Since 2021, the house of Jean-Paul Gaultier has chosen a guest designer to put their spin on the provocateur’s signature style. This season, Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing took the reins after a much-lauded outing in January from Y/Project designer Glenn Martens. When the first model in Rousteing’s autumn/winter 2022 couture show walked out — a male model wearing striped patchwork and silver face jewellery — the audience erupted in echoing cheers. 13 male models followed, all wearing reinterpreted prints from Jean-Paul Gaultier’s groundbreaking autumn/winter 1994 show.
Rousteing chose these specific patterns and jewellery for his couture debut for a very personal reason. “I’m of Ethiopian descent,” he explained in an interview earlier this week. “And as a kid, I was so, so happy that someone could talk about my country and my culture as well.” He continued, “The thing that I feel about Jean-Paul is that he was ahead of his time. Today we talk about no boundaries, we talk about different shapes, we talk about inclusivity, diversity but Jean was the first to actually push for what we are fighting for today.”
What followed was a mesmerising cohabitation of Gaultier’s iconic references and Rousteing’s recognisable streetwear staples. Over-stitched boyish and baggy jeans melded with sky-high feathers that jutted out from the bodice, while the classic marinière striped top was turned into bandage dresses and feathery capes. Heart-shaped bodices were covered in supersized couture pins, or took the shape of quilted shoulders with blossoming crinolines. A massive gown that appeared as it were entirely constructed of wheat elicited gasps. And a duo of models wearing moulded bodices in the shape of matching pregnant stomachs was even more of a crowd-pleaser.
Gaultier's guest-designed shows have become kind of a legend during couture week. Each season, the streets fill up with hundreds of fans who dress for their own kind of fashion show outside the venue. This time the streets felt even more celebratory, the cheers of the characters outside could be heard from blocks away. The three seasons of Gaultier’s program have revolutionised the conversation around couture, bringing fresh new names into the mix (prior to Martens, Chitose Abe of Sacai was the debut guest designer). But Rousteing, the first guest designer who also works for a massive French fashion house, feels like a directionally different choice. There was a sense of national pride that inspired the raucous roars of applause, screams and snaps for every single look that came down the runway.
Rousteing spent four months researching and creating each piece – many of which took 400 to 600 hours to complete. “I picked the chapter that I think resonated the most to me,” said Rousteing of the archival references he chose to riff on, like Madonna, because she “has been a legend and all about the beauty of freedom of woman.”
The sense of female liberation was instantly recognisable in cone bra shapes with the Balmain touch, recalling the Gaultier ensembles Madonna wore on her Blonde Ambition Tour in 1990; and in twisted corsets and baggy pants, baseball caps, sculpted bodices and striking tailoring with peek-a-boo cut-outs. “You can see the reference to the dress of Madonna from the time,” which was in the early 1990s, he pointed out. “Then, she could have her nipples out, where[as] in 2022, weirdly we cannot let the woman be free as much as she was. I think in the world that we are right now, when, what happened in America as well, the power and the freedom of women is so important,” he continued, in reference to the United States Supreme Court’s decision to deny women’s federal right to abortions late last month.
It was also essential for Rousteing to blend in hints of Balmain’s DNA. “For me, tailoring is really important,” noted the designer. “You cannot talk about my collection and Jean together without tailoring.” A trompe l’oeil jumpsuit jacket that sits on top of the body like an applique, for instance, or the mini dresses with precise corsetry, and of course, structured 3D heart dresses — all of these have Rousteing’s sharply tailored touch. “Jean loves a heart,” he says with a laugh.
Both Rousteing and Gaultier share a kinship for A-list casting and there was no shortage of star power on the runway. “It’s just a mix of different women, different colours, different shapes. It’s about inclusivity. It’s about beauty,” said Rousteing.
Gaultier himself saw nothing prior to the show, preferring to be completely surprised. Instead, he sat front row, madly applauding and smiling at his favourite looks. “He didn’t want to talk about the collection. He didn’t want to know anything, he didn’t wanna see anything, until it was on the runway,” explained Rousteing.
“What I want people to take away from this collection is to understand me more without Balmain,” said Rousteing, who just celebrated a decade at the brand. “This is me on my own. This is what I want to show to the world as well. It's me.” If this show is any indication, it’s clear that there’s room for so much more from the young designer.
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