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Jean Paul Gaultier SS94 Kate Moss tattoo tops
Kate Moss walking for Jean Paul Gaultier, SS94jeanpaulgaultier.com

Tattoos, illusions, and men in skirts: Jean Paul Gaultier’s fashion legacy

As the enfant-terrible of French fashion bows out of the Couture schedule, we take a deep dive into five trends he pioneered

On Wednesday night in Paris, iconoclastic French designer Jean Paul Gaultier took his final bow on the runway, rounding out a career which spanned five decades and saw him become one of fashion’s most influential and inventive designers, whose collections – a colourful blend of provocation, campy humour and all-out spectacle – mischievously flouted social norms. The joyful 200-look offering, modelled by the designer’s muses past and present, from Amanda Lear and Rossy de Palma to Anna Cleveland and Dita Von Teese, was essentially his greatest hits, and a fittingly grand finale for fashion’s perennial showman.

Gaultier may have founded his namesake label in 1976, but it was the late 1980s and early 1990s which saw the designer rise to a level of fame which stretched way beyond Paris’ then-stuffy fashion scene. Collections skewered gender binaries and cherry-picked from a diverse array of cultures, but always began with something Gaultier had seen on the street: from British punks and bourgeois businessmen, and even, controversially, orthodox Jewish rabbis. 

In doing so, he opened fashion’s once-shut doors to his colourful band of ‘fashion freaks’, filling his runways with a multitude of body shapes and races and ages; with drag queens and pop stars and actresses, long before this kind of casting became the norm. He put men in skirts and made sailor boys sexy, and when it came to women, to whom he was devoted, he knew that liberation didn’t simply mean a trouser suit: sensuality and exposure could mean freedom too. His legendary corsets put women firmly in control. 

“Gaultier was the first and last pop designer. He’s the Madonna of Haute Couture” – Thierry-Maxime Loriot

“Gaultier was the first and the last pop designer,” says Thierry-Maxime Loriot, curator of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, which ran at the Barbican in 2014. “He’s the Madonna of Haute Couture.”

The proof of his colossal impact remains in the simple fact that, decades on, people still want to wear his clothes. On Vestiaire Collective, sales of vintage Gaultier rose 40 per cent in 2019, while searches for his name hit 187 per cent. It’s in part, no doubt, down to Kim Kardashian’s predilection for his sheer body stockings, but also because his anarchic designs – with their disregard for the boundaries of gender or good taste – feel particularly primed for our current moment. “There’s a sense of ‘been there done that’ with modern designers that have prompted consumers to look back in time,” says Johnny Valencia of LA’s Pechuga Vintage. “Gaultier in this scope triumphs as an innovator and given the breadth of his work there is so much to choose from. His pieces make statements themselves.”

Here, in celebration of 50 years in the fashion game, we explore five trends that Gaultier did first: from man-skirts and tattoo tops, to elevated denim and runway diversity.

MEN IN SKIRTS

In 1985, Gaultier showed a collection titled Et Dieu Créa l'Homme (And God Created Man), for which male models wore wide-leg trousers, over which a wrapover panel gave the appearance that they were wearing skirts. He returned to the ‘man-skirt’ in various forms throughout his career – from printed sarongs, forever immortalised by 90s-era David Beckham to the kilt-like style the designer made his own personal uniform. And, though the garment certainly broke with gender conventions, Gaultier actually chose it for its ancient implications of virile masculinity.

“Historically men wearing skirts were something very powerful and very masculine,” explains Loriot. “Samurais were wearing robes and in Scotland you had the kilt. This was what excited Gaultier.” “Gaultier doesn’t claim to be neither political nor provocative,” adds Valencia. “But he does own up to being called a revolutionary; he acknowledges his constant desire to question society’s notion of what is deemed ‘acceptable’. I think his fearless attitude influenced the standard for the gender-neutral movement we’re currently witnessing in fashion.”

In the years since, numerous designers have had their own man-in-skirt moments, from Comme Des Garçons to Alexander McQueenMiguel Adrover to Walter van Beirendonck, alongside various cultural figures: Nirvana in Dries Van Noten, A$AP Rocky, and Kanye West, who wore a leather Givenchy kilt to promote Watch The Throne in 2011.

RUNWAY DIVERSITY

“He never made a choice to do it,” says Loriot of Gaultier’s always-diverse casting, which saw men and women found on the street walk on his runway alongside household names. “It was more that he was just obsessed with different types of beauty. He wanted to create a new normality; to say that there is not only one type of person, one type of femininity and masculinity.” 

All the way back in the 1980s, he placed an advertisement in a French newspaper, calling for: “Atypical models”, noting that “The facially disfigured should not refrain from applying”. His commitment to casting those traditionally left out of fashion has not wavered since, with trans models, models of colour and plus-size models walking season on season. “Gaultier stands out as being one of the first designers to showcase his work on real people,” says Valencia. “His celebration for the body and the pieces that adorn it are palpable.” In the years since, street casting has become the norm and runway diversity has – rightly – become one of fashion’s hot-button topics, but for Gaultier it was simple: he wanted his runway to be a reflection of the world in which he lived. 

TATTOO MOTIFS

It was actually Martin Margiela – himself a former intern of Jean Paul Gaultier – who first showed a ‘tattoo top’, a sheer pullover decorated with trompe l’oeil illustrations, giving the appearance of tattoos when worn, in 1989. But it was Gaultier – inspired after attending a tattoo convention in the UK – that pushed the idea even further with an SS94 collection titled Les Tatouages (in the collection models had other body modifications too, some real, some fake: from pierced nipples to noses) which paid ode to the transformative power of body art.

“He wanted it to have this realistic effect on the body and cheat the eye of the person who would wear it,” says Loiriot. “So many people did it again and even now, you have these little shops who sell these printed sleeves which look like people wearing tattoos, which I think is funny.” More recently, a number of brands have done their own take on the style, from Vetements – a knowing homage to Margiela – to Comme des Garçons, whose SS19 womenswear collection saw sheer bodysuits and dresses decorated with tattoo-esque images of roses.

UNDERWEAR AS OUTERWEAR

Gaultier may not have been the first to note the undergarment-as-outerwear’s capacity for shock – fellow provocateur Vivienne Westwood showed a silk bustier on top of a blouse as part of her AW82 collection Nostalgia of Mud – but Gaultier’s corsets remain the stuff of fashion lore. The corset fascinated Gaultier throughout his life – in the Barbican exhibition they displayed a teddy bear for which Gaultier had made a corset as a child. “His grandmother, who was very feminine, had all these corsets she had kept from the earlier days when she was young,” says Loriot. “He would see all these drawers and it was like a treasure chest. He was fascinated.”

His most famous underwear-as-outerwear moment was of course Madonna, though lingerie would appear in various forms throughout his career, including the pinched-waist, corseted torso of his Jean Paul Gaultier Classique perfume bottle, which now comes in over 50 different styles. Now, underwear-as-outerwear has become the norm, though a growing number of young designers – including British designer Charlotte Knowles and CSM-grad Nensi Dojaka, who will show as part of Fashion East this February – are pushing the genre into futuristic new forms. 

TROMPE L’OEIL

Befitting his role as Paris’ master showman, Gaultier loved the thrill of illusion, naturally drawn to the ancient art of trompe l’oeil: visual illusions which make a flat object appear three dimensional. He did it with clever prints which might make its wearer appear like they have perfect pecs; or would print one item of clothing onto another. 

“Trompe l’oeil is an easy way to layer, to embellish, and to fit into most anything you want,” says Valencia. “It’s a way for men and women to play with each other's clothing without necessarily having the proportions required to fit into them: I think of the 2015 collaboration with Beth Ditto wherein Gaultier designed a T-shirt with a print of a corset from his ‘Classique’ (bottle) – the back of the T-shirt featured actual adjustable corset laces.” 

It’s a technique replicated by numerous other designers in seasons since: from rumoured JPG successor Jacquemus’ trompe l’oeil pinstripe jumpsuits, printed with the outline of a dinner suit, Jeremy Scott’s cut-out dolls at Moschino, and London designer Stefan Cooke’s graduate collection, in which scans of everyday garments were printed onto his clothing, digitally warped to surreal effect.