This was about 10 days ago and the headline read, "Zut! British infiltrate French fashion" and it was written by Amy M. Spindler and datelined Paris. Ms. Spindler wrote about the shakeup at the top of two major French couture houses, Dior, still the greatest label in world fashion, and Givenchy, which result in new designers being named to head each establishment.
Both new designers being, well, uh. . . British?
The Times went on at some length about the British aspect of all this despite the fact the notion of a perfidious Englishman running a Paris couture house is hardly new. Remember Captain Molyneux? Despite his Gallic-sounding name, the captain was not only a Brit but a very gallant one, who'd had an eye shot out by the bloody Hun during the First War, and subsequently had two distinct careers designing clothes in Paris, the first time doing it very well, and the sequel a rather dismal flop.
Ms. Spindler did note, in passing, that the very first Paris couture house was that of another, even earlier Englishman, Charles Worth.
What does strike me as bizarre-the sort of person Dior and Givenchy have hired (or had hired for them by Bernard Arnault, the boss, who is chairman of the parent company, LVMH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, which last year had sales of nearly $6 billion).
The new designer of Dior is John Galliano (yes, I know, that's an Italianate name, but believe me, the fellow's a Brit) who moves over from a brief stint at running Givenchy. Mr. Galliano enjoys wearing a nice skirt (not a kilt, I assure you) and is often photographed in one. Another designer who had previously turned down the Givenchy job was Jean-Paul Gaultier, who is middle-age, has hairy knees and who also likes a nice skirt.
In my time in Paris any number of designers enjoyed cross-dressing but they usually did it at home among intimates or in smokey little places on the Left Bank or on holiday in the baths at Marrakesh.
As for the Maison Givenchy, the new star is Alexander McQueen, a plump 27 year old with an earring or two, the son of an English taxicab driver, and who on first being asked if a job switch was in the works told the Times, "I don't know nothing. I don't know nothing."
He is known for bare-buttocked designs, for spray-painted leather suits, for splashing fake blood about, and for collections dedicated to Jack the Ripper and to Hitchcock's "The Birds."
Mr. McQueen takes over the house headed until a year ago by Count Hubert James Taffin de Givenchy, a 6-foot-6 nobleman of impeccable taste and bearing, often termed "the handsomest man in Paris," and a gent so appealing that an aristocratic beauty once drove her convertible into the Seine in a (failed) suicide attempt brought on by her unrequited love for le grand Hubert.
It's not nationality that has traditionalists upset; it's the sort of chaps they are.
According to the Times, young McQueen said of his first meeting with Monsieur Arnault, the new boss, that he found him "a very sweet, angelic, serene-type. I expected to find a big fat man with a cigar."
Mr. Galliano is the son of a plumber, affects dreadlocks, likes to "club-crawl," the Times reports, and caused a bit of a scandal when he stood up President Chirac of France and the Queen when invited to a recent dinner at Buckingham Palace.
So it isn't that these fellows are British or even that they enjoy wearing a skirt. The question here is, are they the sort of chap you really want to have running a great Paris fashion establishment? I mean, we used to have Coco Chanel who ran about with the Duke of Westminster and had plays written about her. Or Balenciaga, who carried a small dog around in his pocket. Or Madame Gres who was never seen without a turban and may have been bald and who, when she died, they kept it a secret for a year and sent letters to editors in her name. And we also used to have Captain Molyneux who had retired full of honors to the south of France to grow roses and then one day John Fairchild convinced the captain and his young gentleman designer to go back into business in Paris by reopening the Maison Molyneux.
They opened with a splash and closed within a season with a damp squib. Said Mr. Fairchild, who'd gotten the captain to return, "He should have stayed down there with the roses."