Last Thursday at the Théâtre du Châtalet in Paris, the fashion world came together to celebrate the career of iconic French designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Once described as the enfant terrible of fashion, a name he has since embraced (take a look at his twitter bio), Gaultier has left quite a mark on the industry in which he worked for 50 years, infusing haute couture with his trademark kitschy playfulness and an eagerness to challenge the norm. In the 80s, he gave us La Marinière, the nautical-look that became hugely significant to his brand; in 1990, he designed the cone bra worn by Madonna on her ‘Blonde Ambition’ world tour; in 2011 he was one of the first designers to use plus-size models on the catwalk. With his androgynous designs and emphasis on the female form, including an attempt to reinvent the corset as a symbol of empowerment, the designer’s contribution to the fashion world has been immense, and his campy self-aware style will surely be missed at fashion weeks of the future.
Gaultier’s decision to retire from the world of haute couture fashion is surprising, though – at 67, he still seems to be at the top of his game and as relevant as ever, something that was demonstrated by the star-studded spectacle of his final show last week. Although he’s announced that he’ll still be working on his best-selling perfume line, it initially seems odd that a designer like Gaultier, with his reputation of pushing boundaries and taking risks, would take a step back now, precisely when the fashion world should be undergoing a radical upheaval in light of growing public concern about the impacts of fast fashion. Surely, instead of retiring from the fray, Gaultier should be one of the designers leading the charge in this readjustment of the fashion industry?
But maybe his retirement is exactly that. On a note to every guest at his final show, the designer expressed an awareness of how out-of-touch the industry is with the changing cultural climate surrounding fashion as a whole. He wrote that ‘fashion has to change. There are too many clothes, and too many clothes that are useless. Do not throw them away, recycle them!’ While this may seem hypocritical coming from someone who, for 50 years, was actively part of the world that churned out ‘too many clothes’ four times a year, it’s a sentiment that can be reflected by the entirely-upcycled collection he presented at the show. As part of his farewell announcement on twitter last week, Gaultier assured fans that ‘Haute Couture will continue with a new concept’, teasing that it’s not the last the fashion world has seen of its so-called bad boy. And maybe, hopefully, in light of his comments regarding the “waste” of excess clothes, environmentalism is at the forefront of this new idea.
So what will this “new concept” entail? I, for one, sincerely hope that Gaultier pioneers a vision for haute couture that is in tune with the public desire for eco-friendly fashion, so that the industry can continue to thrive and innovate without causing such large-scale damage to the environment. The concept of sustainable fashion shows no sign of drifting from the public consciousness, as “fads” tend to do, and designers are scrabbling to keep up. Having someone as experimental and beloved by the public as Gaultier as a trailblazer for a new haute couture that fits our drive towards sustainability would be truly remarkable, and might even redefine the industry for good.