Jean Paul Gaultier Talks Last Couture Show: “It’s the End, but It’s Not the End”

The designer tearfully discussed his muses, memories and next steps backstage in Paris.

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Following Jean Paul Gaultier’s final couture show on Wednesday at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris—which doubled as his 50-year anniversary bash—there wasn’t a dry eye in sight backstage. Models, muses, the in-house team, actors and singers who all had become friends with the fashion designer over the years shed tears, as one fan repeatedly cried out, “Vive Jean Paul Gaultier!”

Before the presentation, guests had packed every possible seat in the venue. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Eva Herzigova and designers Nicolas Ghesquière and Christian Lacroix were just a few of the notable people in the front row—but the cast of characters who took the stage were even more impressive. The show opened with an Amy Winehouse tribute from Boy George, followed by model Issa Lish walking out of a coffin carried by dancing men. Gaultier brought back a group of models and actresses with whom he has worked throughout the years to appear on the runway. Classic muses Dita Von Teese, Rossy de Palma, Karen Elson, Farida Khelfa, and Beatrice Dalle walked alongside Gigi and Bella Hadid, Winnie Harlow, Paris Jackson, and Irina Shayk.

Gigi Hadid walks the runway during the Jean-Paul Gaultier haute couture Spring/Summer 2020 fashion show.

Coco Rocha, another brand muse, reenacted the Irish dance she performed on the runway during the label’s fall 2007 show.

“It was very special because most days, I’m reminded by people on social media or in real life about how I danced so many years ago,” she told W after the show. “So, he asked me to do it again a few months ago. I thought it was just for the 50-year anniversary—I didn’t know it was going to be the last time, but I know it won’t be the very last time we work together. It’s quite surreal to think this is the last show.”

“Backstage, we were all sobbing,” Rocha added. “It must mean something that there is a designer out there like that. This is a man who truly has respected everyone in this industry, who has been raised to the top of the top and still respects everyone.”

Coco Rocha walks the runway during the Jean-Paul Gaultier haute couture spring 2020 show.

According to the designer, “life,” has been his biggest inspiration to keep working for half a century. For this last presentation, Gaultier drew inspiration from his own archives. The designer wanted to pay tribute to the themes he explored over 50 years: marine stripes, androgyny, and space age aesthetics among them. “Something that really inspires me is recycling. I started going to the flea market and I used a lot of things I bought there that gave me beautiful ideas for work—that’s how I did my first show. So everything in today’s show came from something else. For me, it was like an adventure, and it was very exciting. Of course, there were some new creations.” He estimates that about 50 looks from the collection were brand new, while the rest were transformed from previous collections or even from his personal travel—as in fans he bought in China, or embroidery taken from old handbags. “It’s about restructuring.”

Any Gaultier fan recognized the brand’s classic archetypes within the collection. There were the punks, the agent provocateurs, the traditional French girls, the Basque-inspired pieces, the extreme couture pieces and the camp—including a blow-up doll look that walked the runway alongside Bella Hadid. The show culminated in what felt like a full-circle moment for the designer and his work.

Karen Elson, Dita Von Teese, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Karlie Kloss backstage.

“I feel very happy with emotion,” Gaultier added. “It was a pleasure to make a party of it. There were a lot of old models that I love who came especially for the show. I tried to structure everything very well, but in reality, today, it’s like a bordello, just like my first collection. It was not exactly what was supposed to happen, but it doesn’t matter. In life, you have to be a chameleon.”

Aside from the catwalk, Gaultier’s most recent project has been in the world of theater. His “Fashion Freak” show ran in Paris from 2018 to 2019 at the Théâtre des Folies Bergère and is moving on to Russia next week. Will theater be the next full-time step for the designer? “Couture will go on,” he said. “In other ways. It’s the end but it’s not the end. You can do everything, and with recycling, couture lives.”

After 50 years, Gaultier still considers his biggest accomplishment making people smile as they’re watching his runway shows. “Or sometimes when they buy my clothes,” he said with a laugh, “It’s even better.”

Related: Revisit Jean Paul Gaultier’s Most Memorable Moments on the Runway