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Galliano trial underlines fashion sector pressures

Though the flamboyant former Dior designer John Galliano was the one on the stand, it was the multi-billion-dollar luxury industry that seemed to be on trial Wednesday in Paris as the disgraced designer blamed the sector's skyrocketing pressures for his unraveling.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Though the flamboyant former Dior designer John Galliano was the one on the stand, it was the multi-billion-dollar luxury industry that seemed to be on trial Wednesday in Paris as the disgraced designer blamed the sector's skyrocketing pressures for his unraveling.

Galliano is on trial for allegedly spewing anti-Semitic and racist remarks at strangers at a Paris cafe in two separate incidents. Facing charges of "public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity" he could face up to six months in prison and up to euro22,500 ($32,175) in fines.

The prosecutors asked Wednesday for a fine of no less than euro10,000 ($14,400), but did not ask for jail time. A verdict is due Sept. 8.

In emotional testimony, the soft-spoken designer insisted he doesn't remember having made any anti-Semitic or racist rants, but acknowledged he was lost to alcohol and drug addictions when the alleged incidents took place, in February and late last year.

The 50-year-old designer has tangled with addiction before, but the latest bout started in 2007, as the global financial crisis forced labels to fight for their very lives. As Galliano's workload both at luxury supernova Christian Dior — where he had worked since 1996 — and at his small signature John Galliano label increased, he told the court he sought refuge in pills and alcohol.

"After every creative high, I would crash, and the alcohol helped me escape," he told the three-judge panel at the Paris Justice Palace. He said he also began to pop ever-rising numbers of sleeping pills and barbiturates — so many that he completely lost track of his consumption.

"I only just discovered in rehab what a lethal mix it was," said Galliano, who underwent a two-month-long treatment in Arizona after the incident. Asked whether he'd managed to break the addictions, the designer responded, "Yes, I'm still in recovery but I'm feeling much better."

Galliano's attorney, Aurelien Hamelle, was pursuing a two-pronged defense strategy, calling as witnesses customers of the cafe where the alleged incidents took place who said that though they'd been watching the altercations, they hadn't heard him make any racist remarks.

Contrition was the second prong. Galliano — who always ended his runway shows with a puff-chested lap down the runway, looking as proud and self-satisfied as a rooster — looked defeated at Wednesday's proceedings, his face drawn and deflated.

Speaking in a voice so wispy that the interpreter couldn't make out what he was saying, the designer repeatedly said he was sorry for whatever he might have said while under the influence.

"I apologize for the sadness that this whole affair has caused, I apologize to the court as well," he said through his lawyer, who stepped in to translate his remarks from English into French. Still, Galliano was careful to maintain that he remembered no details about what he said during either incident.

However, the couple that contended Galliano accosted them while they were having a drink on a terrace of the hip La Perle cafe in Paris' central Marais district on Feb. 24 stuck firmly to their stories.

Though the specifics of the spat varied depending on who was telling it, most of the witnesses at the afternoon-long trial suggested the incident was drawn out, with the couple shouting four-letter words at the designer while he gave them right back, in a softer voice.

The hundred-odd journalists packed into the stately courtroom tittered as presiding Judge Anne-Marie Sauteraud read a salty litany of swear words in English as well as their French translations off deposition records. "Shut up," and "you're ugly" were allegedly among Galliano's sole barbs that are fit to print.

One member of the couple allegedly insulted, Geraldine Bloch, told the court that Galliano pronounced the word "Jewish" in his insults "at least 30 times" in the approximately 45-minute-long altercation.

Bloch said that after the cafe staff repeatedly refused to intervene to stop the fight, she called the police, who questioned Galliano and administered a sobriety test that showed he was drunk.

After the incident was splashed across newspapers worldwide, another woman came forward with similar claims about another clash in the same cafe in October. Both accusations were being addressed at Wednesday's trial.

Days after the February incident, a video was broadcast on the website of the British tabloid The Sun showing an inebriated Galliano insulting a fellow cafe client, slurring: "I love Hitler." Dior then acted swiftly, firing Galliano days before the label's fall-winter 2011 runway show last March. He was later sacked from his eponymous label, which is owned by Dior's parent group.

Galliano watched on impassively as the court projected the 45-second-long video on a big screen. Asked about the anti-Semitic views he spouts in the shaky images, Galliano insisted he had no idea where it was all coming from.

"In the video, I see someone who needs help, who's vulnerable. It's the shell of John Galliano. I see someone who's been pushed to the edge," he said.

"These are not views that I hold or believe in," he said, adding that his over-the-top designs — which culled inspiration from destinations as far-flung as Kenya and Siberia — spoke for themselves of his openness to other peoples and cultures. "You can see that I embrace every culture, every people, every race, creed, religion. I celebrate their cultural diversity ... through couture, through fashion."

The most touching part of the proceedings, which began in the mid-afternoon and dragged on late into the evening, was Galliano's candid confessions about his childhood sufferings and recent losses.

Galliano, born in the British enclave of Gibraltar to a Spanish mother, said his origin and his homosexuality made him the brunt of relentless teasing as a child.

"All my life I've fought against prejudice and intolerance and discrimination because I have been subjected to it myself," said the designer, who was wearing a black jacket with silken harem pants, his long locks loose down his back. "I was born Juan Carlos Galliano.... I went to a typically English school and you can imagine that children can be very cruel."

Galliano said his recent descent into addiction also coincided with the 2005 passing of his father and the sudden 2007 death of his longtime right-hand man, Stephen Robinson. He said he was so busy conducting fittings for the ready-to-wear, couture, menswear and other lines at Dior and Galliano that he didn't have time to mourn either.

"When Stephen died, with his parents I buried him and we went to the crematorium and I went back to do fittings," he said. "The same thing happened with my father's death."

The pressures designers and other fashion industry insiders endure have recently become the object of increased scrutiny. In a bid to have new merchandise constantly flowing into boutiques, labels have added new collections to the traditional twice-a-year calendar, ratcheting up designers' workloads. The pressure to churn out critically acclaimed and commercially viable collections season after season has made the industry a pressure-cooker, some observers say.

Another top Paris designer, Christophe Decarnin, was replaced at Balmain after he was didn't show up for the label's runway show last March. It was rumored he'd had a nervous breakdown, but a company spokesman said he was resting on doctor's orders.

Galliano's trial coincided with the first day of Paris' five-day-long menswear displays. The City of Light's spring-summer 2012 runway shows kicked off with an edgy display at the house of Mugler.


Pierre-Antoine Souchard contributed to this report.