It was typical of Jean-Paul Gaultier to propose a solution to the fashion industry’s waste problem in the midst of what was, frankly, a carnival. Never mind that the show on January 22 was the 67-year-old French designer’s last ever runway show; Gaultier, expectedly, refused to let his retirement party be a solemn, one-note affair that looks only to the past. The catwalk inside Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet saw actors, musicians, drag queens and dancers pose in campy mourning costumes, smoke and then flick their cigarettes at the audience or be carried onto stage by topless men, all while wearing creations that were upcycled from previous collections. “There are too many clothes, and too many clothes that are useless. Do not throw them away, recycle them,” Gaultier exhorted his adoring audience.
If anything, this attitude will be the iconoclastic designer’s lasting legacy: That fashion can be fun without being frivolous. This is, after all, the man who made innerwear acceptable as outerwear and put men in skirts, who found inspiration in urban subcultures and alternative lifestyles, and who made runway models out of tattooed and pierced, ordinary and old, gender non-conforming and full-bodied people. Perhaps, Gaultier is who he is because he came of age as a designer in the 1980s, the era of punk and power-dressing, athleisure and unisex clothing. This was the decade when second-wave feminism swept through the Western world, Madonna (who wore Gaultier-designed conical bras on her Blond Ambition tour) sang with burning crucifixes in the background and the collapse of the Iron Curtain began. It was a time when greed was good, but having a conscience better, and Gaultier, in the socio-cultural subversions he brought into haute couture, captured it all.
Long before terms like gender fluidity and body and sex positivity became woke buzzwords, Gaultier used his creations to declare loudly and proudly: There is no room for gate-keeping and conformity in fashion. How we dress is, after all, our first and most visible declaration of who we are.
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