The Gay Flou

Derek McCormack on Jean Paul Gaultier’s final show

Designer Jean Paul Gaultier greets the audience at his Spring/Summer 2020 Haute Couture collections during Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, on Jan. 22, 2020. Photo: Piero Biasion/Xinhua.

WHEN IS A FASHION SHOW A FUNERAL? When it’s Jean Paul Gaultier.

Take his final couture presentation: It was a sort of death, or a spoof of death, or a spoof of spoofs of death.

It put the poof in spoof.

Gaultier started the show with a funeral. The stage was filled with models in mourning black. Pallbearers in black veils carried a coffin on stage. It wasn’t clear what had died. Fashion? Does it ever die, or does it come back undead and undeader?

When the coffin opened, a model in a white babydoll dress strutted out and started the show. What followed was a lesson in what to wear to funerals. Among the suggestions: rooster feathers, inflatable cone bras, sponges stitched together into skirts. There were camouflage gowns sewn from tons of tulle. They signaled a grand idea: that fashion could conceal you from death. He could have gone further with it: Why not wear grave dirt? Why not wear disease?

The coffin looked like it had a mirror on the inside of the lid—a coffin-cum-changing room. Death, he seemed to be saying, isn’t the end: It’s just a different look.

Models present creations of Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring/Summer 2020 Haute Couture collections during Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, on Jan. 22, 2020. Photo: Piero Biasion/Xinhua.

Death has always stalked Gaultier’s defilés. It’s done so in the guise of the sailor. The sailor’s been a man, it’s been a woman, it’s been something that’s neither/nor. It’s been Gaultier himself. The sailor often appeared in a marinière, a Breton-striped sailor sweater, matelot pants with a fall front, and perhaps a cap with a red pompom: le pompom funèbre.

This sailor comes from French literature: it was there in the novels of Jean Lorrain; it was there in Le Livre Blanc by Jean Cocteau; and it was all over the oeuvre of Jean Genet. The gayest sailor of all was Querelle.

“Querelle,” Gaultier once told an interviewer, “is the ultimate sailor, a hypersexualized gay symbol, a fantasy, an icon, a form of virility that could be ambiguous.” I might also mention that Querelle was murderous—virility and violence in a beefy body.

The Genetian sailor was a constant throughout Gaultier’s career. The designer put him on catwalks and in commercials with other characters that captured him: Existentialists, accordionists, circus acts, burlesquers. To paraphrase The Thief’s Journal: They all belonged to the region of himself, which he called Paris.

Paris was Gaultier’s dream. He grew up in the suburbs. He learned about it by studying magazines and by watching TV. It was TV that showed him the Folies Bergère. It showed him Falbalas (1945), the film that made him dream of fashion design. It showed him “Dim Dom Dam,” the magazine program that introduced him to Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, as well as writers in Genet’s gang: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Violette Leduc.

In 1970, at age seventeen, Gaultier went to work for Pierre Cardin. He hadn’t studied fashion formally; he’d taught himself how to sketch, and his sketches impressed Cardin. Gaultier presented his first prêt-a-porter show in 1978. It wasn’t until 1982, though, that critics noticed him. Gays like me loved him straightaway: He was the only designer who showed men and women in similarly sexy styles. In 1985, he presented a menswear show and it was gay as fuck: men in skirts, men in backless sweaters, men in chiffon and lace and all the soft fabrics that couturiers call le flou.

Rhymes with marabou.

The 1980s belonged to Gaultier. In those years, it seemed that the New York Times couldn’t let a week go by without mentioning his clothes or who was wearing them or where to buy them. What the Times didn’t mention was the word gay. Gaultier was outrageous, offensive, an enfant terrible, but never gay. His designs were totally unwearable, wild, weird, wiggy, androgynous, but never gay. God forfend the Times say he was a faggot.  

God forfend it say what was going on with faggots and AIDS.

When Gaultier’s lover and business partner, Francis Menuge, died of AIDS in 1990, Gaultier almost gave up. It had been a dream of theirs to found their own couture house. Gaultier did it alone in 1997; he named it Gaultier Paris. He continued to present some of the same silhouettes he’d been designing for so long. He executed them in the most expensive fabrics and with the expertise of some of the world’s most talented seamstresses. Some critics considered it all a case of déjà vu. Me, I like to think that Gaultier was in a dream he’d dreamed with Menuge: Though he couldn’t bring his lover back, their vêtements could be revenants.

Gaultier went out with a bang. The show boasted one of his most macabre ensembles: a black tuxedo jacket, un smoking, with a funeral wreath strapped on its back. It’s the perfect accessory. No matter where you drop dead—no matter when, no matter how—you’ll already have a tribute, an immortelle with this motto spelled out across your sash: LA MODE POUR LA VIE.

Jean Paul Gaultier presented his Spring/Summer 2020 couture show—the last of his fifty-year career—at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on January 22.  

Derek McCormack’s latest novel is The Well-Dressed Wound (Semiotext(e), 2015), about Martin Margiela and Abraham Lincoln. A new novel, Castle Faggot, is forthcoming this fall from Semiotext(e).