Documentary ‘High & Low’ charts the rise, fall and redemption of John Galliano

‘High & Low: John Galliano’ (released today) dissects the designer’s showstopping contributions to fashion against the backdrop of his turbulent life. Here, director Kevin Macdonald tells Wallpaper* more

John Galliano High & Low Documentary 2024
John Galliano, as featured in ’High & Low: John Galliano’, a new documentary on the designer’s career by Kevin Macdonald
(Image credit: Photography by Nicholas Matthews, courtesy of Mubi)

Scottish director Kevin Macdonald couldn’t have timed the release of his documentary, High & Low: John Galliano (Mubi), any better. Arriving in UK cinemas on 8 March 2024 (see the trailer below), the film dissects the rise, fall and redemption of legendary Gibraltor-born British designer John Galliano, chiming neatly with a second wind exemplified by his lauded S/S 2024 Maison Margiela Artisanal show in January, for the house where he is now creative director. ‘At the beginning, John said, “I don't want it to have a dark ending,”’ Macdonald recounts of the documentary project. ‘He said, “There has to be some light at the end of it because my life has come back.”’

To this point, the Maison Margiela Artisanal show – presented in Paris as part of Haute Couture Week – saw Galliano reignite fashion’s hunger for unbridled drama on the runway, presenting an exquisite blend of lived-in, distressed scrimps and Belle Époque silhouettes, with foot-on-the-back cinched corsets and frou frou tulle. Here, not only were the designs – some taking up to a year to fabricate – virally consumed and much reposted, but so too were the show’s extras: like Pat McGrath’s porcelain-like make-up; the wind-up-doll walks care of movement director Pat Boguslawski; or the antique chairs and the half-finished wine glasses strewn across time-worn tables. Together, this sum of parts reminded fashion’s older guard of the halcyon 1990s and noughts, when Galliano was the word on every editor's lips.

Maison Margiela Artisanal

Actress Gwendoline Christie walks in John Galliano’s S/S 2024 Maison Margiela artisanal show, presented in January in Paris. The viral show cemented Galliano as one of fashion’s great showmen

(Image credit: Courtesy of Maison Margiela)

Of course, most know the story of Galliano’s fall from grace. These days, many have forgiven him – a bad drunk, now sober – for his racist outburst, and are ready to celebrate his early namesake collections, the 1984 ‘Les Incroyables’ Central Saint Martins graduate show, the heady days at Dior, and that brief but pivotal intermission at Givenchy. ‘Even my friends who have an aggressive disinterest in fashion came out and said, “That guy’s a genius”,’ says Macdonald.

This is Macdonald’s first fashion documentary, originally sparked by an interest in ‘cancel culture’. The end result, however, taught the director a thing or two about fashion’s cultural significance. ‘It just felt like his story was a great story in its own right,’ says Macdonald, who came to see Galliano as an artist, tapping into profound psychological reactions through the medium of clothes. The white muslin gowns of his eponymous S/S 1986 collection, intentionally sodden, were a case in point, reducing the front row to tears with a poetic, liquid femininity that runs throughout Galliano’s work – whether it’s a friction-taut bias-cut gown for Dior S/S 1993 or a sweat-slicked Gisele Bündchen campaign lensed by Nick Knight for Dior’s S/S 2003 accessories. Alongside Galliano, the film features conversations with Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Anna Wintour, Edward Enninful and more.

John Galliano portrait from 1980s

A portrait of John Galliano, who first rose to with his 1984 ‘Les Incroyables’ Central Saint Martins graduate show

(Image credit: Photography © Barry Marsden)

A fil rouge in the documentary is Galliano’s ‘Napoleonic ego’, a concept Macdonald ties to the designer’s meticulous obsession with the French Revolution. ‘If you look at the costumes and outfits throughout the film, he dresses up as Napoleon or in a Napoleonic fashion, and often in the background there’s Napoleon on a postcard,’ explains Macdonald. It’s a parallel bolstered by the romance of a south London-raised plumber’s son taking on Paris, where he’s not – at first – wanted, winning the city over before losing face.

If today’s runway shows are largely defined by commercial caution – as several critics have noted in recent seasons – their antithesis is found in the documentary’s archival footage of Galliano’s collections. This is especially true for the Lolita-infused Princess Lucretia S/S 1994 John Galliano collection, a character study-cum-couture show at his own label that many argue served as a portfolio for his appointment at Givenchy a year and a half later. After the Lucretia show – a time when Galliano’s brand was struggling financially – a fashion community stepped in, with the late André Leon Talley sourcing funds for the next show, and the supers, including Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, walking gratuit.

John Galliano and Anna Wintour at party

Galliano with editor-in-chief of American Vogue Anna Wintour, who appears in the documentary

(Image credit: Photography by BestImage, courtesy of Mubi)

Years later, Anna Wintour and Condé Nast supported Galliano’s return to fashion post-scandal, recognising his mercurial designs as not just beautiful, but necessary. In October 2014, he was appointed by Renzo Rosso as creative director of Maison Margiela. Fast-forward to now, and his aesthetic contributions continue at the Martin Margiela-founded brand, enhanced via VR, immersive choreography, and collaborations with longtime collaborators like Knight, as well as nods to fringe icons from Galliano’s first heyday, such as as the King’s Road punk, ‘Jordan’ (A/W 2023).

‘What was remarkable to me about the fashion world is how little they seemed to care for their past,’ says Macdonald. ‘Until very recently, even LVMH didn't keep archives of the dresses, sketches and shows.’ Lucky, then, that Galliano’s family, colleagues and friends kept the goods, showcased in their splendour once again in this transporting documentary, which captures the unique spirit of one of contemporary fashion’s most enduring designers.

’High & Low: John Galliano’ (Mubi) is in UK and Irish cinemas from 8 March 2024. Watch the trailer below.

Joe Bobowicz is a writer and creative who is a contributing writer at i-D, as well as publications including AnOther, the Independent, Dazed, Frieze and The Face. Previously, Bobowicz led the menswear content at Harrods, working with brands including Adidas, Nike, Gucci and Apple. He has guest lectured at Central Saint Martins on the BA Culture, Criticism & Curation course, at Westminster University on the MA Menswear and at London College of Communication on the BA Journalism.