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Break Out Your Belly Shirts and Celebrate: Jean-Paul Gaultier Is Back

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To the savvy consumer, Jean-Paul Gaultier is one of the hottest brands in the world. That’s in spite of the fact that it hasn’t produced a ready-to-wear collection since 2014. Gaultier is consistently one of the best-selling vintage brands on The RealReal, where prices for its printed mesh tops and zany men’s tailoring seem to climb ever higher. Its influence is all over the buzziest new and emerging brands in fashion, from Marine Serre to Collina Strada. The clingy silhouette the brand championed for womenswear in the 1990s is now the category’s driving force, and its feminine vision for menswear—the designer was a devotee of men’s skirts and belly shirts—is setting the agenda there, too. And while some brands find that their secondary market appeal is just another trend, Gaultier seems to have a kind of archival staying power, with shoppers viewing the brand’s pieces more like collector’s items than faddish grails. (It’s been a staple at the highly influential vintage shop Procell since its opening, for example.) The clothing, with its singular silhouette and political undertones, really seems to mean something to fashion fanatics.

This has all happened basically without Gaultier producing product, aside from perfume and couture. There was a successful 2019 collaboration with Supreme, and an announcement last year that Gaultier himself would turn his couture collections over to a rotating cast of designers, with Sacai designer Chitose Abe up first. (That collection was meant to debut last year, but was pushed down the road due to Covid, and will now debut at the upcoming couture week in July.) Then, last week, Gaultier posted “The End” on Instagram, leading everyone to wonder if it was, well, the end.

As it turns out, it was quite the opposite. On Wednesday, the brand announced it was rebooting ready-to-wear with a new creative director, Florence Tétier, who made her name as a designer of mischievous, rococo jewelry firmly in the Gaultier mold, as well as the founder of Novembre Magazine. Tétier’s first collection arrived just days later, with a Friday drop of various interpretations of Gaultier’s sea-borne classics, like sailor stripe shirts, by five guest designers: Ottolinger, Palomo Spain, Marvin M’Toumo, Lecourt Mansion, and Alan Crocetti. There’s also an offering of vintage—most of which was sold out by late Friday morning—and recreations or reinterpretations of Gaultier grails, like his hot pink men’s sailor suit. The prices are right—almost nothing is more than 500 euros, and a number of pieces hover around 100. And the youth of the collaborators is admirable, too. Most of these designers are still in early seasons, and cult names to Gen Z, rather than the usual slate of fashion industry veterans. It’s a bit of a mixed offering, but the awesomely odd video, starring models Bella Hadid (who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Gautlier, according to brand CEO Antoine Gagey), Omar Sesay, and Qaher Harhash, and directed by Charlotte Wales, makes me eager to see more.

A designer digging into his archives is a cliche, though lately a trickier one. In 2018, Marc Jacobs  re-released his famous grunge collection; more recently, Matthew Williams, at Givenchy, retooled his predecessor Alexander McQueen’s pieces. This first Gaultier drop is somewhere in the middle. It’s a little confusing, but that’s fine. As Tétier told Vogue of the comeback’s logic, “It’s very simple: People want to wear Gaultier.” And Gaultier’s pulling out all the stops to let them. In other words: a fashion brand’s decisions have once again been driven by consumer demand. But you wish there were a little more to it than that. And, indeed, there may be.

A still from the Jean-Paul Gaultier campaign film directed by Charlotte Wales.Courtesy of Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Increasingly, brands are finding themselves competing with their own pasts. When vintage versions of your classics are trading hands online for crazy sums (none of which you receive), what do you do? Raf Simons began reissuing his archival grails this past year, while Prada has reworked many of its classics into its collections, and Maison Margiela is churning out every possible iteration of the Tabi shoe. Even Louis Vuitton is reissuing the bags that Jacobs made during his tenure with the brand. It makes you wonder if even today’s least-loved products will, eventually, get their 15 minutes of archival fame. Will those bizarro Jeff Koons Vuitton bags be the classics of the next decade?

Fashion has always been about making something new, even when it’s reintroducing something old. But now it seems newness is suspect. It would be optimistic (even borderline delusional) to call this new model a triumph of sustainability, or the result of a more thoughtful consumer. As trend cycles collapse and the drop model turns shopping into an endless churn of products, novelty in fashion is being replaced with scarcity. Fashion, or consumer culture, is longer about getting the latest thing but getting the least available thing.

There’s something a little algorithmic about it, maybe—the stultifying notion that if you like something, you’ll like more of the exact same thing—but with clothes, in particular, it feels bigger than that. Is it a change in the very function of fashion into a platform that is driven by the whims and interests of consumers instead of designers’ ideas? If so, are we soon going to run out of brands to revive? Or is this what happens when brands stop having the energy, or courage, to have new ideas?

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