Dana Thomas’ new book Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, a dual biography about two of the most prominent gay designers in fashion, has been criticized as opportunistic or even gossipy, but it doesn’t focus solely on the social lives of the two designers. Instead, it explores crucial fashion movements happening around the high point of the designers’ careers, from the 1980s to the early 2000s, and how the fashion world pressured them to the point of exploitation.
Check out our interview below.
How did you get into fashion journalism after wanting to be an archeologist or a White House correspondent?
Dana Thomas: [laughs] It happened sort of by accident. I don’t think of myself as a fashion journalist, I consider myself a general assignment feature writer and one of the things I write about is fashion…
[In college] I was studying history and politics and journalism and got a job at the Washington Post…and then the fashion editor needed a new assistant, and since I spoke French and I knew Paris and Milan from my modeling days and I knew who these designers were…so I seemed like a great fit.
So I worked with her for a couple of years and she got breast cancer and unfortunately died, and when she was very ill I filled in…Then when I moved to Paris in 1992, it made sense to keep writing about that, but I also wrote about art and films, and opera and ballet and exhibits.
During that time the fashion industry changed a lot…stories weren’t about trims and hemlines anymore.
I learned how to ask the right questions…[and] I had enough to write the first book, and so I wrote Deluxe based on the evolution of the fashion industry.
Did you find a specific connection between McQueen and Galliano?
DT: Oh yeah, there was plenty…They both grew up in working-class London, they both were bullied at school for being gay, they were both artists and had artistic souls, their fathers didn’t like the idea of them being gay or artists…and they both got their big break in big fashion when they were hired by the same man, for the same job at Givenchy.
So already there [was] this sort of parallel in their lives. John is ten years older and you know got kind of a late start and McQueen is sort of like the little brother…They shared the same passion…but they had their different strengths. McQueen said that John was the romantic and he was the realist.
Your book is full of insights and the creative processes of both designers’ lives. You mention how Naomi Campbell’s first show was with Galliano; you even mention the background music of their fashion shows from the early nineties. How deep did you have to dig to find such precise information? Can you describe your research process?
DT: I had a couple of research assistants and they dug through archives…and it’s funny because everybody [we studied] wrote down different things! Everyone was a reporter in a different way…we also spent a lot of time on the web doing things. I found sources through Facebook, but I was also able to watch most of McQueen’s shows and all of Galliano’s, and basically all the shows that they did from about 1995 onward are on YouTube.
You cover old fashion show reviews and their writing styles. Are there any fashion writers from this time that inspired you when you were first starting?
DT: Really good question! Yes, there was a writer I greatly admired when I was first starting—her name is Holly Brubach…I remember she did a piece on wedding dresses, and how hard it is to find a proper modern wedding dress without looking like you’re really dolled-up in some costume. Then she also did one piece about sunglasses—it was crazy interesting.
I was lucky because after that, in the late nineties, she went to work for New York Times Magazine as the style editor, and she asked me to be her writer in Paris…she and her depute editor were the ones that fashioned me into a fashion writer.
How did you decide who and how to interview? Was is easy finding people to talk to about such a sensitive subject?
DT: It was and it wasn’t. I actually used the greatest tool that has come available for reporting: social media…The best find that I got was John Galliano’s grammar school’s Facebook alumni page…one late night I spent scrolling through hundreds of profiles on this Facebook page until I found some from the year that John was there, and so I asked one of them if they knew John Galliano, and he replied and said, “Yes…he was my best friend, my neighbor AND we used to go to school together.” I would’ve never found that guy without social media.
I actually didn’t have many people who said they wouldn’t talk to me, most of them did.
Did you have any hard times as a journalist? How did you go about it?
DT: The hardest part of covering fashion—that doesn’t happen in other businesses that I know of—is that if you write something that they don’t like, they will stop inviting you to the shows. You know, film critics write negative reviews all the time and the studios don’t ban them from screenings!…Even political writers can write really tough stories about the president but they aren’t going to get banned from the press conferences. [laughs]
That’s part of your job. You write the truth as best as you can and that’s what I always try to do so, you know, I try to be fair, accurate, and objective and they don’t like that sometimes. There was a time when I wrote a piece about the Versaces, and they didn’t like it and I’ve been banned from the shows now for years!
DT: Yeah. Miuccia Prada was not happy about how I described her in my book and I haven’t been to a Prada show since. This happens to reporters all the time…Now, fashion writers can work their way around it, and Cathy Horyn proved that when she was banned from Dolce & Gabbana. She just watched the live stream online and she still reviewed the collection…but I think that the relationship with the press is antagonistic and it’s not a very smart way to run a business…it’s not truthful! It makes you complicit in their PR game…you become a marketing tool and I refuse to do that.
Do you have any advice for journalists today?
DT: Yes! Just learn to be really good reporters and you can write about anything. But you have to report. It can’t be something just spun from your imagination or your own opinion all the time; even opinion writers are reporters first. You need facts, information and [to] understand your subject, and then you can write smartly about it.
Interview published at http://www.dot429.com