• Directory of Taiwan

Gaultier, under new management, has a new lease on life

During one visit after his spring show, Jean Paul Gaultier described, for nearly an hour, a fashion industry ‘where things are going in a very strange way’

Jean Paul Gaultier, the fashion designer, in Paris, Feb. 27, 2012. Gaultier, who turns 60 in April, will show his fall collection in Paris on March 3....

Jean Paul Gaultier, the fashion designer, in Paris, Feb. 27, 2012. Gaultier, who turns 60 in April, will show his fall collection in Paris on March 3....

Last September, a few days before his spring fashion show, Jean Paul Gaultier took a hard look at one of his models. She was wearing a hip-length gilet in a navy pinstripe fabric over a second-skin bodysuit that gave the illusion of tattoos, both key ingredients in a formula of fierce tailoring and devilish streaks that the designer has been perfecting for roughly 35 years.
“I liked it yesterday, but not today,” Gaultier told an assistant. “It doesn’t have the charm of the first time.”
It was an unusually warm day in Paris, and Gaultier’s studio, atop the grand headquarters he built on the Rue Saint-Martin in 2004, was broiling. Of the seven or eight outfits he examined over the course of an hour of fittings, barely one met his expectations. “Take a photo of that one,” he said at one point, “so I remember it is no good and not to try it again.”
Watching Gaultier – and this is the interesting thing, as he stands with his face pressed close to a wall of mirrors, watching not the model, as she moves, but her reflection – you do wonder if the job still holds the charm it once did. In the 1980s and ‘90s, he was a fashion superstar, designing Madonna’s conical bras; makeup and couture skirts for men; and that enormously controversial collection for fall 1993 with coats and hats styled after traditional Hasidic attire, worn by supermodels like Kate Moss and Christy Turlington.
But for some time, the fashion world hasn’t known quite what to make of Gaultier; the onetime enfant terrible turns 60 in April. His couture is consistently brilliant and daring, right up to the provocative collection he showed in January with models styled to look like Amy Winehouse, barely six months after her death.
But his ready-to-wear, more often than not, has been hit or miss. The collections he designed for Hermes since 2003 were suitably over-the-top in lavishness (think crocodile for evening), but when he broke ties with the house last year, there was a consensus that the relationship had run its course. In May, Hermes sold its 45 percent stake in Gaultier’s business to the Puig Group, the Spanish fragrance company that owns Carolina Herrera and Nina Ricci, for 16 million euros, or $23 million at the time. Puig also assumed about $20 million in debt.
Now with a new lease on life, it may be time for a reassessment.
A few days after the spring show, over lunch in his showroom, Gaultier was asked if he still felt appreciated.
“Still?” he said, laughing, as he almost always seems to be.
“Yes, not as much as before, but yes,” he said. “I am no more the flavor of the month, or the year, or the decade, but it has been 35 years. I can say in some way I am lucky, when I look at the people who were there with me at the beginning, and I am the one who is still here. I am still appreciated, but not for the same reason as before.”
He was talking about designers like Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana and Christian Lacroix or, more recently, John Galliano, whose careers came to unceremonious ends despite their notoriety. Though it had not been entirely obvious to the audience at his show that week, Gaultier’s spring collection was filled with a nostalgia for the way things used to be in fashion, as when his runway models carried numbered cards to identify their outfits, which were described by an announcer in French and English.
Also, the tattoo-print body stockings, split-leg sailor pants, mariner stripes, trench coats and a finale of models in lacy lingerie were all reiterations of ideas Gaultier has shown throughout his career. Critics didn’t love the gimmicks, but the clothes were well received – “one of the French designer’s most legible and effortlessly chic collections,” according to WWD. His fall collection will be shown on Saturday.
There is good reason to re-evaluate Gaultier, thanks in part to the popularity of an exhibition of his designs now touring museums in North America. It is a reminder of his influence.
“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” when it was first shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts last summer, had an attendance of more than 175,000 fans. At the Dallas Museum of Art, where the show was exhibited from November through February, nearly 115,000 people attended, making it one of the 10 most popular exhibitions in the museum’s history. It moves to the de Young Museum in San Francisco on March 24.
Gaultier actually resisted the show (“For me, an exhibition like that is for people when they are dead,” he said), but he acquiesced when its curators presented a modern treatment with thematic displays and talking mannequins. At the entrance is a mannequin with the video-projected face of Gaultier himself, with his familiar cropped platinum hair and sailor’s top.
In Montreal one day last fall, an elderly couple made their way between Madonna’s satin corsetry and a champagne-colored evening gown from 1993 embellished with crystal beads depicting nipples and pubic hair, debating whether the work was offensive or empowering to women.
Above all, the exhibition illustrates how Gaultier has always been transgressive, but ultimately generous, in his social messages, employing models of various shapes, sizes and skin colors, while ignoring presumed boundaries of gender or sexuality. Nevertheless, his antics, from the release of a pop song in 1988 to a fashion show with women mud wrestling in 2009, can sometimes backfire, overshadowing his hard work.
The exhibition puts Gaultier’s work squarely in the camp of empowerment. While underlining the sense of whimsy in his collections, it makes a stronger case for his workmanship and imaginativeness, his ability to take a classic element of French dress, like a trench or even a cancan skirt, and, as Tom Ford says in the accompanying catalog, “twisting it into something else.”
Thierry-Maxime Loriot, the curator, said that that was one of the reasons he wanted to explore Gaultier’s work. “He’s been almost forgotten in that way,” he said.
Gaultier, since the beginning of his company in 1976 after sporadic work with Pierre Cardin, and even since he was a child growing up in a working-class suburb of Paris, has always been a shy person. But the reaction to the exhibition seems to have energized him as he considers the future of his company, now under the management of Puig.
“I didn’t realize it at the beginning, but I did this profession to get love,” he said. “It is like my passport, through that I can open the door. It’s through that they like me.”
During one visit after his spring show, Gaultier described, for nearly an hour, a fashion industry “where things are going in a very strange way.” Fashion shows, now covered instantaneously online, seem more about image than clothes, and magazines have so many international editions that it seems as if each brings a small army to his shows. Celebrities who once paid him for dresses now expect to be paid to wear them. The large design houses are expected to churn out more and more clothes. So the old-fashioned narration and preening models in his spring show were a bit of a sendup.
“It’s like a big cake, and there’s not enough people to eat it,” he said.
It was not entirely surprising to see the problems at Gaultier’s company that began in 2005, after an aggressive expansion that initially included plans to open 200 stores. While annual sales of Gaultier-branded products like sunglasses and his popular torso-shaped fragrances have been reported around $700 million over the last decade, those products are mostly licensed to other companies, and the royalties to the designer could not offset the costly couture operation he started in 1997 in addition to the new headquarters. The Gaultier company’s income was down to about 24 million euros in 2010, from 28 million euros in 2004, according to figures reported by Hermes.
The business could be larger, said Ralph Toledano, who became the president of Puig’s fashion division in January. Toledano, who described Gaultier as the most talented of French designers, is well regarded in the industry as the former head of Chloe, but he said no two labels are alike.
“You have to see this as the beginning of the beginning,” he said. “I think the company, certainly at the moment, is underdeveloped. My goal would be to grow it.”
Gaultier is the first to admit that he has little interest in being perceived as a great businessman. While he has played an important role in popular culture with his stint as a “Eurotrash” host and by designing wardrobes for films like “The Fifth Element,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” and “Bad Education,” he can be provocative to the point of the impolitic. In October, he told The Telegraph of London, “Anna Wintour is a lot more monstrous than she is described!”
In Paris, he is the most visible of targets of anti-fur protesters every season. And when he evoked Winehouse for his spring couture collection, he thrilled the critics, but offended her family.
Gaultier said that some things may change at his company, but that he would not consider touching the couture line. In a 2009 article in Vanity Fair, Gaultier said he needed just 16 customers for that collection, with its prices of $50,000 and up per dress, to break even. Today? Well, he still breaks even.
“There are a lot of houses that lose money with couture,” Gaultier said. “I don’t earn, but I don’t lose.”

Updated : 2021-07-28 12:35 GMT+08:00