06.23.11

John Galliano in the Courtroom

At his trial in Paris, the designer listened stoically as witnesses detailed his alleged anti-Semitic statements, and he spoke of his alcohol and drug addiction. Galliano won’t go to prison, Tracy McNicoll reports, but his career is up in the air.

Through the seven hours of his trial in Paris for alleged racist and anti-Semitic remarks, John Galliano was a study in calm. His hands in the lap of his baggy black satin pants, the former Dior designer looked straight ahead at the panel of three judges, head up, now and then leaning into his interpreter, never turning unless called upon to look at the five witnesses or nine lawyers behind him, taking turns discussing his alleged misdeeds. Night fell in the hot wood-paneled courtroom; the crowd thinned as press deadlines came and went under a gilded fresco of Lady Justice and a lion. And the spotlights of passing Bateaux Mouches, the boats that ferry tourists up and down the Seine outside the courthouse, danced along the far wall. Seven hours and now three months’ wait. The verdict is due Sept. 8.

The court heard detailed testimony of the Feb. 24 incident at the Marais district’s La Perle café that made headlines around the world. Galliano is alleged to have made racist and anti-Semitic remarks in public, a crime in France, punishable by up to six months in prison and a €22,500 fine (or about $32,160). Specifically, Galliano is alleged to have called Géraldine Bloch, 35, a “dirty Jewish face,” and her friend Philippe Virgitti, 41, a “f---ing Asian bastard.” (English-speakers in the courtroom struggled to stifle nervous laughter as the lead judge’s heavy French accent produced “Derrrty Jayweesh Fesse” and “Fooking Ahzeean Bastarte.”) Galliano also is alleged to have called Fathia Oummedour, 48, a “f---ing dirty Jew bitch” at the same café in October 2010. Oummedour came forward to press charges after news of the February incident broke, she says, out of support for Bloch and Virgitti.

Bloch, the contemporary-art curator Galliano allegedly called “a dirty whore,” “ugly,” with “revolting eyebrows,” “no hair,” “low-end boots and low-end thighs,” and most important here, a “dirty Jewish face” who “should die,” gave the court every impression that Galliano didn’t know from ugly. Petite, almost pixie-faced, with brown hair and thinly shaped eyebrows and a tiny diamond stud in her nose, younger looking than her 35 years, she wore brown boots, a short black skirt suit, and red and yellow flowered top, and she crossed her arms as she spoke. She told the court Galliano called her “Jewish,” with an alternating cast of R-rated words attached, “at least 30 times.” She said she learned the English word “c---” that evening. “It’s slang,” she said.

For a trial about public remarks, the hearing was a chronicle of personal torment. Galliano was invited to stand up to speak before the court four times. He did, moving slowly, even gracefully, a pearl dangling from his left ear, speaking softly in English, but calling the lead judge, in French, “Madame La Presidente,” in the proper parlance. Galliano explained to the court: “I had a triple addiction. I am a recovering alcoholic and a recovering addict.” He told of in-patient treatment in an Arizona clinic for addictions to alcohol, Valium, and sleeping pills. And, more recently, of spending time in “day care” in Switzerland. His lawyer presented expert analysis claiming “a pathological addiction” and “not fleeting excess.” He said that suggesting Galliano was out of control merely because he was drunk would be like “comparing a little cold to tuberculosis.”

“I have lived with Masai tribes,” Galliano told the court. He said he had prayed with Shaolin monks in China. “We’re still friends,” he said.

Bloch’s companion that February night, Virgitti, a slight man with glasses and a zip-up sweater, acknowledged he lost his temper and threatened Galliano with a chair before finally calling the police. He spoke of arriving at La Perle and having to wait so long for the two beers he and Bloch had ordered on the terrace that he went into the bar to get them himself. When Galliano sat down next to them afterward, he noted, a waitress came quickly with a mojito for the famous designer. As Galliano quickly went on to shower the two friends with invective, Virgitti alleged, he said he knew Galliano “wasn’t right” when he saw him fiddling to put a cigarette into his cigarette holder and failing, three times. Virgitti, who pressed charges initially only to withdraw them and then press them a second time, explained that he flip-flopped out of fear, overwhelmed by the onslaught of Internet vitriol heaped on him after the incident.

Slowly, deliberately, Galliano told the court, “I started drinking in a cyclical way in 2007.” He said, paradoxically, “The House of Dior was doing very, very well.” But “after every creative high, I would crash, and the drinking would help me.” He recounted the pressures of a “billion-dollar business.” “Dior is a big machine and I didn’t want to lose Galliano [his namesake brand].”

“In order for the House of Galliano to survive, I met many businessmen and [approved] many licenses,” he said, listing off men’s, women’s, boys’, girls’, perfume projects, beachwear, jewelry. “Around that time, I lost my beloved, my friend, Steven—Steven Robinson,” Galliano said of his longtime right-hand man, who died suddenly, in 2007, at age 38. “Steven protected me from everything so I could just concentrate on being creative. With his death, I found I had no more protection.” He spoke of burying Robinson and going straight back to work from the crematorium. He said the same had happened when his father died, in 2005; he went right back to work on couture the same night. “I started to have anxiety attacks, panic attacks, I couldn’t go to work unless I had taken Valium.”

Oummedour, 48, the Algerian-born Frenchwoman who stepped forward later to allege that Galliano called her a “f---ing dirty Jew bitch” at La Perle last October, did not attend the trial. Her lawyer said she was attending a conference in Canada. Two of Oummedour’s friends told the court under oath that they also had heard Galliano’s Jewish slur.

The judge disclosed a new incident, unknown to the public, alleged to have taken place on the afternoon of Feb. 23, the day before Bloch and Virgitti encountered Galliano at La Perle. Shopkeeper Alexandra Zeana, who owns a store in Paris’ Saint-Germain-des-Prés district, filed a complaint with the police, saying a man had insulted her inside her shop. A passer-by told her the man was John Galliano. She said that at about 2 p.m., a man called her a “slut” and “Hitler.” She alleged that he told her she had to serve him and that he said, “I will call Carla and Sarkozy; you will disappear!” referring to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and first lady and former supermodel Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. At that last remark, the audience in the courtroom burst into laughter.

But Galliano remained expressionless, even as the court was shown the now-infamous video sold to the Sun tabloid, complete with censor beeps. In it, Galliano professes a love for Hitler. Although he is not on trial for the video, it was the backbreaker in the court of public opinion. When asked to comment, he told the court: “They are not views that I hold on the video. I see someone who needs help and is very vulnerable. It’s the shell of John Galliano. It’s someone who has been pushed to the edge.”

The lead judge stressed that the court’s job was not to decide whether someone was racist or anti-Semitic deep down. But she invited the designer to elaborate, if he wished, on a comment he had made about having been discriminated against himself to explain he couldn’t be a bigot. “I was born Juan Carlos Galliano,” he began. His family moved from Gibraltar to south London when he was 6 years old, he said, when he already knew he was gay. He went to a typical English school for boys, he said. “And you can imagine that children can be very cruel.” He entreated the court to look at his work for evidence he celebrated all cultures. He told of traveling the world with his design team. “I have lived with Masai tribes,” he told the court. He said he had prayed with Shaolin monks in China. “We’re still friends,” he said.

The court heard five witnesses. Two women on the terrace near Bloch and Virgitti testified that they never heard Galliano utter the word “Jewish” at all. Both heard anti-Asian remarks the designer uttered against Virgitti, although not the “f---ing Asian bastard” Galliano is specifically on trial for. Two friends of Oummedour’s confirmed her version of the October events, while another witness said he heard nothing of the kind. Lawyers for the plaintiffs questioned the defense’s witnesses, suggesting that their connections with the fashion world may be suspect. One witness, a fashion student, testified that a reporter friend from the British edition of Vogue gave her a phone number for Galliano’s lawyer.

In the end, Bloch’s lawyer made a show of his client’s request for a single symbolic euro in damages, aiming to show up Galliano’s assertion to police that, “It’s possible this lady and her friend would like to profit from this chance [and] get some money and publicity in a sordid way.” But that magnanimous display appeared to annoy Virgitti’s lawyer, who is asking for €220,000 in damages for his client. The lawyer, Jean-Bernard Bosquet-Denis, told The Daily Beast outside the courtroom after the trial that Galliano is more likely to learn a lesson from a substantial amount than from a symbolic euro. The state prosecutor asked that Galliano’s criminal sentence be a fine of no less than €5,000 for each of the two incidents at trial.

Galliano’s lawyer, Aurélien Hamelle, argued that his client had a case for being let off on a technicality for the October incident. He said that, as only those party to the conversation allegedly heard Galliano say anything anti-Semitic and that the designer spoke quietly, there was cause to argue that the remarks were not public. There is a statute of limitations of three months for racist and anti-Semitic remarks that aren’t made publicly, and that period had already passed when Oummedour pressed charges in February.

Whatever this court of law decides Sept. 8, it is clear Galliano is not prison-bound. At most, legally, he faces fines and damages. But whether the public, and specifically the fashion world, will take him back remains an open question. When the judge asked him to describe his “professional occupation” since being dismissed from Dior, Galliano said pointedly, “I have none.”