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It’s a profound statement from a French fashion legend synonymous with unfettered self-expression — and foreshadowed a process of discovery for Rousteing, who has spent most of his fashion career at Balmain, which he has overhauled and energized in his image.
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“This collaboration helped me to understand who I am without Balmain,” Rousteing mused during an exclusive preview at Jean Paul Gaultier headquarters on Friday, the ateliers at peak concentration realizing his intricate designs. “My femininity here is different than at Balmain. My girl is more tough.”
The designer said he left the “party” atmosphere around Balmain out of the equation, and felt free to play with Gaultier’s innumerable codes, tailoring being a favorite. “I don’t think glamour will be the word that you will use for this collection,” he offered.
Rousteing clearly relished the opportunity, praising the capabilities of the atelier and the design studio, confessing he was sad the project was coming to an end.
To be sure, he came to the task with towering respect for Gaultier’s innumerable contributions to fashion.
“As a designer, he was really inspirational because he was one of the few designers that could be a creative director, but also iconic, known around the world and popular. His face was as known as his clothes,” Rousteing marveled, putting Gaultier in a rare league with Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld.
He also hailed Gaultier as a role model for generations of designers, including his.
“Today we are talking about inclusivity; we are talking about gender; we are talking about binaries; we’re saying that a man can dress as a woman and a woman can dress as a man; about the freedom to be who you want to be without the judgment of society. And clearly Jean Paul Gaultier did that way before all of us,” Rousteing said. “We talk about inclusivity and diversity. Look at his first shows!”
Rousteing also lauded Gaultier’s reputation for superb craftsmanship, and his wide spectrum of expression.
“He’s a perfectionist,” he enthused. “Jean Paul Gaultier can do the most incredible gown, but also the most incredible suit. He can do a corset and then an incredible menswear look for a woman. So I think this is where he’s a genius. There are very few designers who can do so many different garments and still be a perfectionist. His tailoring is as good as his dress; his lingerie is as good as his menswear pants. He can do the most extravagant gown, and also most incredible denim. He was one of the few designers at the time who was actually bringing codes from the street and playing with them in the couture.”
Rousteing also considers Gaultier a pioneer in bringing entertainment to the fashion show, with emotive and campy modeling and guest performers, from dancers and singers to global celebrities.
Cue Madonna, whose 1992 appearance on a Jean Paul Gaultier runway with her breasts exposed made international headlines, including in Rousteing’s conservative hometown of Bordeaux, France.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t really know about fashion, but you know more about music,” he said. “My parents were also obsessed with Madonna at the time. I also remember her wearing the bustier with the cone bra.” He was referring to her landmark “Blond Ambition” tour in the 1990s.
Fast-forward a few years when Rousteing was a young adult and Gaultier released Le Male, a men’s fragrance in a bottle shaped like a muscular male torso dressed in a tight sailor top.
“It was the first time that you could see a male designer who was playing with sexuality…playing with that macho man image that actually is not what you expect, so breaking the codes,” he said. “I think that was genius.”
Gaultier’s bestselling fragrances — Le Male and Classique — will figure as inspirations for Wednesday’s show alongside Madonna, yielding boots shaped like the tin-can packaging of the scents and some glass corsets closely resembling the flacons. Rousteing also found new ways to interpret Gaultier’s pin-striped and caged tailoring, sailor tops, corsets, tuxedos and trompe-l’oeil creations. “What I love about Jean Paul Gaultier is that a jacket can become pants, or pants can become a gown. Don’t take anything for granted,” he said.
Rousteing is the third guest designer — after Sacai’s Chitose Abe and Y/Project’s Glenn Martens — to interpret the rich legacy of Jean Paul Gaultier following his retirement from the runway in 2020 after an illustrious 50-year career.
Like his predecessors, Rousteing also created a ready-to-wear side project: a menswear collection inspired by Gaultier’s spring 1994 show that introduced his iconic tattoo prints, and references to piercings and other body art.
Rousteing confessed that he was initially “scared” when Gaultier approached him to design a one-off couture collection.
“This house is such a treasure that I didn’t want to f–k it up. I just want to make the best. I kept saying to him, ‘I just want you to be proud of this collection,'” he related.
While he offered to show Gaultier his designs, the founder resisted, telling Rousting, “I want to be surprised. But I’m sure it’s going to be amazing.”
Rousteing moonlighted on the side project while preparing multiple Balmain collections this spring, and had sketched about 200 haute couture looks by the time he entered Gaultier’s stately headquarters on the Rue Saint Martin in Paris. He subsequently visited the archive, but did not stray far from his original concepts and sketches.
His impression of the archival garments? “They’re even more beautiful in reality than in pictures,” he marveled. “You’re blown away because the pieces are just insanely well made. And they don’t get old.”
He urged a visitor to spend time with Emilien Boland, the head of the Gaultier studio, and sang the praises of everyone in the studio and atelier. “They are all insanely humble, kind, respectful, helpful and talented. I feel like it’s a family,” he said.
Rousteing is seen as an innovator among fashion designers for fully harnessing the power of social media at a time when many luxury brands were skeptical about Instagram, where Balmain’s creative director has more than 8 million followers.
“I love couture. And I think there was a bit of a confusion these last couple of years when people talked about Gen Z and Millennials and they just associated these people with sneakers and hoodies. I think they’re really mistaken,” he said. “Couture is about aspiration; couture is about breaking boundaries. You can do your craziest dream, what you can’t do in ready-to-wear.
“Also, I don’t think people realize you can achieve a lot of engagement on social media with couture, because the crazier you go, the more people are going to follow,” he added. “Couture is about bringing magic. That’s how I imagine my couture, bringing magic to the City of Light, to Paris.”
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