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November 4, 2011

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Stepping out of Galliano's shadow

A hidden talent until only a few months ago, Bill Gaytten now has the distinction of being the only designer this season to take two bows during Paris Fashion Week - as head of the studio at Christian Dior and as creative director of John Galliano.

"Circumstances have been forced upon me," the 50-year-old said with a shrug and a grin. "The position's changed, but the work is the same. I'm not 21. I've been doing it for a while."

One of John Galliano's key co-conspirators since the British maverick's second collection, Gaytten sidestepped all questions about the disgraced couturier, who was sentenced to suspended fines totaling 6,000 euros (US$8,400) in September for racist and anti-Semitic outbursts that also cost him his jobs at the creative helm of the Dior and Galliano houses.

Clearly, the two men developed a strong professional and personal relationship after 23 years working together.

But in an exclusive interview, Gaytten mapped out a perspective on fashion distinct from Galliano's theatrical bent. Glamor, he said, is one of his key watchwords. And while he shares "a sense of history" with his former boss, Gaytten also possesses a modern streak, the lasting impact of growing up with an architect father in a house full of streamlined furniture and modern art, a decorative policy to which he adheres today.

"John was more of an out-and-out romantic," Gaytten related over a cheeseburger and fries at trendy hotel Mama Shelter in Paris' remote 20th arrondissement. That said, he added, "I do like a bit of glamor and femininity rather than flat shoes and trousers."

Born in 1960 in Cheltenham, England, Gaytten originally followed in his father's footsteps and studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College in London.

There was one problem. "I was much more interested in fashion," he recalled, describing a distraction fueled by sharing an apartment with a gaggle of girls studying at famous London design school Central Saint Martins, where Galliano studied and catapulted to instant fame with his graduation collection.

Gaytten bought himself a sewing machine and began teaching himself to sew and cut patterns. Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet, Christian Dior and Chanel rank among his favorite historical designers, and he also lauded Vivienne Westwood, who ignited London's fashion scene in the late 1970s.

"Vivienne was like a revolution. Suddenly fashion didn't have to be bourgeois or grown up," he enthused, dressed in an Yves Klein blue polo shirt, cutoff safari shorts and brown boots.

Eventually, Gaytten was hired on as a machinist by British designer Sheridan Barnett, and when that business went bust, Barnett, who also taught at Saint Martins, suggested Gaytten contact one of his most promising students: John Galliano.

Galliano's first business, based in the East End of London, was short-lived, so Gaytten went on to do a three-year stint as assistant pattern cutter for British couturier Victor Edelstein, where he met such high-profile clients as Princess Diana.

While en route to the West Indies with his parents, "my father said, 'Oh my gosh! Look at that guy over there'," Gaytten related, seeing his dad pointing to an eccentrically dressed young man in the airport whom Gaytten recognized instantly as Galliano.

The designer invited him to join his revived business, and by 1994, Gaytten had followed him to Paris and remained at his side through an extraordinary career that saw Galliano become the couturier at Givenchy in 1995 and, one year later, at Dior.

Initially, Gaytten was a cutter in the "flou" department at Galliano, making garments of soft fabrics, mainly dresses and blouses. When Galliano was appointed at Givenchy, Gaytten moved from the atelier to the design studio, where he was involved in almost everything the madcap couturier touched save for advertising.

While Galliano soaked up the acclaim, Gaytten says he was content with "the doing of" fashion, especially fittings.

"I like the process. I like working with teams. It's always been very varied," he said. "My work has always taken place during fittings. It's when it's on the body. Fitting is very creative: It's not just adjusting things here and there. It's where creative ideas come from. It can start as one thing and end up being something very different."

To be sure, the glare of the media spotlight and the sting of critics' arrows are new to Gaytten, who surely winced at some of the harsh words written about Dior's couture show in July.

"It goes with the territory," he said with another shrug.

The Galliano business, still majority owned by Christian Dior Couture, took a hit when news of the anti-Semitic outbursts broke, with stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, Selfridges and The Bay pulling merchandise off shelves.

Pierre Denis, general manager of John Galliano SA, said no additional stores have pulled its products in the interim, and that "thanks to the launch of new products, business will be, overall, flat."

Among new products coming on stream this year are the men's second line; an eyewear range, and the Parlez Moi d'Amour perfume.

"Russia, the Middle East and Asia are our strongest markets. The United States is still challenging," Denis noted.

He declined to give specific sales targets for the balance of the year but characterized the first women's show with Gaytten at the helm as "the beginning of a new era."

To be sure, Gaytten said he has strong ambitions to keep growing the Galliano brand. "It's got strong codes," he enthused. "It's very romantic, very feminine."

@2011 WWD / Conde Nast Publications (Distributed by NYT Syn)


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