Jean Paul Gaultier: With apologies to Little Orphan Annie, couture, too, can be a hard-knock life. Certainly the recent announcement of a restructuring plan at Jean Paul Gaultier, which includes laying off 31 employees, must have impacted the designer as he readied his spring collection. According to a staff member, preparations for the couture show ran behind schedule, and, when Gaultier presented his collection on Wednesday, it lacked the intrigue with which he generally tackles the genre.

Gaultier revisited one of his favorite themes, tribal Africa, giving expression to boning, beadwork and even masks with his typical exquisite craftsmanship, but without bringing much new to the party. The clothes didn’t look rushed, exactly — Gaultier’s are far too intricate to rush — but their overall mood felt less than fresh. African themes peppered last season’s ready-to-wear, not to mention Gaultier’s couture last spring. This wouldn’t have mattered if he had managed to infuse the collection with the full, abundant force of his quite remarkable imagination. Or his playfulness. Instead, the mood felt oddly heavy within the context of this otherwise airy season, and produced one wince-provoking moment when a model sported an enormous bag decorated with a full tortoiseshell.  

Still, one could only admire the ongoing chic of Gaultier’s tailoring. He went classic with ivory-on-brown pinstripes; classic-plus with a white pantsuit, its jacket inset with strands of ivory beads, and spectacularly nautical in a curvy pea jacket with a sweeping collar worn over pants. Evening was tougher, with a lovely silk floral amid too many statement dresses that lacked clear messages. Gaultier did amaze with several that featured tribal masks worked into the body of the dress. Yet, though marvels of construction in mousseline jersey as well as organza, these should have been edited down to a one-time punctuation, and, in the end, could not masquerade as Gaultier’s best work.

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