I’m getting used to my yesterdays being others’ ancient history. The end of the 1990s – yes, back in another century – seems like the blink of an eye ago. Yet when younger reporters get in touch – apparently, the ’90s are “back on trend” – they’re incredulous to connect with someone for whom the great Paris shows of that era are lived experience. They treat me as if I’d sat front row in some sort of fashion colosseum in ancient Rome.
Still, it’s weird – nice weird – when a book and TV documentary come along focusing on what I now realise was my own golden hour in Paris. The book is Being There by British photographer Gavin Bond, who was about the same age as the fledgling supermodels when he got access backstage. The images celebrate an era long before everyone had camera phones. Today, it looks like the age of innocence, but this was the very moment fashion was losing its innocence.
The TV series is Kingdom of Dreams. It charts how the stuff of beauty became big business. Based on journalist Dana Thomas’s excellent book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, it follows the rise of fashion entrepreneur, now multibillionaire and Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chief executive Bernard Arnault, who saw a dollar value where we saw simply joy and creativity.
It was Arnault who scooped up Londoners John Galliano and Alexander McQueen and gave them top jobs in Paris – at Dior and Givenchy, respectively. As luck would have it, I also got a new job, leaving life as a fashion correspondent for newspapers in Britain to become editor of Vogue Australia.
So the spring of 1997 felt especially exciting. I was headed to a new position in Sydney, which I guess you could say was fun while it lasted. (My tenure came to an abrupt halt two years later, when I got fired – a story that truly is ancient history to me now.) The price Galliano paid for flying too close to the sun was breakdown, unconscionable comments and a battle back from addiction which he’s since fought with humility and strength. McQueen paid the most terrible price – life.
But that spring, it was the beginning. We were golden; ignoring the man in the suit, entranced by runway shows that were unforgettable. McQueen’s couture debut began with buff, near-naked hunks aiming golden arrows from atop Grecian columns, which served to divert our attention from clothes that were fantastical but not fashion-fabulous.
In fairness, it’s a long journey from East London to fashion central and someone should have given him a better map. John Galliano was already a veteran of Paris when he donned the mantle of Dior, and he absolutely nailed it in a show that sent shivers down your spine.
What I felt down my own spine were the hands of Bernard Arnault’s bodyguard. The moment the Dior show finished, the crowd was on its feet, and I was pushing against it in my rush to get backstage. Perhaps someone lost their footing –I don’t know – but in a split second, the crowd shifted and I found myself sandwiched between Arnault and his bodyguard, whose hands went up under my jacket to frisk me. It lasted a split second. The crowd moved and I was popped out of it like a cork, thinking, “Did that just happen?”
The existence of that bodyguard made me realise Arnault was wealthy enough to need one. We’d seen bodyguards turn up at shows with performers such as Madonna and you were meant to notice them. But the men guarding business titans tended to blend in – until you realised they were a little too muscular to be regular fashion folk.
Backstage, the fun was priceless; there was Gavin Bond photographing Christy Turlington, who was always gracious; Naomi Campbell, who was always fabulous; and Carla Bruni, who was always destined for the top and would go on to become the First Lady of France.
Did we know, back then, that we were experiencing an inflection point? Arnault had acquired Dior as part of a job lot of underperforming companies 15 years prior. He’d been buying up businesses for more than a decade: Givenchy, Celine, a dusty old luggage label called Louis Vuitton. His rival at a company now called Kering had also been scooping up fashion names, and two years on would beat Arnault to the main prize: Gucci.
But the supermodels were at their peak of power and loveliness and their beauty seemed to draw all our attention. Luxury was, as Thomas’s book spells out, becoming far less exclusive, far bigger business. Did we notice? Looking back, I don’t think we ever thought about what lay ahead. We were just living it, loving it. So I’m happy younger reporters who treat it like Greek mythology want to ask what it was like. I’m glad I was there.
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