If Jean Paul Gaultier was sad to shutter his ready-to-wear label after 32 years, it didn’t show.
Smeared with lipstick kisses, the French designer appeared to be elated as he emerged from behind the velvet curtain onto the stage of the Grand Rex theater, moments after a confetti rain ended his final rtw show—an over-the-top beauty pageant involving footballers’ wives, older women and a campy Rossy de Palma.
This story first appeared in the November 17, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I love fashion but not the route it is taking,” Gaultier told WWD in September, 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.”
No doubt the French designer’s hands-on approach—and a reluctance to delegate—figured into this decision. “I love to do collections myself,” he said.
Gaultier said he looks forward to doing “different things,” including stage costumes, bigger couture collections and devoting himself to fragrance creation and advertising. He also wants to do collaborations with big groups such as the Swedish retailer Lindex, which tapped him for a holiday collection to fete its 60th anniversary.
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.
Vincent Grégoire, creative director at trend forecasting agency NellyRodi, said the job of the designer has changed dramatically in recent years, and Gaultier simply wouldn’t evolve with the times.
“Today, we ask too much of designers,” said Grégoire, noting they are now more like product managers.
“He is one of the last products of a generation who did what they wanted, how they wanted. That’s not the way people work anymore. I think it’s damaging because you have collections that look alike, produced by anonymous whiz kids who tick all the boxes and please marketing, management and investment funds,” Grégoire added.
“Before, everything started with design. Nowadays, it’s sometimes the very last step of the process. That represents a huge handicap for people who grew up knowing only how to operate creatively. Jean Paul is a great technician, but that’s no longer enough,” he observed. “Things go so fast that you have to be able to transform yourself, learn a new trade and [develop] your know-how, and there is a whole generation that is finding this incredibly hard.”
Gaultier loyalists who turned out for the show lauded him for opting out.
“I love that, again, he’s breaking a rule, and he’s making the choice to work on the most artistic sense of what he does,” said costume designer Arianne Phillips, who has worked with Gaultier on Madonna’s tour costumes.
“It’s bittersweet for the Everywoman or the Everyman to [no longer] be able to wear the clothes,” she said. “So, hopefully, he’ll have some more tricks up his sleeve for later on, but for now it’s the end of an era and, hopefully, the beginning of a new one.”
Rick Owens argued that Gaultier’s decision should not be read as an indictment of the system, adding, “I think he just did what was right for him. That doesn’t mean it needs to become a new rule.”
Owens feels the market’s constant demand for fresh merchandise need not stifle creativity. “On the contrary, it can stimulate a new approach. I see it as evolution. I don’t think real creativity can be stifled,” he said. Asked if young designers now have to pick between art and commerce, he said, “It’s up to the new generation to surprise us with a response.”