With actor Vincent Cassel winding up Natalie Portman about black swans and white swans on the soundtrack of Jean Paul Gaultier's new Couture presentation, one inference was that dancers and couturiers share an obsession with their craft. Gaultier currently has a three-decade-plus career retrospective running at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and it is from all accounts a monument to glorious obsession. The retrospection seems to have led to reflection, because this collection cast its eye back over decades of boundary-pushing, taboo-busting innovation in design, from men in skirts to conical bras to unlikely hybrids (a biker tutu?). Hence the reappearance on Gaultier's runway—15 years to the day since she'd last walked in a fashion show—of Ève Salvail, whose shaven and tattoo-ed scalp was once such an affront to supermodel glamour. Here, the designer cast her against type as his white swan.

Though it's not the first time he's attempted such an overview, this was probably Gaultier's most accomplished one yet. From the first outfit—a chic pinstripe pantsuit that walked away to reveal a froth of tutu spilling out behind—his peerless tailoring was on parade. His signature mutated trench has rarely looked more gorgeous than it did here, reconfigured as an evening dress in pale gold silk faille and mousseline. The gender-bending took a turn for the opulent, too. The designer's male dandies were sloe-eyed decadents from a Diaghliev fantasy, in keeping with the ballet theme.

But the passage of time has taken the edge off such drollery. Gaultier's longtime male muse Tanel swishing down the catwalk in a floor-length skirt of ostrich feathers would once have sent a shiver of deliciousness through the crowd. Here, he was like a cuddly—if slightly ragged—uncle in his frock, in the same way that Gaultier himself is now one of the grand old(ish) men of haute couture. Which means there is today as much to appreciate in the way he carries the torch for tradition as there used to be in the way he challenged fashion orthodoxy.

The technical achievements in this collection included remarkable trompe l'oeil work with feathers (particularly an alpine ski sweater composed entirely of them). Gaultier's approach to plissé pleating echoed Madame Grès, subject of an exhibition currently running in Paris, which Jean Paul couldn't stop raving about after his own show. There was also some Dior in there, too. Those with a memory might recall the moment when Gaultier was mentioned as a possible candidate for that job, before Galliano snared it. Plus ça change