Jean Paul Gaultier met Chitose Abe of Sacai in person for the first time about three years ago on a trip to Tokyo and the two designers remember bonding over Gaultier’s favourite cake—lychee and rose macarons from Pierre Hermé Paris. “With food, we are always fusing different ingredients together to create something new,” Gaultier muses. “The same can be said for architecture when a building is renovated or extended, and in fashion when a designer takes over a house.” Now the time has come for Gaultier to hand over the creative reins of his eponymous house, and on 7 July, Abe revealed the Gaultier Paris by Sacai AW21 haute couture collection.
It was a year ago in March, shortly after his spectacular 50th-anniversary show at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, that Gaultier, 69, announced his new concept for Jean Paul Gaultier Couture. Every season, a designer Gaultier admires will be invited to create a collection, starting with Abe. Looking to the Gaultier archive, Abe reinterpreted the house codes in her own vision: pathworking chiffon together to resemble a tartan kilt; platform boots, designed in partnership with Pierre Hardy, are inspired by the corset worn by Madonna on her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, and silk is emblazoned with tattoo prints—a nod to his SS94 Les Tatouages collection.
A few days before the show, we spoke to Gaultier and Abe via Zoom to hear about their route to the AW21 collection and discuss the meaning of couture today.
Can you remember when you first encountered one another’s work and why it resonated with you?
Chitose Abe (CA): “I was really young when I first encountered Mr Gaultier’s work and I remember thinking that we both think outside of what is considered ‘normal’. For example, Mr Gaultier was often putting male models in skirts, which wasn’t something other designers were doing [in 1985 when Gaultier presented his Et Dieu Créa l’Homme (And God Created Man) collection].”
Jean Paul Gaultier (JPG): “I saw an image of a Sacai sailor dress, which had lace on the back and thinking, ‘My God, who made that?’ because it was a big contrast to what I had done with La Marinière. Good designers always propose something new, something different. When I went to Tokyo, I saw her way of working and the beautiful fabrications, and it stayed with me.”
Good designers always propose something new, something different.
Jean Paul, how did you reach the decision that you wanted different designers to take the helm of Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture each season?
JPG: “When Christian Lacroix left Patou [in 1987] to start his own house, I thought it would be a good idea for different designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Thierry Mugler to design the collection each season. I was just an assistant at the time and when I took the idea to my boss, they said it was too expensive. Now, it’s my turn, and I want someone I admire to bring their view to Gaultier. When I was [artistic director] at Hermès [2003 to 2010], my style was almost the opposite of that of Hermès. I enjoy seeing what happens when a designer assumes the spirit of a house.”
Chitose, how did the research and design process compare to your approach at Sacai?
CA: “Mr Gaultier gave me complete freedom to design what I want, so we actually didn’t have a dialogue during the creative process. I didn’t need to do a lot of research as I had so many memories of his amazing collections. We had the chance to see the archive pieces, which made our creative process and understanding of his work deeper. I just needed to reimagine them in the Sacai way.”
Why was it important for you to give Chitose full creative control rather than designing the collection in collaboration, Jean Paul?
JPG: “The role of fashion in general, not couture specifically, is to reflect on what’s happening in society—it’s the fruit of what’s happening around the designer. A designer is almost like a medium, they are [anticipating] what people will love even if they don’t realise it; it’s an experiment at first and if you hit the right point, it becomes a trend. But the designer must have the freedom to do what they believe in.”
Chitose, how did you capture the “enfant terrible” spirit of Jean Paul Gaultier and meld it with your own aesthetic sensibilities? And Jean Paul, how do you feel about the sobriquet “enfant terrible”?
CA: “We share many common spirits—enfant terrible is one of them! It wasn’t difficult for me to understand [Gaultier’s] aesthetic sensibilities.”
JPG: “Enfant terrible un jour, enfant terrible toujours! [Terrible child one day, terrible child always!]”
A designer is almost like a medium, they are [anticipating] what people will love even if they don’t realise it; it’s an experiment at first and if you hit the right point, it becomes a trend.
How did the collaboration develop with designer Pierre Hardy on the shoes?
CA: “We’ve worked together in the past and Pierre has been a great friend since. I respect and completely trust his aesthetic, so working with him was actually very easy. He is the master of shoes and I’m grateful that he agreed to work on this project.”
What commonalities have you identified in the way you and Jean Paul design?
CA: “Mr Gaultier designed a dress in a marine stripe with a tattoo print on the back; you would never expect it. At Sacai, we do hybridisation of garments to create something completely new. It’s less about the technical details, and more about these sources of inspiration and a spirit of how I design the clothes that I have in common with Mr Gaultier.”
There are denim jeans upcycled into coats, a gown made from suit jackets and bleu de travail (work overalls) throughout the AW21 collection. Where do you think your interest in repurposing garments comes from?
JPG: “My parents were quite poor, and they told me stories about the post-war period—my mother would take my father’s trousers and turn them into skirts. I loved this idea and when I started out as a designer, I had no money so I would join different garments together to make something new. People have to find beauty in upcycled denim the same way they have to find beauty in their wrinkles. We are living in a time when it’s important to appreciate the sense of old mixed with the new.”
CA: “It’s not easy to make an entirely upcycled collection because we have to supply demand, but at Sacai we are working on a project called Zantan, which means leftover fabric, where we use remnants to make tote bags, slippers and so on. It doesn’t come out every season, just as and when we have enough leftover fabric.”
We are living in a time when it’s important to appreciate the sense of old mixed with the new.
What is the purpose of haute couture 2021 and what do you want to bring to the art form?
CA: “Sacai is a ready-to-wear brand and when the conversation with Mr Gaultier started, I wasn’t sure what I could do for couture because I’d never done it before. While we don’t focus our designs on a specific client, as is the case with couture, at the same time we don’t mass produce; we put creativity first and this collection is the same direction I’ve been going in with Sacai. I like to provide people with options so they can choose what to wear—I don’t want to define their style.”
JPG: “Couture was always supposed to be about creativity. In the 1980s, designers like Rei Kawakubo [of Comme des Garçons] started to bring couture to prêt-à-porter [ready to wear] to create a sort of luxury prêt-à-porter—it’s not made to order, but it’s extremely good quality. Chitose really designs in the couture spirit, and this approach speaks to more people.”
You celebrated your 50th anniversary last year, Jean Paul. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the fashion industry over the course of your career?
JPG: “Big groups with marketing and marketers changed everything. So, I decided it was time for me to stop fashion and let the new generation express themselves.”