Photo from Damianieditore.com
Even fashion followers who were around in new York in the seventies have probably forgotten Ara Gallant, one of the great movers and shakers of fashion at the time. That is why I was so pleased to discover a book about him (Ara Gallant by David Wills, published by Damiani) only recently available in London. He was a bit of an insider's secret even in his heyday but was known as a genius by everyone in New York who knew and cared about fashion, from Diana Vreeland and Richard Avedon to every model in town, all of whom wanted to work with him.
Those were incredibly heady days in New York, the brief period when it was the hippest, coolest and most outrageously exciting place in the world, a magnet that pulled in everybody looking for life at the extreme edge, dangerous, drug-soaked and gay as the proverbial gadfly. Its energy was almost palpable. How, I don't know, because no one ever seemed to sleep and appeared to live for days on nothing other than cocaine.
This was before Mayor Giuliani decided to clean up the city and banish sin in order to make Saturday nights in Manhattan safe for Lutheran families in town from Arkansas, and the Village non-threatening for groups of Boy Scouts from Boisie. Sadly he succeeded in closing down the topless clubs, banished bottomless waiters, banned sleezy strip joints, shuttered the hustler bars – and destroyed New York as a leader in anything, a sorry state it is still in today.
Because, of course, beneath the sin and silliness, the city was bursting with a creativity more vibrant than anything else on earth and, as everyone knows, great cities that lead the world always need sin – and sexual sin at that. Think of Paris in the Belle Epoch or Berlin in the twenties…. Ara, as the greatest hairdresser of them all, once described as a 'fashion holy', was in the thick of it, working almost exclusively for Vogue with Avedon and the superwomen who were models on an altogether different plane from the bourgeois constructs known as supermodels who came later. These were women like Anjelica Huston, Veruschka and Apollonia van Ravenstein, whose energy, sytyle and sense of high drama – they were all larger than life and loved acting – energised the pages of the magazines in a way almost unimaginable with today's suburban teenage models. And the hair Ara sculpted for them was always so extraordinary that it ensured that it was the woman who dominated the shot.
Towards the end of his brief, drug-dominated life (he put a pistol to his head in 1990), Ara became a photographer, doing covers for Interview and L'Uomo Vogue and portraits of stars like Jack Nicholson, Margaux Hemingway and Diane von Furstenburg. But, in reality, he was the star, a creative leader acknowledged by people of the calibre of Andy Warhol and Lauren Hutton as a true original who inspired and motivated everyone he worked with. I am glad this book has saved him from oblivion.