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At Couture, Triumph at Last!

Haider Ackermann’s guest designership for Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture line finally brings the dramatic creative uplift this season has been missing.
Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2023.
Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2023. (Getty Images)

PARIS — Twelve years ago, Haider Ackermann staged a show for his Autumn/Winter 2011 collection that instantly passed into fashion legend. Set to Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” the presentation had a haunting, emotional depth which set an impossibly high bar. It was a high that he — and we — have been chasing ever since.

The news that Ackermann would be the fourth guest designer for Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture line didn’t immediately suggest the chase might be over, although it was coincident with him regaining the rights to his name after a difficult legal dispute, so there was at least an uplifting opportunity to look forward to.

And so Wednesday night rolled round, with Gaultier himself seated centre stage with Catherine Deneuve, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet (there were treats in store for Timothée with the couple of men’s looks Haider was about to show) and a full coterie of Ackermann acolytes. The man took us all back to that higher ground, in the process propelling this couture season out of the quiet slough of despond into which it had settled. To quote the esteemable British dance competition judge Craig Revel Horwood, it was FAB-U-LOUS.

Swatting off adoring throngs after the show, Ackerman said he wanted to swerve Gaultier’s theatre, fab-u-lous though it was, and go back to the immaculate tailoring, the thing he’d always loved most. “I was searching for this purity, when you take everything off and see a single piece.” For the master of erotic rigour in fashion, that might have seemed like a tall order, but once he dived into the archive, Ackermann was surprised by how much he and Gaultier had in common, to the point where he was insistent that every little detail in the collection stemmed from something he’d found in the archive. “When you analyse pieces, I can tell you where they came from.”

That might have seemed like a generous concession, given that anyone who was familiar with Ackermann at his finest would have recognised his own breathtaking precision (still with the wickedly cut trousers) or his intense colour combinations, or the wham-bam impact of the single thin strand of diamonds which trailed across one model’s bare back, ending in the equally delicate pendulum swing of another strand (courtesy of Vuitton’s jewel-meister Francesca Amfitheatrof). But that said, Ackermann’s tribute to JPG ran deep and intricate. Alana Zimmer’s exploding purple column echoed Pierre Cardin, Gaultier’s early mentor. An eruption of feathers from a black tuxedo jacket mirrored a couture piece from 1997. A high-necked, long-sleeved yellow plissé gown brought Adrian, haute Hollywood’s favourite designer, to mind, along with the movies that molded young Jean Paul’s mind. And of course there were bustiers. There had to be bustiers, because that’s the Madonna moment that embeds Gaultier in pop culture for all time.

And then, a group of black dresses, purest sculpted couture, staged as such by choreographer Pat Boguslawski in the manner of a classic Irving Penn or Richard Avedon photo. It was a spectacular flourish on which to close, acknowledging the greatness of Gaultier as a couturier, but also opening a new chapter in Ackermann’s career. At the same time, he is being promoted on line for his new collaboration with FILA. “Sportswear and haute couture are not so far apart,” he insisted. “They’re both about body and posture.” The message came through loud and clear. Haider Ackermann is ready to face the world again, on all platforms.

Now for a significant footnote. Gaultier was always keen on creating a socially aware context for his shows. His fashion never existed in a vacuum. Wednesday’s soundtrack was purest Haider but also something more. It began with a pulse, a come-hither mutter, a flurry of ambient noise, slowing the room down, quietening us, until the sound resolved itself into a song written for Mahsa Amini, the woman whose death in police custody sparked the ongoing upheaval in Iran. The songwriter has since been jailed. “He was talking about freedom,” said Ackermann. “And we’re talking about women with haute couture. But we can’t forget about what’s happening, and I wanted to have a memory of all those women over there. I wanted to have something really quiet. The world is so loud and screaming, I needed to have peace of mind.”

Further Reading

When fantasy collides with reality, there’s only one winner, as Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry found out on Monday.

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