Jean Paul Gaultier’s decision to shutter his ready-to-wear label after more than three decades may not trigger a wave of copycat defections, but it should give the industry pause for thought.
At his farewell show during Paris Fashion Week in September, some of his contemporaries analyzed his departure as a victory for commerce over art, while fellow designers of all ages mulled the implications.
Veteran consultant Jean-Jacques Picart called it the defining moment of the year.
“Jean Paul Gaultier shuttering his ready-to-wear label is like a warning shot,” he said. “It forces us all to ask ourselves profound questions about the way we produce ready-to-wear. I think it was the strongest signal of 2014, and I’m a bit worried for anyone who didn’t hear it.”
News of the downsizing came three years after Puig, the Spanish fragrance and fashion group, acquired a majority stake in the Gaultier house, and pointed to challenging times for midsize players in an era of megabrands with global store networks.
Domestic sales of clothing have been on a steady downward slope since the start of the economic crisis six years ago.
“We have witnessed a 20 percent decline in value terms in the market for women’s ready-to-wear since 2008,” noted François-Marie Grau, managing director of the French Women’s Ready-to-Wear Federation.
At the same time, the number of new labels, many of them in the fast-growing contemporary segment, have crowded the playing field — not to mention the proliferation of resort collections, capsule lines and collaborations.
“There are too many brands, too many collections. There is a kind of saturation,” Picart said. “There is a lot of pressure on designers. It’s a bit like a singer who is on tour. If he tours too much, he becomes tired and his performances begin to suffer. People ask too much of designers.”
While the multitasking Gaultier is known for his hands-on approach, he always has delegated the manufacturing of his rtw collections to licensees, most recently to Italy’s Gibò Co. SpA, his original partner in the Eighties.
“The way Jean Paul produced ready-to-wear was probably a legacy of the Eighties, and maybe it was in need of updating for some time. It’s not a question of talent. I remain convinced that Jean Paul still has the talent to make extremely desirable clothes, but I think the way his talent is managed needs to be rethought,” Picart said.
Gaultier has not spoken about his decision since his intentions were revealed in September.
“I love fashion but not the route it is taking,” the designer told WWD at the time, lamenting how the business has morphed into an industrial machine that demands constant deliveries and product extensions but leaves designers less and less time to innovate. “It comes to a point where you don’t even have time to think.”
Gaultier is now channeling his energy into his haute couture and perfume activities, in addition to side projects including stage costumes. His most recent venture is a collaboration with Eastpak on a line of backpacks inspired by some of his catwalk creations, including biker jackets, bomber jackets, jean jackets and pilot uniforms.
Word of his departure has fueled renewed interest in his designs, according to Sophie Waintraub, general manager of Jean Paul Gaultier.
“In the showroom, it was business as usual. By contrast, since the announcement of the end of ready-to-wear, we have seen a genuine resurgence in terms of the final consumer. We have really been feeling the impact in our stores,” she said.
Foot traffic in the brand’s directly operated stores is up 40 percent compared to the same period last year, and sales have increased in the low double-digits, even before the final spring collection is delivered, Waintraub revealed.
“We have really seen a strong response from customers who are very attached to the brand,” she noted.
The former enfant terrible of French fashion is not the first to voluntarily step away from the business. Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester are among those who have chosen to explore new creative paths.
And then there’s the tragedy of Alexander McQueen, who, from a mix of work pressures and personal demons, took his own life. Or John Galliano, who spectacularly flamed out at Dior, citing substance addictions and a relentless creative pace, and recently surfaced as creative director of Martin Margiela.
Picart likes to think that Gaultier has not pressed the “stop” button, but merely hit “pause.” He noted that despite the designer’s reputation as an eccentric, Gaultier remains a couturier at heart, having started his career at Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou.
“I can’t imagine it’s the end of Gaultier’s ready-to-wear activity. I think it’s a pause and that this ready-to-wear can return with a new look and a new strategy,” Picart said.
Pointing to Gaultier’s luxurious collections during his stint as artistic director of Hermès, Picart said he is convinced there is a market for a very high-end Gaultier rtw line bordering on couture.
He pointed out that there is even an in-house precedent for reviving and repositioning a dormant line: Puig relaunched Paco Rabanne rtw in 2011 after a five-year hiatus.
Picart concluded, “Jean Paul’s talent deserves a second episode.”