Photographer Grégoire Eloy was worried he'd be taken for a vulture, he confides on the threshold of a spare storefront gallery just off Paris' Marais district. Eloy's L'Ombre du Cygne (The Shadow of the Swan), a series of photographs taken in the wings of disgraced designer John Galliano's fashion shows over several years, is on display at Galérie La Petite Poule Noire through July 31. As it happens, the exhibit space is four blocks from La Perle Café, the hipster haunt where Galliano was arrested in February on charges of making racist and anti-Semitic remarks. The former Dior designer will stand trial in a Paris court on Wednesday. Eloy stresses his photo expo was in the making long before Galliano's arrest. Then again, so was the couturier's drunken downfall. And Eloy's photos have a lot to say about that gathering storm.
Cannes-born Eloy isn't really a fashion photographer at all. He fully admits his chronicle of Galliano's shows from 2004 to 2010 was “the work of a dilettante.” It began at the invitation of close friends who worked in the Gibraltar-born designer's atelier. But the heart of Eloy's photographic work is the former Soviet Union satellite states, reconstruction and refugees from Central Europe to Central Asia. And that distance is what makes these photos so interesting. They aren't about the clothes at all. The glamour isn't direct but refracted. Black and white, grainy, impressionistic, the models through Eloy's Leica look closer to Edgar Degas' dancers than to fashion pics you might spy in Paris Match or Vogue. And in all that refracted glamour there's an empathetic eye, a sadness that speaks.
Eloy may have been an interloper in the catwalk world, but Galliano's idiosyncratic creative ethic is what lured him in. The couturier famously traveled the world on scouting trips, looking to draw design inspiration from sundry cultures. And the photographer found unexpected echoes of his own fieldwork in Galliano's clothes, be it in the occasional Slavic touches or in the designer's controversial sartorial fascination with refugees and the homeless. “He goes on location and pulls out what inspires him,” Eloy tells The Daily Beast. “The colors, the attitudes, the characters, the places, that's what marks the starting point for his collections.” Galliano's Ukrainian bride is a centerpiece of Eloy's exhibit, haunting through his lens. “When I hear that Galliano is exploring displaced persons through fashion while I am exploring them through photojournalism in the Caucasus, it speaks to me,” says Eloy.
Indeed, in the nature of Galliano's collapse—being caught on video expressing love for Hitler—there is a paradox not lost on those familiar with the designer's penchant for drawing creativity from disparate cultures. The designer stands trial this week not for that viral video, but for two separate incidents at La Perle, where he allegedly showered complete strangers with racist and anti-Semitic remarks (a crime in France, punishable by up to six months in prison and a 22,500 euro—or about $32,245—fine). “It really contradicts his work,” says Eloy. “For me, it was more of a cry of despair or a call for help than a real sign of ideology or something he really stood behind.”
Eloy's photographs chronicle Galliano's shows through difficult years for the designer. As the photographer made forays into a mysterious world through Galliano's work, he says, he came to understand the crippling pressures of the business. His photos emphasize the bittersweet-ness of the fashion show itself, flashy and festive but fleeting, the culmination of months of toil that will give way within hours to the now-what blank slate of the next collection. “For me, these are people who are very alone. And they must carry enormous pressure, at once creative and commercial,” Eloy says.
In Eloy's images, Galliano is framed as a solitary figure, under the spotlight but strikingly alone. It is clearest in two standout images six years apart: Galliano in 2004 fully lit on stage shadowed by a barely visible bodyguard, and a 2010 image of Galliano's last appearance for his namesake brand, walking off the podium as if into a sunset in a shroud of light under the gilded balconies of Paris's Opéra Comique.
“I think that he had been having trouble psychologically, that he was exhausted, for several years, it was obvious, but no one talked about it,” says Eloy. In 2007, Galliano was left reeling when his closest confidant in the business, his right-hand man of many years, Steven Robinson, died suddenly of a heart attack. Robinson was only 38. “Since Steven died, I think John Galliano was lost,” says Eloy. The photographer believes LVMH, the group that owns Dior, downplayed Robinson's death and that staff tried to not talk to Galliano about Robinson, “so as not to destabilize him.” “So a sort of code of silence or pressure cooker is maintained, held together by a character like John Galliano, who himself could lose his grip at any time.” In Eloy's expo, there is a nod to Robinson, Galliano's man in the shadows smiling coyly at the stage door.
“Little by little, things began to fit into a certain reality, of Steven Robinson who dies of a heart attack at 38, of John Galliano who descends into depression through the years, of Alexander McQueen who commits suicide, or Yves Saint Laurent, who was depressive all his life,” says Eloy. “And the images found resonance, in fact. I understand how one can find oneself extremely alone in the fashion universe. Little by little, I understood that the story I was going to tell about fashion wasn't necessarily the most glamorous or the most expected but rather this dark side, linked to the ephemeral.”
The name of the exhibit, L'Ombre du Cygne, the shadow of the swan, is borrowed from Victor Hugo, who wrote, “The shadow is black always, even fallen from a swan.” “Fashion is very glitz and glitter, very glamorous, very joyful, etc.,” Eloy explains. “And yet every subject has its shadow that remains black no matter what.”