Frisky at Sixty: Why Jean Paul Gaultier is still crucial to fashion
The enfant terrible of 1980s fashion, Jean Paul Gaultier, turns 60 today and is still going strong with his trademark sense of cheekiness and mischief, writes John Davidson
Need a template for growing old disgracefully? Well, the idiosyncratic French fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier turns 60 this month, and I’m certainly minded to light a celebratory candle (or 60) for this mischievous maverick who steadfastly refuses to ease up. He remains a shape-shifting tastemaker, whose output ranges from provocative fashion for men and women to those consistently successful torso-bottled fragrances; he’s also a charismatic, larger-than-life figure who has outgrown the narrow parameters of fashion to become an icon of popular culture.
Like many young men in the fashion industry during the late 1980s, I considered Gaultier’s bold-shouldered tailoring a perfect choice for businesswear. Which was all very well until I arrived at Jenners – at that point, still in private ownership, and heroically resistant to the challenges of the times and the charm of change.
Who could have imagined this grand old Edinburgh institution recruiting a womenswear buyer routinely attired in jackets razored to raggedy ribbons or embellished with a tattoo-like eagle motif in vintage lace? Even my plainest black Gaultier suit had artfully gashed sleeves.
As news of such disturbing sartorial aberrations spread, some customers were sufficiently intrigued to make a special pilgrimage to check out my startling one-man challenge to the store’s cosy orthodoxy. My suits seemed to generate more fuss than the new fashion labels (many lovely, some edgy) I introduced to the sales floors. There was a delicious inevitability about the speedy promotion of the raincoat buyer (a paragon of convention) and my own ignominious departure. I didn’t blame Gaultier for my downfall – I thanked him for a lucky escape. But I never wore Gaultier tailoring again.
This doesn’t mean I lost interest in his energetic output. From the moment in 1976 when he launched his own business, his runway shows had been extraordinary spectacles. One season had a Trans-Siberian theme, played out in a massive snow-drifted rail terminus and starring Björk Another memorable show was set amid colourful vintage carousels in Paris’s extraordinary museum of circus life. On this occasion, the mighty Madonna (in an evening gown formed from nude-coloured latex) pushed a pram down the runway. Gaultier had already been responsible for some of her most memorable style statements, not least the conical bra, designed for her Confessions tour in 1990 – a garment that has surely achieved the same status in popular culture as Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz or Marilyn Monroe’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch.
That bra is said to have been developed from a prototype the eight-year old Gaultier devised for his teddy bear. Gaultier jokes that his tatty old teddy is in dire need of silicone implants and Botox injections. Yet I doubt the designer has had either. His hair is now a short silvery crop rather than the peroxide-white blonde flat-top of yore; he still wears those striped matelot sweaters, but less often with a man-skirt. His face looks more careworn than previously, but it still readily breaks into the mischievous grin that charmed viewers of Eurotrash – the Channel 4 cult hit Gaultier co-hosted with Antoine de Caunes throughout the 1990s.
This saucy TV show was a diversion very few of Gaultier’s peers would have contemplated. Po-faced commentators disapproved of Gaultier squandering his time and prodigious talents on something as trivial as Eurotrash, overlooking how closely this show’s celebration of the absurd chimed with his boundless sense of fun.
Gaultier’s playfulness and whimsy is evident in almost everything he does – as is his capacity for risk-taking. According to Eilidh MacAskill, editor of celebrity fashion bible InStyle, “Irreverence has never left his work, and there’s a slight sense of danger that you can trace right back to his early inspirations. His energy and wit easily transcend the catwalk.”
He is still the designer most likely to risk a mix of campy hello-sailor looks with S&M leather chaps in a gender-bending fashion-thrash-up; he continues to forge unlikely juxtapositions such as pinstripes and tattoo motifs. Gaultier can also be relied upon to find countless ways of reworking the classic trenchcoat or something fresh to do with a cape, corset or catsuit.
Stephen Jones, the great British milliner, relished his opportunity to collaborate on Gaultier’s shows in the mid-80s. “He was the first designer with whom I worked in Paris, and it was an enormously exciting experience,” Jones says. “Rather than sketching, Gaultier would work in 3D, draping fabric on a model, pinning a pocket in place … It was a dynamic, creative process – spontaneous, not analytical. And it was all great fun. Each show was like a huge party.”
Gaultier’s collections (as well as those he designed for Hermès from 2003 until 2010), are characterised by that elusive quality known as finesse. Jones jokes that Gaultier’s work also pulsates with those not-quite-translatable French concepts of joie de vivre and je ne sais quoi. One of very few stars of Paris fashion who happens to be French, Gaultier certainly loves to toy with the city’s iconography. As Jones says, “He’ll use a beret, or place a motif of the Eiffel Tower on the back of stockings. The effect is familiar, yet rather sweet, charming, and romantic.”
His skill as a tailor and his understanding of structure ensure a Gaultier garment is a thing of bold and intriguing beauty. Yet he had no formal fashion training – learning on the job while a studio assistant during the early 1970s, first for Pierre Cardin, then at Jean Patou. This makes Gaultier’s dexterity in manipulating a silhouette completely extraordinary.
So too is his talent to confuse. Gaultier outraged Hasidic Jews by basing his women’s collection for autumn-winter 1993 on the sombre clothing of their menfolk – complete with long, curly sideburns. Three months ago, his haute-couture homage to Amy Winehouse seemed to backfire when the late singer’s family expressed dismay. And Gaultier is always in trouble with animal welfare activists for his unapologetic use of fur. Thirty years after the French first hailed him as their new enfant terrible, Gaultier seems almost as terrible as ever. Although his tendency to court controversy seems undiminished, no-one in fashion has demonstrated greater inclusiveness. People of diverse age, size, shape and ethnicity have shared his runways with supermodels.
Gaultier’s once-radical concepts such as man-skirts or corsetry-as-outerwear no longer seem especially shocking – but even at their sweetest, Gaultier’s clothes retain a transgressive edge.
Fashion is a world in perpetual flux, and everyone who wants to remain part of it must respond to ever-changing challenges. Back in the 80, Gaultier channelled edgy looks gleaned from street culture and the club music scene. Cool kids may have been his inspiration, but the customers were men and women prepared to pay premium price for “designer ready-to-wear”, luxury clothing that was factory-made rather than made-to-order.
This seemed the future of fashion: designer ready-to-wear would surely wipe haute couture off the fashion map, simply because it could be more widely distributed. And that’s pretty much what happened – except, ironically, that Gaultier’s ready-to-wear collections are now eclipsed by the sophistication and glamour of the haute-couture line he launched in 2004. In this unlikely throwback to a previous era of extreme exclusivity, luxurious, hand-crafted clothes share the price structure of luxury motor cars.
Fashion commentators marvel at the creativity and ingenuity, insisting Gaultier’s works of fashion-art provide an important addition to Paris’s increasingly truncated haute-couture calendar. But, in commercial terms, this is the ultimate niche activity. Gaultier says it takes just 16 clients for his own couture line to break even.
Once, following one of Gaultier’s haute-couture shows, I witnessed a discussion between his vendeuse (the sales advisor for couture customers) and a super-rich but emaciated and vertically challenged fossil. The latter was demanding that a room-filling crinolined ball-gown, formed from an elaborate patchwork of denim jeans, should be adapted to suit her tiny frame.
I’ll admit I was perturbed by the idea of hacking up this dream of artistry and wit to indulge the caprice of one mad old woman. But the value of haute couture lies in the exposure and kudos its presentation brings – not in the client it dresses. No matter how sublime the workmanship, regardless of how intriguing you consider fashion ideas fabricated from sable or coq feathers (staples of Gaultier’s couture), it exists primarily to add image and charisma to much lesser products. Chez Gaultier, this means perfumes.
Given that revenues from Gaultier’s stupendously successful fragrances are now estimated to be around 25 times that of his fashion activities, the “show couture to sell scents” strategy appears to work very nicely, thank you.
The red carpet provides today’s other great brand-marketing opportunity. And the awards season just wouldn’t be the same without the fashion magic Gaultier can conjure out of chiffon and crepe for the big screen’s brightest stars.
Has Nicole Kidman ever looked more beautiful than in the filmy chiffon Gaultier gown she wore to the 2003 Oscars? Other Gautier triumphs have included the sensational ivory mermaid number (think fishtail silhouette and fish-scale embroidery) Marion Cotillard wore in 2008 to accept her Best Actress Oscar. Style pundits still enthuse about Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-night Gaultier sensation of 2000 – a severe black sheath, held across her bare back by gold Indienne metal straps.
“Gaultier is not for wallflowers,” says InStyle’s MacAskill. “Having said that, when you look back at the significant women he has dressed and red carpet moments he has created, he never overdoes the drama or, vitally, the wit. His aesthetic has both, but he always puts beauty first, knowing that even celebs are pretty straightforward in their desire to look gorgeous.”
In Paris fashion, Gaultier may be the last Frenchman standing. He’s certainly one of very few designers to have grabbed headlines in five different decades. But I’m re-counting those birthday cake candles, and realising the guy is only 60. So there must be many, many years of his deliciously transgressive irreverence and quirky Franglais fun still to come. Long may Jean Paul Gaultier’s brand of mischief continue.
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