Haute Couture Paris: John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and a tale of two distinct signatures

While all Viktor and Rolf care about is selling their fragrance - and that stinks

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Indy Lifestyle Online

John Galliano is trying to establish a new signature, and a new handwriting, for his Maison Margiela. It’s fascinating to watch it unfold - in part, because it’s quite unexpected.

This, his autumn/winter 2015 collection, was his first on-schedule haute couture show in Paris helping the house. Although Margiela call it ‘Artisanal,’ in part, I suspect, because it doesn’t look anything like the rest of the haute couture, precious of fabric and painstaking of workmanship. Margiela do stuff like smash mirrors and piece them back together into a top, or whip a potato sack up into a ball gown. It’s a far cry from Karl Lagerfeld's neat cardigan suits at Chanel, or all those bubbly lurex dresses that blobbed amoebally down the catwalk of Giorgio Armani Privé.

In fact, maybe they’re not so different. They’re Margiela’s signature, and a signature style is what matters in fashion. It’s how you pull in your clientele - by offering them something no-one else is doing. There are only about a dozen designers who show couture in Paris: one less this season, as Valentino have decided to show, one season only, in Rome. So you’d better be doing something different.

John Galliano is, at Margiela. This season twenty-six looks, each a riff on an entirely individual idea, teetered out on blade-heeled shoes. There were those Margiela moments, the hopsacks, inside-out tapestries and reconfigured and relocated garments. But there was an added level of polish, and finesse. There was a sense not only of the hand, but a specific hand, which Margiela has been missing since its founder stepped down in 2008.

There was also plenty of Galliano, in topsy-turvy twisted garments, coats hanging off bodies, suspended in motion. “Draped in haste” was an odd phrase Galliano threw out to describe his tailoring. It made perfect sense. There was a haphazard, joyous messiness to this collection. It looked, again, nothing like the clothes Galliano has been creating for the last twenty years or so, harking back instead to the madcap experimentation of his earliest years as a designer - in London, rather than Paris, and certainly before he began working with the haute couture specialists that city offers. There was a lack of polish - but rather than looking roughshod, it seemed raw, genuine, untouched. There was, as the name implied, a touch of the artisan’s hand - in this case, Galliano’s.

And it undoubtedly looked like nothing else in Paris.

Neither did Jean Paul Gaultier’s show. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Like Galliano, Gaultier has a distinct handwriting  - but he’s only used it to reiterate his signature, time and time again. It also feels like he can write in only one language, French. And his handwriting isn’t very good. In fact, it’s becoming near impossible to read.

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French designer Jean Paul Gaultier kisses a model during the presentation of his autumn/winter 2015 collection (AP)

This Gaultier show - dedicated to Breton, in what felt like a thousand looks, of drum-shaped skirts and sailor stripes felt like choking on a stale baguette: a stifling dose of Frenchness, well past its sell-by-date. The original stripes on the Breton jersey numbered 21, in reflection of Napoleon’s victories. This collection wasn’t one of Gaultier’s.

Gaultier is the joker in the haute couture pack, but you wonder who is laughing - besides Gaultier himself. He always seems jolly when he bounds out at the finale, along the long stage he erects, calls a catwalk, and acts out his arcane, pantomimic fantasies upon.

Jean Paul Gaultier is a great designer - there’s a whole exhibition dedicated to his work, touring worldwide and currently in pride of place at the Grand Palais. There was a queue snaking around the building for it, this morning, before the Margiela show. But Gaultier’s winter 2015 offering was not a great collection. Putting it lightly. Gaultier decided to look inward, to the Breton stripe top he so adores, and the Breton people. A bagad, a Breton band, bagpiped their way behind Anna Cleveland, dressed as a bride in a crêpe dress. Not the traditional haute couture fabric, but the Français delicacy. This collection was, pardon my French, a pile of crêpes. Gaultier used the phrase galette - a Breton galette is a form of buckwheat crêpe, and he had a bunch of crêpe artisans frying the stuff in the stairwell of his couture house, to really hammer home the point. Their shape was echoed in circular skirts - controlled, like snare drums, or vast, like monster truck wheels, rolling around his models’ hips. Those looked as attractive as they sound.

 

Gaultier’s signatures used to be snubbing his nose at French conventions, not pandering to them. He toyed with cliches, but now is in danger of becoming one. There were good pieces in this show - pea-coats, a taffeta trench - but they were thoroughly swallowed in the morass, and entirely lost. So were most of the audience.

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren’s signature used to be art as fashion. Or as close as it can get - which, for many, is the haute couture. Viktor and Rolf began their career there, creating one-off clothing, frequently presented in galleries and often ending back in museum collections, that transgressed the line between the mediums.

If created with an artistic forethought, a piece of clothing can be art. It’s all about what the creator intended.

Nevertheless, the flip side is true. Just because you put a dress in a gallery - or in a frame - it doesn’t make it art. Let that be a lesson to Messrs Horsting and Snoeren, because what they showed in Paris wasn’t art. It was pretending to be, very very hard indeed, but I doubt Viktor and Rolf themselves really and truly believed in what they put out. They dressed models in “art work” - snapping faux-frames about their’ bodies, sometimes splattered with faked bits of old-master art in jacquard or embroidery.

The designer duo themselves - fashion’s Chuckle Brothers, always keen to appear centre stage - materialised at one point to peel clothes from their models bodies and hang them pretentiously on a wall behind them. It struck you as shallow, facile, just plain dumb. There are tranches of police dedicated to foiling art forgery, uncovering work that pretend to be genuine, but are in fact just cheap bits of paint and canvas artfully manipulated, to look like the real thing to an untrained eye. I can’t help but think the same about Viktor and Rolf, and their supposed “conceptual” approach to fashion.

Nice try. Tonight, Viktor and Rolf are throwing a party to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their best-selling fragrance Flowerbomb. That’s the real motivation - albeit decidedly old-fashioned - for this haute couture hoodwink. It’s not about the ideas, or the clothes, and certainly not about art. It’s about selling perfume. And that stinks.

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