Imagine yourself as a turn-of-the-century European libertine—a self-possessed seductress with a string of secret lovers ranging from an English gentleman to an officer of the hussars. You might purloin an impeccable Savile Row suit and alpaca overcoat from one, and carry off a crimson mink-lined military jacket as a trophy from another. In the meanwhile, you wrap yourself in furs and deepest silk velvet and dress your hair in plumes and coils. You’re a woman of the world.

This was the brilliant erotic fantasy Jean Paul Gaultier conjured for his Fall 2002 couture collection. As excerpts from The Story of O were piped into the ears of his audience through headsets, a sequence of sophisticated British menswear tailoring gave way to a display of Austro-Hungarian fin-de-siècle romanticism. Often the models looked as if they’d been caught in flagrante, coolly making off into the night with a man’s cashmere scarf, a fox-fur stole, a heroic officer’s jacket or a crocheted bedspread wrapped around their naked bodies. In the chicest possible way, of course.

Gaultier is at an age where he has the experience to elaborate a theme, to mine it for its riches, colors and associations, without losing sight of the fact that he’s designing for a real person living in the here and now. His innate sense of sexy adult sophistication allows him to project simplicity—as in a high-necked black velvet dress with a subtle sprinkling of jet bead, topped with a huge fox hat—as convincingly as haute drama. (His bride wore a huge “hussar jacket” skirt decorated with frogging and fur, and sported an American-Indian white-feathered headdress and 30-foot veil.)

“She has a lot of lovers, a lot of imagination to play with!” joked the designer after the show. In the audience, Catherine Deneuve, the goddess of grown-up French sexuality, smiled her approval.