Jean Paul Gaultier SPRING 2020 COUTURE

When Jean Paul Gaultier announced only days ago that his spring 2020 couture show would be his farewell to a career that has spanned 50 years of fashion on his own terms, France went into national mourning. What no one knew was that the designer would put on a grand finale show to remember.

But what a magnificently inventive, euphoric, and heartwarming spectacle it was—a celebration of all the values that this unique designer has embodied in his work through five decades of imagination, humour, humanity, and joy.

Gaultier showcased breathtaking 200-plus looks, but who was counting? (“To be honest it was 10 times more bordello than my first shows that I did!” joked Gaultier backstage. “I knew I had too much and that after I will clean [edit]. But I didn’t clean—at the end, I put it all in!”)

And it really was a show, staged in Paris’s storied Théâtre du Châtelet. Inaugurated in 1862 by Empress Eugénie, this was the stage where Nijinsky later debuted the scandalous L’Après-midi d’un faune and where Diaghilev’s ballet Parade opened with an innovative backdrop painted by Picasso—the perfect showcase for this great fashion iconoclast.

Many of the conversations we are having today—about such issues as diversity, gender fluidity, recycling, and sustainability—are built into the Gaultier DNA. Since his first show in 1976, he has shown pan-generational models of all sizes, genders, and ethnicities on his runway, because they reflected the real-life people on the streets who inspired his style.

As Gaultier explained backstage of those anarchic early collections, “I was recycling things, because at the beginning I had no money. So I was taking things like jeans and camouflage and doing funny things with them—and now I did that with my couture!”

He has put men in skirts and turned the corset from a symbol of the oppressed woman to that of the woman (or man) who is absolutely in control. He famously dressed Madonna in a conical bra for her 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour; although he debuted the fashion look on his fall 1984 runway, he had first experimented with it on his childhood teddy bear (he used newsprint at the time), as revealed in the playful opening sequence of his 2018 cabaret, Fashion Freak Show, at Paris’s fabled Folies Bergère—a popular success here and perhaps a hint at a future career.

As Gaultier promised, he took the ideas that he first explored on a shoestring budget and amplified them with all the technical wonders for which his remarkable haute couture ateliers are famed—and this is a designer steeped in couture, having worked alongside Pierre Cardin at the tender age of 18.