Gaultier says goodbye to ready-to-wear: Creativity was the easy part, it’s the thinking that’s hard – The Washington Post

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Models
present creations by French designer Jean Paul Gaultier as part of his
Spring/Summer 2015 women’s ready-to-wear collection during Paris Fashion
Week September 27, 2014. Gaultier, the theatrical star designer of the
French fashion world, presents his last women’s ready-to-wear show
today. The brand, owned by Spanish perfumer Puig announced earlier this
month that it will from now on focus its efforts on haute couture,
perfume, and industry collaborations. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

PARIS — The crowds gathered outside The Grand Rex Theater long before show time. Mostly young and all toting cameras, they spilled into the street,creating traffic havoc and forming a solid wall of breathless anticipationfor whomever they might see making their way inside for designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s final ready-to-wear show.

The theme of the presentation was scrolling across the theater’s massive marquee: Miss Jean Paul Gaultier. The designer’s collections always have a theme and this one – a beauty pageant — would most assuredly involve tiaras, camp and plenty of exquisite tailoring. For no matter how silly a Gaultier show might ultimately be, no matter how close to costumes his clothes might seem, underneath it all, the tailoring is exact.

Saturday night, instead of a traditional runway, the designer presented the collection on a proscenium stage with only a tiny catwalk jutting out into the audience, which was stacked from the orchestra up to the balcony.

(Related: At Paris Fashion Week: Looking to the past to find the future)

A beauty pageant – complete with a bilingual master of ceremony – allowed Gaultier to present his work in multiple vignettes, from riffs on the tuxedo to wildly printed sportswear inspired by bicycle racing jerseys. Models showed their muscles as bodysuited action figures. They strutted like glitzed-out gold-diggers and they played doppelgangers to some of the industry’s most recognizable editors, including the red-headed Grace Coddington of Vogue and “The September Issue.”

Models present creations by French designer Jean Paul Gaultier as part
of his Spring/Summer 2015 women’s ready-to-wear collection during Paris
Fashion Week September 27, 2014.  REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The
production, which attracted designers such as Alber Elbaz and Gareth
Pugh, showcased Gaultier’s sense of humor and fun. It began with a
cocktail hour of popcorn and champagne. It ended with a storm of golden
confetti. The clothes, particularly the tuxedoes and his exquisite
trenchcoats, made his technical skills clear.

When it ended,  Gaultier bounced out gleefully as usual to take his bows. The audience applauded affectionately. It was done. Time for everyone to sigh in
relief.

Gaultier launched his collection in 1976, after working  for Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou. And soon after his debut, the fashion  establishment lauded the French-born designer as an enfant terrible. Gaultier, with his peroxided hair, was a prankster and a subversive. He understood the rules of French fashion; and he was adept and  enthusiastic in breaking them.

But it has been a long time since a
Gaultier show sparked the kinds of cultural conversations they
triggered with regularity through the 1990s. Back then, Gaultier seemed
almost prescient, always a few steps ahead of the chattering classes and
contemplating the topics that would eventually cause tortuous debate,
tension or general social upheaval.

Gaultier celebrated the  mesmerizing and sometimes disconcerting beauty of body art long before  grandmothers had full-color sleeves. In 1989, Madonna asked him to  design costumes for her Blonde Ambition tour and he created a  cone-shaped bra that ignited a passion for lingerie as outerwear that  has never abated.

In 1993, he became the first major designer to use Judaism as inspiration  for a collection. He incorporated menorahs into his set and styled his  models with prayer boxes, forelocks and yarmulkes. The work that season  startled the audience of editors and retailers – many of whom were  Jewish – but Gaultier approached the subject with such respect, cheer
and craftsmanship that he won over the crowd.

One of his most splendid collections came in 1997 when he designed a tribute to Africa,  Harlem and richness of black popular culture. In that show, his models  wore their hair groomed in Marcel waves or stacked high in braids or  dreadlocks. The clothes came in rich berry hues and luxurious fabrics  such as moiré satin. The models exuded dignity and cool. At the time,  Gaultier said that he was inspired by an image he had in his mind of  “the wife of an ambassador of an African country living in a city like  New York or Paris. That woman is dressed in an Occidental way but she
keeps her African roots with some accessories like a turban and big  jewelry.”

French designer Jean Paul Gaultier (C-bottom) celebrates with models at

the end of his last ready-to-wear collection, the 2015 Spring/Summer

ready-to-wear collection fashion show, on September 27, 2014 in Paris.

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

Throughout his career, Gaultier has been faithful in bringing outsiders into fashion. He was a champion  of street casting – using non-professional models found in coffee shops, bars and, literally, on the street. His runways have always been the most diverse in the industry, with plus-size women, cross-dressing men, gray-haired ladies and those that society declared ugly.

A lot of designers say the street inspires them, but Gaultier’s collections reflected a true intimacy with the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of urban life. Gaultier took risks. He dared to talk about religion, sexuality and politics through his clothes.

But for almost a decade, that provocative, thoughtful spirit has been missing from his runway. His presentations retained all the camp frivolity, but the substance was thin. When he announced his decision to shutter his ready-to-wear division – and focus on haute couture — he referenced the relentless schedule of shows and collections that a designer must adhere to in order to feed the market. There was too little time to be creative.

But the truth is that Gaultier’s presentations were always imaginative, whether he had model Coco Rocha Irish dancing down his runway or was cranking out some space age whimsy. The problem was that the collections no longer made his audiences think. They stopped challenging tradition. What was once provocative  theatrics – a drag queen! – no longer is, in part thanks to Gaultier’s
intelligent productions.

Nonetheless, many of the topics Gaultier brought into the fashion world with such deft and beauty are still worth discussing. Religion, for example, continues to confound and separate us. Who is willing to connect beauty and spirituality in a
conversation about personal identity and public presentation? Designer Hussein Chalayan dabbled in the notion with a collection inspired by North Africa, its architecture and its traditional dress. Much of the work he showed last week was beautiful, with its mesmerizing
transformations of coats into dresses. But Chalayan’s questions were focused on aesthetic. Gaultier made his guests question themselves.

Now that his design burden has been lightened, the confetti has settled and Miss Jean Paul Gaultier has been crowned, perhaps he will once again have time for a beautiful mind.

Robin Givhan is a fashion critic and writer, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.

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