New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

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New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘High & Low: John Galliano’ captures a fashion icon falling apart at the seams

The documentary chronicles fashion designer John Galliano’s career in full, but falters in redeeming his character following incidents of antisemitism.
“High & Low: John Galliano” releases on April 26, 2024. (Courtesy of MUBI)

In the early aughts, John Galliano’s creative direction led fashion houses Givenchy, Dior and Maison Margiela to widespread success. With a flair for the outlandish and avant-garde, Galliano wove stories through each collection he designed. Galliano was a trendsetter, designing collections of bias-cut dresses that remain in fashion today and garments covered with newspaper print seen on the likes of style icon Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City.”  

Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald tells Galliano’s fashion fairytale in the documentary “High & Low: John Galliano,” released on March 8. With previous credits in films like “Whitney” (2018) and “One Day in September” (1999), Macdonald easily took to unpacking Galliano’s artistic process — as well as his controversial past.

The documentary’s title is incredibly apt. While Galliano peaked in his career in the 1990s as the creative director of Dior and producing collections for his label, he also spiraled into severe substance abuse and addiction amid the pressures of his creative commitments.

Though we see the highlight reel of Galliano’s career, “High & Low” spends the majority of the  116-minute runtime anatomizing his scandalous behavior. In 2011, Galliano was found guilty by Paris authorities of racist and antisemitic abuse and fined 6,000 euros after he was caught on video shouting slurs and hateful comments at a bar, making over 30 antisemitic insults over the course of 45 minutes. 

Despite the widespread condemnation of the designer’s actions, other fans of Galliano chose to defend or further analyze his behavior, especially under the judgemental eye of the media. Macdonald collected interviews and quotes from Galliano’s coworkers as well as his muses, like supermodel Naomi Campbell. Although there are a number of perspectives on his aforementioned immoral behavior, the opinions of his greatest advocates seem to be more frequently spotlit, making Macdonald’s perspective on the scandal clearer. Campbell was one of Galliano’s greatest defenders throughout the documentary, and admitted that she never even watched the viral video of Galliano’s antisemitic behavior in 2011. 

“He was being put together by people before he could even present himself,” fashion journalist Tim Blanks said in an interview featured in “High & Low.”

The film’s editing, through juxtaposing clips from films like “Napoleon” (1927) and “The Red Shoes” (1948), creates a more interesting visual story than the average documentary film. Even when discussing some of the lowest points of his career, Galliano’s passion for fashion shines through. He talks about the technical aspects of garment design with such an affection that convinces viewers to understand, to an extent, the method to his madness.

“I’m puzzled sometimes by the fact that people have [asked] me, ‘why doesn’t he make a proper apology?’” Macdonald said in a Q&A following a screening of “High & Low.” “That’s what’s interesting, he doesn’t make a proper apology and then you are left in this place of doubt, which is uncomfortable.” 

Possibly one of the greatest strengths of “High & Low” is how Macdonald leaves the viewer to reckon with Galliano’s words. By incorporating the victim’s perspective into the narrative, Macdonald shares both sides of the incidents. Despite including the victim of Galliano’s antisemitic tirade in the documentary, Macdonald concludes on an ambiguous note where the designer is still active within the fashion industry at the helm of Maison Margiela. 

As a seasoned documentarian, Macdonald took from his previous experience working on Whitney Houston’s posthumous documentary. 

“Every film typically has three acts, but in this case this film had four acts,” Macdonald said. “You have the classic narrative of the films like I did about Whitney Houston where there’s the rise, success and precipitous fall, but in this you’ve got a hangover period. You have to explain yourself and we have to analyze what has happened.” 

The final shot of the documentary shows Galliano gleefully running away from the camera after the success of “Cinema Inferno,” his first show for Maison Margiela in 2022. It contrasts the archival footage where Galliano used to preen and bask in the spotlight after his runway shows for Dior, walking out onto the catwalk in a flamboyant ensemble complementary to the collection presented. Macdonald chooses to share how Galliano’s humbleness works in the designer’s favor, ultimately ending “High & Low” on a high note.

Contact Karina Rower at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Karina Rower
Karina Rower, Deputy Copy Chief
Karina Rower is a Gallatin first-year planning to concentrate in journalism, fashion and computer science. She accredits her love of nitro cold brew and '90s music to her hometown of Portland, Oregon. You can find her on Instagram @karinar0wer and also on Letterboxd @karinarower.

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