Jean Paul Gaultier was never going to make a French exit from the fashion world. The 67-year-old designer staged his swansong on Wednesday evening, bidding adieu to the industry as loudly as he could. Supermodels were joined by celebrities, dancers, contortionists and drag queens on stage at the Théâtre du Châtelet – an unforgettable show that had the hundreds of audience members cheering non-stop for almost two hours.
For many there, it was an emotional goodbye, not only because Gaultier is beloved for his iconic designs, but because he is one of the few living designers to be considered a national treasure, instantly recognisable to the public for his peroxide hair, Breton stripes and Cheshire cat grin.
The show resembled a party. It began with a projection of the dramatic funeral scene from William Klein’s satirical 1966 film Qui Est Vous, Polly Maggoo?, followed by the curtains falling on a dim-lit tableau of supermodels in mourning. Erin O’Connor, Farida Khelfa, Estelle Lefébure and Yasmin Le Bon – models from Gaultier’s past – were among those posing as cartoonishly camp funeral-goers.
Boy George sang a cover of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black as dancers in gimp masks brought out a spiked coffin. The atmosphere was far from sombre. Never one to take himself too seriously, it was a reminder of Gaultier’s irreverent sense of humour and kitsch. It set the tone for the rest of the show, a celebration of the leitmotifs that the French designer has returned to throughout his career.
There were the marinières Breton stripes in myriad ways, the corsetry that he famously transformed from a symbol of female oppression into a postmodern feminist statement in the 1990s, and pastiches of Parisian stereotypes such as tuxedos, white shirts and black wigs. Denim, camouflage and bondage styling made appearances too, occasionally modelled by Gaultier’s celebrity friends. Amanda Lear appeared in little more than a sequinned T-shirt, carried down the steps by two topless hunks, while Béatrice Dalle walked out smoking a cigarette, only to throw it towards the audience. Rossy de Palma looked every inch the salsa señorita in black and red, a stark contrast to Dita von Teese in a nude corset.
Gaultier said this was his first upcycled haute couture collection – implying that his decision to retire is partly caused by the shifting perception of the fashion industry in light of the climate crisis. “I think fashion has to change,” he wrote in a letter to every guest at the show. “There are too many clothes, and too many clothes that are useless. Do not throw them away, recycle them!” That’s what he did, delving into his archive to revive style and using previous collections to create new outfits.
“What I did in my early days without means, I do today with my heritage to give life to new creations,” he added.
Although he may have always been described as the enfant terrible of fashion, today Gaultier is one the industry’s éminence grise. In many ways, it took the fashion world decades to catch up with him. As early as 1976 he was a pioneer of diversity, streetwear, gender-fluidity and recycling – all of which are now marketing buzzwords for fashion houses. For Gaultier, however, it was second nature. He simply reflected what he saw on the streets by putting it on the catwalk.
He was often a champion of models who defied easy categorisation – whether that was in age, body, gender or race – often scouting them on the street too. His clothes were shown on both men and women, which led people to describe his work as “androgynous” long before “gender-neutral” was in parlance.
When he showed men in skirts in 1984, it caused as much controversy as when Madonna walked on stage in his famous “cone bra” during her Blond Ambition tour in 1990 or when she appeared topless in the 1993 fashion show Gaultier staged as an Aids fundraiser.
Despite his iconoclasm, Gaultier is rarely spoken of with the same reverence as his contemporaries, such as the late Karl Lagerfeld or Azzedine Alaïa. That might be because he appeared as a co-presenter on the satirical television show Eurotrash, which was sneered at by the fashion world but managed to endear him to a mainstream audience and convey his naughty sense of humour. He later said that was the reason he missed out on the artistic directorship of Dior in 1996, which went to John Galliano instead.
Over the years, his business dwindled, despite a steady income from his bestselling fragrances. In 2015, he shuttered his ready-to-wear label and continued to produce only two haute couture collections a year. Yet his influence can still be felt across generations. The theatricality of his shows inspired designers such as Galliano and Alexander McQueen.
Many fashion household names began their careers as his employees, including Martin Margiela and Nicolas Ghesquière, both of whom were present last night to pay their respects, joined by the likes of Isabel Marant, Dries van Noten, the shoe guru Christian Louboutin, Clare Waight Keller, Christian Lacroix, and the fashion couple Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren.
All of them cheered, some of them cried – and even Anna Wintour could not contain her excitement as the show became more theatrical and camp as it went on. Although this was the last Jean Paul Gaultier show, he said there would be projects to come. For now, it is the end of an era. Fashion’s enfant terrible has finally grown out of the industry he revolutionised.