Chitose Abe and Jean Paul Gaultier

The battle for design talent now extends to temp workers — up to and including fashion’s uppermost echelons.

On Wednesday, Jean Paul Gaultier revealed that Sacai’s Chitose Abe would design his next couture collection, the first of a revolving cast of creatives he will invite to pick up his couture scissors each season.

It should be an enticing opportunity for younger designers to interpret Gaultier’s vast and eclectic oeuvre, achieved over a career spanning 50 years, and to take advantage of his atelier’s formidable know-how with tailoring and elaborately embellished flou.

Abe is certainly stoked.

“I have a long-held admiration for Jean Paul’s unique vision of subversive femininity and his originality, both of which I’ve strived towards in my work since the beginning,” she said in a statement released first to WWD. “It’s a true honor to be given the opportunity to be custodian of his house as the first designer of this project.”

Inviting serial collaborators instead of a permanent creative director is becoming an increasingly popular model, embraced by Moncler in recent years and more recently adopted by Emilio Pucci, whose first guest, Christelle Kocher, paraded her debut effort during Milan Fashion Week.

One-time collaborations are also multiplying in the luxury sector — even Ermenegildo Zegna is getting in the game setting the stage for feverish competition for a finite number of marquee names.

“What is changing is that we are moving from long  a few years — to short term — a season — collaborations,” observed Floriane de Saint Pierre, who operates an executive search and consulting firm in Paris. “A brand purpose is unique; however, a brand can be creatively expressed by a diversity of talents.

“What is really new is collaborations with social or environmental purpose,” she continued, citing as examples J.M. Weston’s new Vintage concept of upcycling and customizing old shoes, and also Moncler’s sustainability capsule.

To be sure, Gaultier’s proposal is unique in the rarified realm of couture, where strong personalities have long reigned.

Gaultier said the idea of different designers interpreting one couture brand came to him in the Nineties when one Paris house “found itself without a designer.”

He didn’t name names, though the house in question is believed to be Jean Patou, famously ignited by Christian Lacroix in the Eighties. (Gaultier also worked at Patou earlier in his career.)

He said he chose Abe as his first guest because “I admire her work, we have many things in common creatively and a similar vision of fashion. I am glad to give her the complete freedom.”

A Japanese designer who knows her way around sailor stripes and trench coats, Abe is to create the fall 2020 Gaultier couture collection, kicking off a new life for the house and adding another frisson of intrigue to the next high fashion week in Paris, scheduled for July 5 to 9.

WWD had pointed to serial collaborations as the way forward for the house last January, when Gaultier surprised the industry by revealing that his spring 2020 couture show would be his last.

Abe’s take on Gaultier’s couture will be closely watched, given her appeal among fashion and streetwear mavens, and the novelty of donning the couture cap for a one-off collection.

July’s couture week is shaping up as one of the most electric in years, headlined by the return of couture from Balenciaga, 52 years after Spanish master Cristóbal Balenciaga shuttered his house. It is said that Demna Gvasalia already had couture in mind when he joined Balenciaga in 2015, knowing the founder’s stature as the “couturier’s couturier.”

Gaultier was no slouch himself, daring to show men in skirts, women encased in fabrics like Christo artworks, and fantastical gowns that begged for the stage. He first joined the couture calendar in 1997.

Known for his catwalk shows merging fashion and guest performers, Gaultier ranks as one of Paris’ greatest showmen, breaking down gender barriers and helping to launch some of the industry’s biggest models.

And he certainly has no shortage of admirers in the fashion community — a ready-made pool of potential invitees.

Among designers who attended his swan-song couture last January and his last hurrah for ready-to-wear in 2014 were Nicolas Ghesquière, Dries Van Noten, Rick Owens, Alber Elbaz, Clare Waight Keller, Isabel Marant, Mary Katrantzou, Julie de Libran, Jeremy Scott, Gareth Pugh, Alexander Wang, and Walter Van Beirendonck.

Jean Paul Gaultier Couture Spring 2020

Jean Paul Gaultier Couture Spring 2020  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

Sacai is no stranger to collaborations, having teamed with Nike since 2014, Beats by Dr. Dre in 2019, Uggs in 2018 and The North Face in 2017.

She launched her label, Sacai, in Tokyo in 1999 with five styles, introduced her first men’s designs in 2006, but didn’t hold her first runway show until 2011.

She has since gained a cult following for her deconstructed yet surprisingly wearable clothes, created by combining contrasting textures and proportions, and splicing together elements of different garments to create something entirely new.

Model on the catwalk

A look from Sacai’s fall 2020 ready-to-wear show in Paris.  Dominique Maitre/WWD

“Ever since I started the brand, I have thought that I wanted to have a special kind of existence,” she said in a 2015 interview. “So I didn’t open my own shop [for a long time], and for example, it took a really long time for me to start doing runway shows. The reason for this is that I didn’t want to do things in a regular way, or in a way that everyone else was doing things. I was always thinking of a way I could do things that would go against people’s stereotypes or preconceived notions.”

In the same interview, she shared her views on collaborations.

“The basis for how I decide if I want to do a collaboration or not is just if it’s something I want or not — for example, things that I can’t make with Sacai,” she says. Her collaboration in 2014 with Birkenstock, she notes, came about because she wanted Birkenstocks that she would wear herself. “I’m very easy to understand — I just do what I like. That’s it.”

Before launching Sacai in 1999, Abe worked under Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe at Comme des Garçons.

One of France’s most iconic fashion figures, famous for his tattoo prints and a subversive streak exemplified by Madonna’s cone bra, Gaultier started his company in 1976, and catapulted the French capital’s reputation for fashion in the Eighties alongside fellow fashion mavericks Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler. He established his beauty business in 1991.

In 2014, the designer halted his ready-to-wear collections to focus on couture and beauty. He has yet to articulate his role in the brand now that he has stopped designing collections.

In recent years, Gaultier poured his energy into his acclaimed fashion exhibition and, more recently, cabaret work. The latter, “Fashion Freak Show,” debuted at the Folies Bergère in Paris in October 2018 and recently had a successful run in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. An international version of the sometimes raunchy autobiographical revue should start touring in about a year’s time.

He has also been tapped by a range of brands for collaborations, notably Supreme in April 2019, and China’s Bosideng for down jackets. Meanwhile, he has continued to collaborate with music greats, dressing Madonna and Mylène Farmer on their recent tours.

But fragrances — headlined by the women’s Classique scent and Le Mâle for men — remain the biggest and most successful part of the business, which is majority-owned by the Spanish group Puig.

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