John Galliano: Fall of a Fashion Icon

updated 03/21/2011 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/21/2011 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was the hottest ticket of Paris Fashion Week-for all the wrong reasons. On March 4, some 1,500 guests gathered in the Rodin Museum gardens for the Christian Dior fall show. Just days earlier, the label's star designer John Galliano had been arrested for making anti-Semitic remarks to two cafe patrons; soon after, a video surfaced of Galliano drunkenly declaring, "I love Hitler."

Immediately, Oscar winner Natalie Portman-the face of Miss Dior Cherie perfume-condemned the designer, saying, "I am deeply shocked and disgusted." Galliano, 50, was abruptly fired and is believed to be in rehab at an undisclosed location. And so Dior president Sidney Toledano was compelled to address the crowd before the show began. "What happened last week has been a terrible and wrenching ordeal," he said. "It has been deeply painful to see the Dior name associated with the disgraceful statements attributed to its designer, however brilliant he may be." While the fitted jackets and long capes were well-received, the mood was "uncomfortable and sad," says a fashion veteran, "because you looked at this beautiful collection and knew it was made by a very tortured person."

For those who knew the icon, renowned for his controversial couture (he once dressed models as nuns in fetish gear) and his own flamboyant style (he has graced his runways in regalia ranging from an astronaut to Napoleon), his downward spiral was no surprise. "John is a genius, but troubled," says fashion journalist Madeleine Czigler, who has worked with Galliano for over 20 years. Along with the mounting pressures of producing six collections for Dior as well as his eponymous line Galliano-who has battled drug and alcohol addiction in the past-also lost his longtime confidant Steven Robinson, who reportedly died of cardiac arrest in '07. "What we see is someone who can no longer cope with the combination of pressure, loneliness, drugs, alcohol and his dark-sided nature," says Czigler. Still, "being drunk doesn't relieve you of responsibility for your actions," says the fashion veteran. "This is an incredible talent who destroyed himself."

Galliano entered the fashion industry just like he exited it: swiftly. Born in Gibraltar and raised in a rough neighborhood in South London, he became an instant success after graduating from Central Saint Martins design school. Thanks to champions like Vogue's Anna Wintour, he was named head designer of Givenchy in '95 and within a year was tapped as creative director of Dior, which he helped transform into a powerhouse brand worth more than $20 billion.

But his demons were as legendary as his designs. "I've never seen John when he wasn't spiraling out of control," says a Galliano pal. The designer-who said, "I completely deny the claims made against me"-will go to trial later this year in Paris, where his verbal assaults are a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail. Those close to him wonder if he can save himself from his new low. "John is an artist. He's very complicated," says a Galliano source. But in the end, "he is his own worst enemy."

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