The expression ‘enfant terrible’ seems to crop up frequently when Jean Paul Gaultier is mentioned. Since the founding of his fashion house in 1976, the designer has become known for collections characterised by a canny, yet humorous take on current affairs, and a high degree of craftsmanship. As of September this year, Gaultier will exclusively focus on his haute couture line, which he launched in 1997. The designer cited increasing commercial pressures and the rapid pace of the ready-to-wear industry as contributing factors in his decision. He also expressed the need to satisfy his desire for creative experimentation and innovation through his continued work in couture. Gaultier’s brand, backed by Spanish perfume company Puig, will be kept afloat financially by the sale of the designer’s popular line of fragrances, and a soon-to-be developed beauty range. It has also been suggested that the designer may venture into the world of interior design and pursue creative collaborations.
The closure of Gaultier’s ready-to-wear line has come at a time when the growing pressure on designers is frequently discussed in the fashion media. Following a series of unexpected deaths and public meltdowns, some journalists have identified the increasing rate of global fashion consumption as the root of the problem. Additional shows, including, pre- and cruise collections, aimed at keeping buyers interested all year round, have considerably increased designers’ workload. There are those, such as Azzedeine Alaia, who have refused to participate in this gruelling system, although up until now his was a rare example. Will Gaultier’s decision, which goes a step further, to focus on one aspect of his clothing design, inspire others to follow his lead? Although this is not a likely possibility, the move does indicate a changed state of affairs in the fashion industry. While in recent years many feared the death of haute couture, now the consensus seems to be that it has instead become the last vestige of Fashion with a capital F. Haute couture is exempt from a direct commercial pressure, because it has become the essence of a fashion house and an artisanal heritage to be preserved. Lavish shows and rarefied craftsmanship are cultivated in order to produce a brand DNA that consumers can vicariously buy into when purchasing cheaper products. It is not surprising therefore, that a designer with a high fashion education, such as Gaultier – he began his career working at Cardin and Patou – should choose to shift his creative focus and brand strategy.
Despite the difficult issues that contextualise Gaultier’s departure from prêt-à-porter, his final spring/summer 2015 collection was anything but a solemn affair. Instead, we saw a theatrical farewell in the form of the ‘Miss Jean Paul Gaultier Pageant’, which showcased the most iconic designs of the brand’s history. The ten-part extravaganza featured Gaultier’s signature nautical, striped shirts, asymmetrically cut, sharply tailored gender-bending suits, and a tamed version of the cone bra, in the shape of a corselet dress modelled by Coco Rocha. A lively assortment of characters, from Lucha Libre superhero wrestlers, footballers’ wives sporting paisley, sequins and denim, to boxers-cum-cyclists confirmed the designer’s love for all things related to popular culture. Gaultier has a history for challenging norms of taste, beauty and gender, therefore it was a shame that references to some of his more controversial collections were missing. It would have been good to spot a few men in skirts, for example – perhaps his most daring contribution to fashion history. Although models of all ages graced the runway, a greater diversity of gender, ethnicity and body shapes would have also spoken more clearly of Gaultier’s fashion legacy. Nevertheless, this final collection was an apt celebration of the end of a chapter in ready-to-wear’s history.