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Sacai’s Chitose Abe on Designing Couture for Jean Paul Gaultier

Photographed by Neige Augusta Céleste

Chitose Abe

The moment Chitose Abe’s first look for Jean Paul Gaultier fall 2021 emerged on the runway, it was eminently clear why the French label had chosen the Sacai designer as a collaborator for this season. Abe’s tendency toward stitching together mixed fabrics, or even two different garments, to create a new piece of clothing blended seamlessly with Gaultier’s iconic codes. Marine stripes? Check. Tartan? Check. Only this time, Abe had grafted them together to create a drop-waist dress with a long train. Inevitably, Sacai’s signature touches showed through as well—hand-gathered pleats created 3-D textures, and there were punk-inspired trench coats paired with wide-brim, geometric-shaped hats that appeared straight from Abe’s days cutting her teeth at Comme des Garçons with Rei Kawakubo in the Nineties.

The Sacai x JPG cocktail proved potent—and the mixing of brand trademarks was an interesting challenge, according to Abe, who spoke to W magazine via e-mail following the show.

“I wanted the collection to be a hybrid of Jean Paul’s iconic codes interpreted in the Sacai way, but also reimagined for 2021,” she said. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to refer to Jean Paul’s archives even before I saw the actual archives physically. But seeing them in person really allowed me to understand the techniques and details of couture.”

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Wednesday’s presentation marked Abe’s first turn at designing haute couture—she’s kicking off the Jean Paul Gaultier label’s new approach to the genre, which will involve tapping a new guest designer each season. Her invitation was first announced in February 2020, right before Covid-19 swooped down and took hold of the world. Obviously, the collection launch was postponed. But Abe says her vision for the collection remained steadfast throughout the pandemic.

“I had a focused idea of the house codes that I wanted to explore in this collection and those ideas never changed over time,” she said. “But the additional time allowed me to further fine-tune the collection with Jean Paul’s atelier.”

The designer spent the past 16 months creating the collection, which is filled with patchwork denim (one skirt featured a series of blue jeans hitched together by their waistbands), New Age takes on tailoring, and one stunning tasseled knit dress. After she agreed to be the guest designer back in 2020, Abe made frequent visits to the brand’s workshop in Paris, where she did “see Jean Paul.” But throughout the process, they never discussed what Abe worked on. “He gave me complete freedom,” she added.

Chitose Abe backstage at Jean Paul Gaultier.

As a result, each look came as a complete surprise to Gaultier, who sat front row at the show (and jumped up to join Abe on the runway while she took a bow). As did the two collaborators Abe tapped for the collection: Los Angeles-based tattoo artist Dr. Woo, who contributed to the beauty looks, and Pierre Hardy, a close friend of the designer, who did the shoes.

“Bringing friends and ‘family’ into the mix was important to me,” said Abe, who has done a slew of collaborations throughout her career—including one with Nike that’s become so popular, she released a new edition of the shoe called the “Vaporwaffle” as part of the JPG collection. “I asked Dr. Woo to re-create my interpretation of a tattoo pattern for a second-skin tulle under piece as well as for the embroidery and prints. Hardy created shoes inspired by the Gaultier house corsets.”

Corsets factored heavily into the inspiration for Abe’s reinterpretation of Jean Paul Gaultier. She said she was especially taken by the one Madonna wore on her Blond Ambition tour—and chose to add riffs on the piece to multiple looks in her own collection. Gaultier’s history dressing celebrities popped up again and again on the runway, too—Abe created a take on Björk’s fall 1994 runway look by adding a hat and boots to a fur-trimmed coat with “JPG” emblazoned across the front in red.

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When scrutinized at face value, the Jean Paul Gaultier and Sacai brands have very little in common. Abe put on her first Sacai runway show in 2012; Gaultier set up shop in 1976. Abe’s first pieces were three knit designs she made out of ten balls of yarn from her home in Japan, while Gaultier's premiere prêt-à-porter collection showed on a packed runway. But according to Abe, the two designers’ ethos aligned even more seamlessly than their brand codes. They share in common a desire to do things differently, she said, and have both based their businesses upon thinking of ways to design against preconceived notions of what is acceptable in fashion. And when it came to making a line for JPG, Abe “absolutely” had this same mindset.

“That may be one of the reasons I repurposed Jean Paul's nickname, ‘Enfant Terrible,’” she said, referencing a t-shirt she had printed with those two words, and which she wore during the show this week. “But pluralized it to ‘Enfants Terribles.’”

Courtesy of Jean Paul Gaultier.