that being honest is a sin. Perhaps there should be a different symbiosis between employer and employee to ensure a more intentional relationship and communication.

What we think of as easy solutions aren’t easy solutions. Galliano was an addict and, sure, he should’ve taken responsibility. There is nobody who can fix that but him. What’s remarkably forgotten, however, is that addiction is a deep-rooted reaction to something; an escapism. To Galliano, it served as a coping mechanism to the plethora of pressures that he had to deal with. The solution that was given, according to Dior: half a year in rehab. The issue is that you can’t just go and send somebody (the most famous designer in the world) off to rehab for half a year if you’re not going to support that with systemic changes in the workplace. If the designer returns and what triggered his addiction is still there – a.k.a. an impossible amount of work – then the chance of relapse is huge. It’s easy to put the blame on the individual by saying it’s their problem to resolve, when the system of work helps create the problem and the support offered is just a bandaid.

The sheer amount of work Galliano produced while also being a seemingly social butterfly was insane. Yes, it’s bad now, but that already started back in the ‘90s. “I was doing 2 ladies ready-to-wears, 2 mens ready-to-wears, there was a second line twice a year, there was children’s line twice a year, shoe collection twice a year, bag collection twice a year, costume collection twice a year, fine jewelry twice a year, watches once a year, that’s just Galliano. Over to Dior: 2 coutures, 2 ready-to-wear, 2 pre-collections, 2 cruise collections, bag collections, shoe collections, jewelry collections, fine jewelry collections, sunglass collections. And don’t forget there were huge demands made from the press as well. Interviews, lunches, dinners where I had to entertain…”

“Fashion forgives, and maybe forgets.” The documentary takes us through Galliano’s infamous antisemitic video in detail, revealing more information about the trial and highlighting the three separate instances of antisemitic behavior. Not only did we all think it was just one event, so did Galliano, who blurred them into a single evening as a result of his black-out episodes. The exploration of the events along with Galliano’s self-work raises the question around the shaky boundary between the ‘creator’ and the individual. Who can we forgive and what can we forget in the name of talent? What would happen if this took place today, or if another designer – lesser revered, perhaps non-white, perhaps non-male – did the same?


Besides learnings, the film raised many questions too, such as: What is it about John Galliano that has made a whole generation of fashion creatives use his career as their roadmap? What are the lines between creative devotion and burnout? Does fashion forgive too easily in the name of talent? And what happens to fashion education institutes that place figures like Galliano at the core of the pedagogy? 

To answer these questions, we must first deconstruct the mythology surrounding fashion icons and look at the real, humane story behind it. MUBI shared a special link with us so you can watch it for free for 30 days, on a watch and share your thoughts with us!