PARIS — The one-time enfant terrible of French fashion, Jean Paul Gaultier, embraced his age, sending out a fall-winter 2011-12 ready-to-wear collection Saturday that pushed back against Botox, fillers and the chimera of eternal youth and declared gray beautiful.
Gaultier also gave a measured reaction to the high-drama saga that has riveted the fashion world for the past week — the fall of brilliant Dior designer John Galliano, who was sacked Tuesday after 15 years with the luxury supernova amid allegations he made anti-Semitic insults. The scandal, with its airs of Greek tragedy, has cast a pall over Paris' ready-to-wear shows and elicited a wide gamut of reactions from industry insiders, from catty remarks from some to impassioned pleas in Galliano's defense from others.
"Everything that he has ever done shows him to be not a racist, but just the opposite," Gaultier told reporters after his show.
Asked about a video that went viral on the internet that shows an inebriated Galliano, drinking alone at a Paris bar, telling the people at the next table "I love Hitler," Gaultier said, "I think that with video we can make people say things they really didn't. He said certain words, but in what context, what questions did they ask him, how long did it last?
"The only harm he's done to anyone is to himself," said Gaultier. "I find it really quite sad," he said, adding fashion "is a pitiless milieu."
Dior went ahead with its runway show on Friday, showing the Galliano-designed collection sans the designer — who is rumored to be in rehab in Arizona — and his signature John Galliano line is to be shown in a presentation to certain media outlets on Sunday.
Saturday, then, provided a brief respite from the all-consuming story.
Besides Gaultier's gray behive-topped collection, inventive Dutch duo Viktor & Rolf sent out a battle-ready looks that looked like what Joan of Arc would have worn to a cocktail party. France's reigning queen of knitwear, Sonia Rykiel, sent out an outwear-focused collection, while Japan's Tsumori Chisato sent out wacky, colorful knits that appeared aimed at dethroning Rykiel. That most Parisian of labels, Azzaro, continued to churn out little black dresses that hit the sweet spot between modesty and sexiness.
Newcomer Caroline Seikaly — whose abbreviated cocktail dress in Solstice lace became an instant hit after Madonna wore it to a Marc Jacobs fashion show last year — presented 14 looks that proved she can do more than just ultra-feminine dresses. The 37-year-old Franco-Libano-American, who divides her time between Paris and Beirut, sent out slick, glam rock pant- and short-suits in silver jacquard and gold lame. Seikaly paging David Bowie.
Paris' nine-day-long ready-to-wear marathon moves into the final stretch with an action-packed day six including shows by Hermes, Celine and Kenzo, as well as the much-anticipated presentation at John Galliano and the Givency display by Riccardo Tisci, a preternaturally talented Italian who's the rumor mill's top contender to replace Galliano at Dior.
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER
Instead of fighting its age, Gaultier's collection embraced it.
"It was about women who say 'I don't want to look like my teenage daughter,'" Gaultier told journalists in a post-show interview. "It's the 'bourgeoisie sans age,'" a catchy rhyme in French that translates, flatly in English, as the ageless bourgeois lady.
The 46-year-old French actress Valerie Lemercier opened the show, a modest affair by the standards of the man who gave the world Madonna's pointy-cone bra as daywear and has made a career out of showing skin.
Still, just because the collection had embraced middle age — and covered up — doesn't mean it resigned itself to dowdiness. Models peeled off layer after layer as they walked, removing their gloves, tossing their scarves into the crowd and shrugging off trompe l'oeil trenchcoats that mimicked men's pinstriped suits and even a tuxedo to reveal '70s-inspired jumpsuits in eyepopping prints shot with glinting Lurex.
The action was lost on many in the audience, though, because the house didn't install the raised runway that usually affords the whole crowd a good head-to-toe view. This season, the models walked on floor-level, reducing the show to a parade of the oversized gray beehive wigs for all but those in the front row.
VIKTOR & ROLF
Marauding medieval barbarians had nothing on these girls.
The drawbridge installed at the top of the catwalk clanked as it lowered to reveal models in silver lame cocktail dresses that had the menacing shine of battle-ready suits of armor, blouses with sleeves bristling with stiff pleated ruffles, like serrated knives, and outerwear emblazoned with oversized disks evoked razor-edged throwing stars.
A dress in black knit bisected by a red cross, with two red roses, looked like the flag of some warring kingdom. Pleated pencil skirts in hefty black leather looked sturdy enough to resist a battle ax.
It was like what Joan of Arc would wear to a cocktail party.
And with that war paint, she'd be sure to make a big entrance: The model's faces were entirely slathered in red body paint.
The Dutch duo had been obsessed with volume of late, sending out models that looked like ambulant pup tents for the last couple of seasons, but Saturday's collection brought that unfortunate episode to an end, with sharp-lines that hugged the body. A literal-minded pantsuit — made out of an elongated pair of trousers that cinched over the bust — was long and sexily lean.
Azzaro's Argentine-born, British-raised designer Vanessa Seward is the consummate Parisienne.
Season after season, Seward delivers wardrobes for the chic young things of Paris' beaux quartiers, the tony, moneyed districts where the ladies' appetite for demure-but-sexy cocktail dresses is insatiable. The striking, dark-haired designer is that kind of woman herself, and she's her own best ambassador, wearing her sultry-yet-proper concoctions with aplomb.
For Saturday's show, Seward sported a red wrap dress in fluid silk jersey, sitting demurely as two models — both of whose resemblance to her was striking — pranced in her abbreviated chemisier dresses and pantsuits.
At Azzaro, the hemlines are always sky-high, and Saturday's collection was no exception. Little was the operative word for the little black dresses that had flippy hemlines or flirty pleated skirts. Everything twinkled with rhinestones, which glinted out from beneath the collar of a black wool cocoon coat and dressed up the necklines of the sexy pantsuits.
It all had a vaguely retro feel, and looked like what a bored Parisian housewife circa 1972 would wear to a secret rendezvous with her lover.
Even the label's presentations are old school: Instead of a proper runway show, with thousands of people crammed, sardine-style, into a tent, Azzaro holds intimate little "mini-shows" in the house's mirror-covered showroom on Paris' chic shopping street, the rue du Faubourg Saint Honore. Two models change in the dressing rooms as the gathered fashion editors, journalists and stylists sip cups of tea and nibble on macaroons.
The house founded by fashion's queen of knitwear focused on outwear, with a fall collection of utilitarian-chic loden parkas and princess coats made from tartan blankets.
There was still a hefty dose of knits, like the trompe l'oeil coveralls and cableknit sweaters emblazoned with oversized bows. A beige and toffee colorblocked sweater with a bold emerald green stripe in guise of a belt was pure, old-school Rykiel.
The coats — in ochre, blood orange, lilac and Bordeaux — were fitted out with patch pockets or sprouted oversized sleeves in fox fur dyed eyepopping hues. The trend of grafting fur sleeves onto wool coats has swept Paris' runways, from Balmain to Dries Van Noten.
It's a big-statement style, but one that's not without its hazards: At Rykiel, a model brushed up against the vertical fluorescent light bulbs that for some reason dotted the catwalk, and the bulb shattered all over the runway — which for another inexplicable reason was bisected by a chain-link fence.
Unlike most other shows, where serious, even dour expressions are de rigeur, Rykiel is all about smiles, and models are instructed to act spontaneous and happy on the runway — a tall order for some of the girls. At Saturday's show, the models congregated around the fence, chitchatting as others walked the catwalk. One model, in a sexed-up gown with a flowing emerald skirt attached to a black bra top, plopped herself down in the front row next to Andre Leon Talley and made smalltalk with the iconic U.S. Vogue editor as her colleagues walked.
The Japanese designer is clearly out to oust Rykiel.
Chisato sent out jumpsuits in zany pastel colorblock, sweaterdresses with striped knit leggings and high-waisted culottes knit with kooky designs. Ribbed caps that looked like old school bathing caps, complete with the sensible chinstraps, topped off all the outfits. Paired with the oversized Iris Apfel-style owl glasses, it was really quite a look.
Admittedly, it was not for everyone: Those in the market for officewear might do better looking elsewhere, except if you work from home. But the clothes were embued with a sense of fun and lightheartedness that took a page straight out of Rykiel's playbook.