“We’re in the ‘dahl’ section?” I remarked to the lady sitting to my right. “But Gaultier is never dahl! Ha-ha!” Fortunately, this poor attempt at a pun raised a smile, rather than an eye-roll or sneer, in my neighbour — a Jakarta magazine journalist with whom I went on to have an interesting conversation about the Suharto years while waiting for Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring/summer 2013 couture show to begin.
What would unfurl on the runway wouldn’t be Indonesian, however – rather, ’twas India that formed the core inspiration for Gaultier’s collection, as one might’ve gathered from the names of the seating sections, tikka, masala, vindaloo et cetera supplementing my own dahl to evoke an eastern feast.
The exotic style of the subcontinent has, of course, long provided Gaultier with food for thought; his 1994 celebration of all things Indian, not least the nation’s traditional wedding-night nose-to-earring chains, particularly memorable (and probably in no small part responsible for the nose-piercing craze of the ’90s — plastic surgeons who’ve subsequently profited by removing the resulting scars should thank Monsieur Gaultier profusely).
Nearly 20 years on, the 60-year-old former ‘enfant terrible’ of French fashion presented a more subtle, less ‘street’ take on Indian style, integrating western tailoring and silhouettes by positioning this as the garb of visitors to India, the show’s explanatory notes providing titles for looks such as “l’ambassade de France aux Indes”, “les tourists de Ceylan”, and “aventuriere au Kerala” — in addition to ‘home-grown’ themes like “maharanee”, “Indira”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Taj Mahal” and “kamasutra”, this last a sexy satin and tulle ensemble based around Gaultier’s iconic corsetry and conical bra (albeit, again, more subtle and restrained than — and not nearly as restrictive as — those so memorably sported by Madonna during her 1990 Blond Ambition tour).
Gaultier has ever given us the ethnic, the exotic and the erotic. And following his years helming Hermès’ womenswear, he’s no stranger to the understated and superbly crafted. All those qualities were in evidence here. In fact, apart from the startling spectacle of brood of brightly gowned girls emerging from the wedding dress that closed the show, the only Gaultier signature missing was the shock and surprise that resulted in the designer gaining that (now redundant, much overused) enfant terrible moniker back in the day. Still, as I predicted before the show’s commencement, this polished, elegant, eminently sensual couture collection was anything but ‘dahl’.