There's little doubt that posterity will recognize Jean Paul Gaultier as one of the all-time greats, but it will also have to recognize the profligacy of his genius, the carelessness with mere bagatelles like timekeeping (the 90-minute wait today bordered on those interminable delays that were a signature of the house 20 years ago), the way the extravagantly throwaway has always shared catwalk space with fiercely disciplined, beautifully crafted clothes. Haute couture has indulged both those impulses to an extreme for the designer, so the pendulum swing of consensus on his couture is unsurprisingly determined by which impulse dominates. Today, mercifully, it was discipline and craft.
That's probably what happens when you have a presiding spirit as wayward as Pete Doherty, the voice on the soundtrack, the star of Sylvie Verheyde's adaptation of nineteenth century poet Alfred de Musset's Confession of a Child of the Century, which was the spark of the collection. Once you'd ascertained (thank you, Wiki!) that de Musset's grand amour was the novelist George Sand, who scandalized mid-nineteenth century Paris by wearing men's clothes and smoking in public, Gaultier's collection slotted with the greatest of ease into his series of salutes to everything that has ever made Paris so justifiably full of itself. Erin O'Connor opened the show as Sand, in top hat, tailcoat, and gentleman's fob. She was followed by a set of Gaultier's peerless meditations on Le Smoking, including a silhouette that quoted Dior's Bar silhouette. It was never a secret that Gaultier would have been a logical candidate for the top job at Dior when Galliano got the gig. This season, when Dior is once again the big story with the Simons ascendancy, there was a certain poignancy in such reminders of that long-ago dream.
But Gaultier went on to prove how he owns his decadent, romantic, polymorphous fashion sensibility. Sand's tailcoat came back time and again, in crocodile, in camel, in the "male couture" that Gaultier inserted with a wincing lack of subtlety, and in the bridal finale, where the tails were splayed across a white skirt in front while the lapels were extended into swan's wings in back. The designer also paraded silken kimono-styled eveningwear that conveyed the fin de siècle feel of outfits named after characters from Proust, Huysmans, and Wilde. The colors—absinthe, coral, gold, papal purple—were the colors of opium dreams. Gaultier amplified the Beaux Arts mood by including a couple of articulated automatons. They could have been the robot from Metropolis. Or maybe they were sisters of the Georges Méliès creation that featured in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. Better that way—Gaultier's collections are always a love song to Paris.