Gaultier fashions an upmarket move

JEAN-PAUL Gaultier took the fashion world by surprise by announcing his intention to form a partnership with one of France's oldest and most famous luxury-goods labels, Hermes. Hermes has pledged to invest 150m francs ($15.6m; 35 per cent of the capital) in the Jean-Paul Gaultier Group, which includes haute couture, men's and women's ready-to-wear, accessories and fragrance. It boasted consolidated sales of F85m in 1998.

For the past year speculation has been rife that Gaultier, by now established as one of the world's great couturiers, was soon to take over the couture arm of Yves Saint Laurent when Saint Laurent himself decides to retire.

With his extraordinary cutting skills, flamboyance and flair, he seemed to be a likely candidate. His alliance with Hermes will allow him complete autonomy, however, as well as providing the necessary capital to continue further to develop the strong identity of his own line.

Whichever way you look at it, the former bad boy of French fashion has come quite some way since dressing men in skirts, creating the famous conical bra for Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour and larking about in stripy T-shirt and kilt with his fellow Frenchman Antoine le Caunes on the set of Eurotrash.

Gaultier, 46, hung up his TV presenter's populist hat in 1997, feeling that he was spreading himself too thinly and preferring instead to concentrate on his great love - fashion design.

Since that time the man who cut his fashion teeth in the seventies, first at Pierre Cardin and then Jean Patou, has risen in the French fashion establishment's estimation, combining the revolutionary, gender-bending aesthetic he was famous for throughout the Eighties with ever more accomplished traditional cutting and finishing techniques. For its part, Hermes, founded in 1837 when a saddler, Thierry Hermes, opened a shop in Paris selling moneybelts, gauntlets, gloves and boots, and formerly seen as one of the oldest and most conservative status labels of them all, has already proved itself a big force in contemporary fashion by employing the services of the designers' designer, Martin Margiela.

Margiela, known for his avant-garde, deconstructed designs, has been responsible for the womenswear arm of the label for almost two years now. Collaborating with Gaultier will only add to the label's fashion credibility.

Gaultier said yesterday: "Since I was a child, I have always admired the luxury and tradition of Hermes. For me, this marriage is the accomplishment of a dream." He added with customary cartoonish good humour: "The union of `the carriage and the striped sailor T-shirt' will give birth to beautiful children."

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