For John Galliano, Past is Precedent

How do you turn an illustrator’s dream of high fashion from the 1950s into gravity-defying couture? John Galliano’s fascinating pas de deux with illustrator René Gruau’s archival images for Christian Dior’s spring couture collection came out on an extra-long runway in the garden at Paris’s Rodin museum yesterday. Galliano has been inspired by Dior’s New Look before, but here he looked at Gruau’s illustrations, rather than Dior’s originals.

René Gruau began illustrating for his friend Christian Dior in 1947, the year the designer introduced his New Look, the wasp-waist style with a voluminous skirt that convinced war-weary women to embrace opulence. Gruau’s sketches—most notably for Christian Dior’s first eau de toilette, Miss Dior, in 1949, for which he depicted a swan wearing a string of pearls and a black velvet bow—showed his power to suggest elegance symbolically. His bold brushstrokes of a woman’s red lips, her eyes banded by a black scarf, for Rouge Baiser remains subliminally powerful today. The recent retrospective of Gruau’s work at London’s Somerset House was the ideal primer for this homage to the illustrator who Galliano has said “captures the energy, sophistication and daring of Dior.”

Gruau’s fashion view is all in the mysterious details, like the long white gloves and black scarf thrown across a Louis XVI chair in a later ad for Diorama fragrance. Galliano’s spring collection—which began with red and black, the dramatic duo Gruau so often used in his India-ink and gouache illustrations—was equally mysterious, offering an outline of elegance. “Volume and movement are inspired by the spontaneity of the illustrative line,” writes Galliano in his introduction. Even the sprinkled embroidery looked like a highlight. This wasn’t the New Look, although its trademarks were there: languid beauty, impossibly narrow waists, and red lips. Instead Galliano offered an impression of movement, a hint of shadow, an outline.

The collection’s huge off-the-shoulder A-lines, like silk tents scattered with iridescent embroidery and wisps of marabou feathers, suggested the outline of the body while keeping the real thing under wraps. The dramatic red and black tulle that opened the show tapered off into flesh tones, pensive gray, and pastels all dégradé, a kind of fade-out mimicking Gruau’s approach to patterns and colors. Often, Galliano put the poufs over black pencil skirts, a more contemporary take on volume. Colors, particularly pale pink and blue, washed over dresses like fading watercolors, and tulle layers blurred construction for a shadowy impression. Brush-stroke embroidery, like the silver sequins appearing and disappearing randomly on the skirt of one ballgown, indicate the illustrator’s hand. Perhaps the best look in the show was a two-tier dress in white feathers, with pink roses hidden among the plumes, which transformed the model into a diaphanous powder puff.