For reasons not difficult to fathom, it doesn't feel much like a time for fooling around in fashion. Perhaps that's why Jean Paul Gaultier, ever the chipper joker of haute couture, somehow missed the mark with his technically perfect African-inspired collection. Sartorial puns have always been his strength, but the effect, for example, of a dress made of leather strips that formed a three-dimensional African mask on the bodice turned out to be curiously underwhelming, despite the astonishing skill involved in making it.

In pursuing his tribal theme, Gaultier used hunters' shields, African carvings, the patterns of Masai beading, and every rich, dark brown shade of baked mud and dust. The "shields" turned up as polished tortoiseshell—the full shell, that is—clamped like armor to the side of clutch bags. The bride, naked save for a bikini and veil, covered her modesty with a vast face/shield meticulously wrapped in micropleated white tulle.

For all that sensationalism, the really funny thing about this show was that the truly memorable pieces in the collection had nothing to do with Timbuktu or any of the other geographical spots Gaultier quipped about in his program. They were, variously, his fantastically cut, leg-elongating pantsuits, a chiffon tea dress, a plunging raspberry jersey gown, and a couple of body-clinging, ruffle-skirted print gowns that seemed to have more to do with rumba than Rwanda.