176 looks. 50 years of fashion. One iconic runway show. That’s how you end a career. Or, more aptly, that’s how iconic fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier retires.

The final collection of any famed designer is always one met with sadness … Will anyone have a voice in fashion like them again? Will they be remembered? Who will be the next designer to take their place?

As for Gaultier, no … yes … and it’s far too soon to tell. But instead of filling the room with sadness, the French designer instead chose to put on a massive celebration inside the hallowed halls of Théâtre du Châtelet that saw every friend, every muse walk the runway in Spring-Summer 2020 haute couture looks that echoed the design elements that made him infamous. The show literally started with a mock funeral helmed by supermodel Karlie Kloss and ended with the designer himself descending the stairs surrounded lovingly by his famille de la mode. And to the tunes of Mr. Boy George, naturally.

Gaultier has been breaking fashion barriers since he presented his first collection in 1976 so it was quite a feat for him to outdo his well-known love of the dramatic. But, with this show, that’s exactly what he did.

The looks presented in the collection were so many it would take a keen fashion historian to note every nod, every wink. But here are some that stood out the most.

The main theme centered around upcycling – taking classic dressing elements and presenting them in his irreverent style. Structured silhouettes reminiscent of Dior’s 1950s New Look were placed on top of corsets so models were not so much wearing them as they were presenting them to the world as they sashayed the t-shaped runway.

Ties were sewn together to form patchwork-style catsuits, overalls and skirts. Belts – in almost comical sizes – were wrapped into bandeau style dresses and weaved into corsetry and power suits. Leather jackets were cut and re-imagined as a mini-bolero jacket and inlaid skirt. Denim was slashed in order to be presented as man skirts, high-low pants and as exaggerated exoskeleton cages – showing his adoration for and mastery of corsets in an innovating, yet opposite way. These outer shapes would be present throughout the collection in various storylines. The classic tuxedo, acting as a nod to Gaultier’s supreme tailoring skills, were cut with pieces missing allowing the crisp white shirts to shine through.

Classic French nautical wear was played up in purely over-sized exaggeration with a particular highlight being a finely pleated ivory silk top with vibrant French blue stripes, cut in an upside down triangle so the yoke of the collar framed model Gigi Hadid’s face like a wave coming off the tide. Add to that a white pleated bell-bottom pant and a sailor hat to top it off, the look was pure beauty in motion.

A striking oversized, three-tiered tent dress was presented in the unmistakable colors of the French flag. Fun fact:  that dress was modeled by Iris Mittenaere, Miss France and Miss Universe 2016.

Metal armor appeared in many designs as the collection progressed in an Etruscan tour de force. Metal breast plates to mirror a man’s torso, elegant arm and ankle bands, even a cone bra like the one Gaultier created for Madonna in her heyday.

As the collection went further into every aspect of the designer’s portfolio of what he does best, the looks went from being presented by theme to being presented by color. Electric blue turned to ethereal, lace-lined white to fairy-like yellow to sophisticated, leather bound camel. Then, in quick succession, from embellished dusty pink to frothy purple to phoenix-like orange and the boldest of reds.

The over 30-minute runway show culminated in a series of playfully dark looks that would find a perfect home in an upscale Burning Man exhibit – strong corsetry meets ornate embroidery with flourishes of silk and shredded ballgowns.

Breathtaking is the only way to way to properly describe this collection just because of the sheer (no pun intended) amount of work that went into each and every intricate detail. But, more so than Gaultier’s stunning talent, was the family he brought together to honor his life’s work. It was like a living, breathing celebration of a man who lived his truth for more than four decades and opened so many doors for others to do the same.

While certainly not gone, Gaultier’s retirement from the fashion industry will be felt. Hopefully more designers will challenge the status quo as he always has. They say art has a way of moving society forward faster than most are comfortable with. Gaultier embodied that spirit and his take on the world will be sorely missed.

–Jennifer Perusek

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