Wit! Romance! Femininity! The designers talk with Fashion Critic-at-Large Katharine K. Zarrella about the state of haute couture for Document’s Spring/Summer 2024 issue

What is the point of haute couture today? Pose this question to any highfalutin fashion insider and you’ll invariably get this breathy reply: “To make us dream!” Okay, but you could say the same thing about Ambien. And while an haute couture gown can cost well into the six figures, insurance generally covers prescription sedatives. In this economy, couture might need a more compelling raison d’être.
The year following his retirement from design in 2020, the now 72-year-old Jean Paul Gaultier focused his energy on giving haute couture new life—or, rather, on giving young, fresh-faced designers a chance to craft haute couture with the help of his robust atelier.

Gaultier, or JPG as his many fans call him, launched his subversive, gender-bending eponymous brand in the 1970s after working for mega-maisons including Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou. In the incredibly unlikely event you don’t know his name, you’ve certainly seen his stage designs for Madonna (cone bra, anyone?), with whom he began collaborating in the 1990s. He debuted his own haute couture range in 1996, and now lends his vast resources to emerging or independent talents. Each season, he hand-picks a designer, opens his archive and atelier, and gives them free rein to design an haute couture collection that interprets his unmistakable design DNA through their own lens. For Spring 2024, Gaultier chose London-based, Irish-Chinese designer Simone Rocha, whose feminine clothes are equally subversive, if more earnestly poetic, as his.

The term “haute couture” is often employed incorrectly and tossed about sloppily. Many believe it to be a pretentious French moniker for “high fashion.” In fact, haute couture is a super-specific form of bespoke fashion that must adhere to a flurry of strict rules, which were first set by France’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 1945. Indeed, the whole thing sounds inherently Parisienne, but haute couture’s godfather is the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth who, in the 19th century, produced astonishingly luxurious clothes for astonishingly wealthy women, including Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugénie.

Designers such as Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Paul Poiret, Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Madeleine Vionnet helped carry this painstaking, bank-breaking tradition into the 20th century. But by the mid-century, haute couture devolved into a staid, un-innovative category largely reserved for monied sorts who feared the future.

That’s why, when he broke out on his own in the ’70s, Gaultier eschewed couture in favor of an edgier, more accessible ready-to-wear line. At that time, haute couture “was completely out,” said Gaultier during a recent Zoom call. “The only couturier doing anything interesting was Saint Laurent. The others had nothing to say. All those houses were dying.” And, frankly, so were their clients. Gaultier wanted to make clothes for the living—exciting, “energetic” outfits that reflected the underground cultures in London and Paris. Gaultier and his peers—Claude Montana, Thierry Mugler—understood that “the young wanted something else. In Swinging London you had the mini skirt, and you had Mary Quant. [André] Courrèges was doing very structured things. You had Vivienne Westwood who was sublimely creative.” By the ’80s, Japanese designers like Comme des Garçons’s Rei Kawakubo, Kenzō Takada, and Yohji Yamamoto brought new techniques and concepts of beauty to Paris. “It was a revolution,” said Gaultier. These clothes “were not just for high society. They were for new generations that were thinking more intellectually and seeing things in a different way. It was luxury, but not luxury.” At the time, most of these brands were technically selling ready-to-wear. But, in Gaultier’s opinion, “this was the new couture.”

And yet, in the late ’90s, a well-established Gaultier introduced his own (literal) haute couture line. At the time, the craft was experiencing something of a renaissance. Stuffy, expensive couture for stuffy, expensive women still existed, sure. But a new crop of couturiers was turning out extravagant, expressive (and still pricey) confections that flagrantly defied convention and propriety. In the late ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s, the likes of John Galliano, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and Gaultier all adhered to the Chambre Syndicale’s exacting rules while challenging the status quo.

Left: Hunter wears dress by
Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture by Simone Rocha Right: Hunter wears
dress and earrings by
Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture by Simone Rocha.

That type of couture, Gaultier said, “is creativity.” Even today, “people come to see something that will make them dream,” he added in a remarkably unbreathy tone. Then he offered a more grounded take: “Couture has to be creative because it’s a kind of advertising and publicity to sell the perfume. If you show something that has no interest or that’s already been done, it’s not good for the brand.”

Like his own former couture line, Gaultier’s guest-designer program—including Rocha’s installment—skews on the dreamier side, a luxury likely afforded by decades of through-the-roof perfume sales. And, for a man who has built his empire on a very specific, very recognizable aesthetic (only mimes would think of anything other than Gaultier when spying a Breton-striped shirt), he affords his visitors near-total creative freedom. “All I do is choose the designer,” said Gaultier. “I quit [design]. I don’t want to do the job anymore. I think [the couture line] can go on, but the point is not to give my advice,” he said. “When I started, I did it by myself. I have no brother, no sister, so I don’t know how to play with others. Designing is a lonely job, but not a sad one. It’s marvelous.” Even so, Gaultier doesn’t entirely ice out his couture newbies. He takes each one out to lunch before sharing the keys to his atelier.

During their kickoff meal in Paris, Rocha recalled that they barely discussed her guest collection. Instead, “we talked about family, life, his projects, my projects, what we would have for dessert.” (They opted for strawberry sorbet.)

“The cynic would say couture is for attention,” said Rocha. “Attention for the house or for the client. But after going through this process, I feel it’s about love, passion, and keeping craftsmanship present today.” Fashion was once an apprenticeship-based industry. Mentors would pass on the secrets of various stitches, patterns, and techniques to their protogés. Today, technology has democratized and evolved design, but it’s also made this sharing of generational knowledge scarce. “In [Gaultier’s] atelier, it was all ages, different generations, creating these beautiful things for individuals who will love and respect their piece forever,” said Rocha.

Rocha began working on her haute couture debut last summer. In January, she presented the final product—a playful amalgamation of wit, romance, eroticism, and femininity—at Gaultier’s Paris headquarters. “I think we both celebrate the woman—her beauty, her flaws, her breasts, her hips,” said Rocha of her and Gaultier’s common ground. While poring over the JPG archives, Rocha honed in on the brand’s signature corsetry and lingerie, which she then distorted to achieve uncanny proportions. Thanks to caged panniers, the hips of her diaphanous gowns—deliciously unhinged takes on her characteristically demure fare—protruded dramatically. Various underpinnings were stuffed or reshaped to distort the pelvis, hips, and other erogenous zones.

“I wondered, would it feel powerful rather than exposing?” mused Rocha. Her silhouettes recalled those in Comme des Garçons’s seminal 1997 “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” collection (aka “Lumps and Bumps”), which desexualized the female form’s most erotic curves by cheekily mangling them. Rocha’s shapes also predicted the magnified hips, bums, and haute merkins (yes, pubic wigs) that would debut at John Galliano’s critically acclaimed Margiela couture show a day later. “Maybe,” Rocha posited, the re-emergence of such shapes “is about women claiming their womanhood and celebrating their own form, and playing with it, rather than trying to fit into someone else’s regimented, commercial idea.”

Left: Wali wears dress, shoes, and earrings by Je n Paul Gaultier Haute Couture by Simone Rocha Right: Wali wears dress by Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture by Simone Rocha.

For Rocha, working in dialogue with Gaultier’s aesthetic was “weirdly very freeing.” She relished studying Gaultier’s couture techniques. And the process, she said, “gave me an opportunity to slow down and really look and think about each piece, as they are all so individualistic.”

“When I accepted to be the guest, I said to myself, ‘I really want to really love every piece, and if I like it, Robbie [Spencer, my stylist] likes it, Mr. Gaultier likes it, and my parents like it, that will be enough,’” she said. “Luckily, they did. And a few more [did too]! It was really a gift.”

“I was completely emotional when I saw it,” said Gaultier. “It was like watching my babies grow up.”

Rocha’s creations were exquisite—dreamy designs befitting a prima ballerina gone rogue. But, for all the love, effort, and handiwork that went into them, these pieces are destined to end up in more museums than closets. So again, what’s the point?

Today, haute couture can be divided into two categories. In the first, you’ll find technically flawless custom clothes that are costly, conventionally lovely, and a bit dull. These are purchased by monied folks in search of status and fashion week tickets, or women who simply have enough disposable income to splurge on immaculately assembled garments that cost about as much as a single-family home in Akron, Ohio.

The second category comprises spectacular, sculptural works of quasi-wearable art that embody beauty to the extreme, dole out fearless cultural commentary, and remind us that, fueled by a little inspiration, human hands can create some fucking unbelievable things that—ugh, yes—make us dream. And probably help hawk perfume.

“I think people will always want and appreciate cherished things made by real hands,” said Rocha, who’s optimistic about haute couture’s future. Fashion is “always changing. It reflects time periods and the mood.” And today, she said, its “magic comes from identity, from designers who can only make the clothes that are undeniably them [and cast] their own spell.”

“I’m not a prophet,” said Gaultier when asked if haute couture will endure. “Fashion is a reflection of society. It will depend [on] what’s going on in the world.”

Haute couture—specifically, the unstuffy version—will last for at least one more season. For his next guest designer, Gaultier recently tapped Courregès’s creative director Nicolas Di Felice, who will unveil his interpretation of Gaultier’s codes in July. “I can only say that I like his work and I asked him to do [this] as himself,” not as the creative director of Courregès, Gaultier explained. “I think he’ll do something personal.” Perhaps there could also be a fragrance deal in Di Felice’s future. Or a lucrative collaboration with Ambien.

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