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Too haute for transgression?

Fashion’s appetite to shock has played its own part in John Galliano’s latest anti-semitic rant.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2011 23:03 IST

The first fashion show I ever went to was John Galliano for Dior in 2002. The spectacle was so extreme, so ridiculous, and the models such genetic freaks that I wrote: “… In wondering why these people [Galliano and his models] are rewarded with great wealth while a tube train driver is not, I consider that perhaps it’s a good thing that fashion has found them. Anywhere but here they would be the kind of people you would feel sorry for.”

Galliano’s drunken anti-semitic outburst, captured on a phone camera, his declared love for Hitler, and his gloating over the supposed gassing of the grandparents of the woman he was berating, has baffled and upset the fashion business. This afternoon Dior announced that he had been sacked and condemned his comments.

Now people are sorry for him, the fashion industry is sending him its love and support and its hope he will find some help. For Galliano, it is generally agreed, is a genius — a creator of extreme beauty. How can this visionary come out with such crude, ignorant, ugly, racist thoughts? One designer told me he assumed he was having a mental breakdown caused by the stress of being at the top for so long.

Galliano will not be the first genius to be an anti-semite: both Ezra Pound and TS Eliot embedded such thoughts in their poetry. But Galliano lives and works in a business in which many of his clients and associates are Jewish. How could he not know better? Perhaps the answer lies in the essence of Galliano’s design, and indeed much of fashion itself in the last decade.

His collections have always been about transgression, busting taboos, and he has taken other designers along with him, so you sit in a show and are no longer bothered by the fact that what you are seeing is unwearable. According to fashion journalist Melanie Rickey, for years the industry has pushed Galliano to extremes: And once you are set on a path to break taboos, it is almost impossible to find new ideas.

If you are breaker of taboos, then anti-semitism is only another taboo, no different from any other. It’s the saying of the unsayable. It has become the last frontier for those demanding freedom of speech, for whom everything, even the Holocaust, is fair game. Is Galliano an actual antisemite who hates Jews? Who knows what passes through his mind, but by invoking the name of Hitler and gloating about the gas chambers, he is only doing what others have always paid him to do: shock.

Fashion’s obsession with transgression, its demand that Galliano shock us even more each season, has played its own part in the drunken bar rant. It has lost sight of women, of our desire to dress well and to be beautiful. It has given us the increasingly desperate and exhausted tactic of taboo-busting instead of our wish to cover our imperfect bodies as pleasingly as we can.