“Join the Navy” blared from the soundtrack as yet another model in horizontally striped hose and a flat boat-sail of a skirt marched down the runway.
Jean Paul Gaultier was up to his merry tricks: an over-arching theme — this time focused on Brittany, the salty city in Northern France — with plenty of the ship-shape nautical stripes that have long been a Gaultier signature.
The programme was decorated with the drawing of an anchor and then filled with plays on (mostly French) words. But wait a minute! These crazy, rollicking shows always used to be at JPG ready-to-wear, which has been discontinued by Puig, the Spanish fashion and fragrance business that owns JPG, so that the designer could focus on couture.
The couture collections, which started in 1997, were always relatively calm, in order to entice clients with elegant cuts and exceptional handwork. But it seems that you can’t keep this irrepressible and exuberant designer down. And that is the attraction for the more than 300,000 visitors who have already joined the two-hour minimum wait to get into the “Jean Paul Gaultier” exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Since a similar exhibition, “From the Sidewalk to the Stars: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier” started at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada in 2012, Gaultier is probably more of a fashion celebrity now than he has ever been. The exhibition toured the US, UK, Holland, Sweden, Spain, Australia, and now France, attracting some two million visitors.
But, as with so many collections over the years, I felt that Jean Paul was hiding his light under a bushel. Or, in this case, behind the flat, circular skirts inspired by traditional Breton aprons.
If you lifted your eyes away from the bizarrerie a-top the models’ heads; from the marine stripes; the vivid gilding; and all that “stuff”, there was Gaultier’s impeccable tailoring and his studio’s adroit workmanship.
Here is a designer whose skills are so refined that he can conjure a body suit or a double-breasted jacket as easily as a smocked lame dress.
But having studied Gaultier’s art and craft at the museum, as every visitor can, the couture show’s ample programme notes were still not enough to understand the skills behind the rumbustious presentation.
Gaultier at 63 is facing a moment of truth. Should he go on playing showman? Or should he let the clothes speak for themselves as magnificent examples of high fashion without the bells, whistles and ship sails?