The Shapes, The Drapes, The Chicness

Haider Ackerman brought back those and more to French couture

It can be said that this French haute couture spring 2023 season is a mixed bag. It borders on the mémère (dowdy) at Chanel, the dull at Dior, and heavy on the theatrics at Schiaparelli. Everything between is hard to write home about without sounding too critical. Then you have Haider Ackermann’s couture debut at Jean Paul Gaultier. And then couture made sense. Mr Ackerman was given free reign to interpret JPG as he saw fit, and the result was not short of astounding. The JPG codes were not immediately discernible amid the linearity and the sumptuousness, but you knew this was special in the way that it was to be surprising (Mr Gaultier told all his collaborators to “surprise” him). And strike a sense of wonder Mr Ackerman did, even if only by the sheer chicness of the clothes These were steep in the flair a masterful couturier would conjure. It is no wonder that Karl Lagerfeld once considered Mr Ackermann worthy of succeeding the former at Chanel. As the German told Numero in 2010, “I have a contract for life, so it depends on who I would like to hand it to. At the moment, I’d say Haider Ackermann.”

And now we saw why he deserves that appointment. Or, as Venessa Friedman excitedly Tweeted after the show, “Someone make this designer the head of a brand please.” Mr Ackermann not only exhibited the aptitude and a keen discernment for haute couture, but understood its spirit. He did not just throw himself to the house codes of JPG: no Breton stripes or tattoo prints. There were, to be expected, bras, but they were barely conical or that pointy. And there was no overt campiness, just good ’ol élégance. If this was not conceived under the banner of the house of Gaultier and through their own atelier, this could pass off as Mr Ackermann designing for his eponymous line. The fourth collaborator in JPG’s guest designer program, he did not succumb to the need to express Mr Gaultier’s maximalist irreverence; he stayed with his more minimalist aesthetics, but with adornments (a couture requisite?). Chitose Abe of Sacai was the first to be invited, and she turned out JPG through the lens of Sacai (making her complex designs, even more so), so did Y Project’s Glenn Martens (a lesson in assymetry), and Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing (ridiculously OTT, to the extent that the models were tottering in the too-high shoes; one even fell). For Mr Ackermann, capturing l’ esprit de couture was more crucial than augmenting the JPG canon.

Tailoring has always been the crux of Mr Ackermann’s oeuvre. It was, therefore, unsurprising that it was JPG’s tailoring he wanted to honour. The opening look of a trim redingote with pleated crisscrossed front had a neu-militaire fervour about it, so did the cropped lapel-less piece that followed—a sort of calvary jacket with hand-sewn running stitch in place of braiding and with unfinished oblong tabs along the front vertical hems. Standouts, too, were those looks destined for special occasions. One pink gown had for a bodice a plissé strip that turned and twisted around the torso and neck, another—in royal blue, worn by Raquel Zimmermann—was elliptical at the top and epitome of how couture can astound with shapes. To re-interpret a preponderance of bras-as-outerwear in the JPG body of work, Mr Ackermann had a one-sided version that miraculously emerged from the rear of a bat-winged, one-sleeve gown to cup a right breast, like a hand of a protective lover. The Colombian-born French designer has said, in response to designing for JPG, that, unlike Mr Gaultier, he has no sense of humour. But he did know quirky. Mariacarla Boscono wore a lean, straight-shouldered gown with a deep cut-out in the rear and a high collar with a tailpiece that extended to the left like a ‘wing’ of a zhanjiao futou (展角幞頭 or spread-horn head cover; think: bao zheng [包拯] or Justice Bao), worn by Chinese officials of the Song dynasty. But it was not all this unexpected. The collection would not be lacking if some pieces were omitted, such as the tracksuit-y two-piece or the pantsuit with a hood that was embroidered inside.

The show itself had a rather old-world vibe too. Staged at the JPG headquarters in Rue Saint-Martin, it was devoid of props (nothing mobile, in which models would emerge, for example). The sound track featured French actress Joana Preiss breathily reading a passage by former French Elle journalist Sophie Fontanel about the protests in Iran and the Iranian singer-songwriter Shervin Hajipour singing Baraye (‘For the Sake of’ in Persian). Mr Ackermann is a known supporter of the Iranian cause, sharing on Instagram last September, “I stand with the women of Iran”. The recital and the singing were interspersed with pulsing sounds that could be the heartbeat of a foetus amplified. Just as yesteryear were the walk of the models: exaggerated, individualistic, expressive, they were unafraid to use their hands. Mr Gaultier, who sat at the end of the runway, sandwiched between Catherine Deneuve to his right and Edward Enninful to his left (Anna Wintour was not sighted, or perhaps the camera did not capture her?), seemed to be playing judge as the models stopped right before him to articulate their act. At the end of the show, when Mr Ackermann emerged, he went straight to Mr Gaultier (you could see Ms Deneuve mouth “bravo”), took his hand and walked down the runway to join the models at the other end. At this moment, one sensed that not only will the world now be better acquainted with Haider Ackermann, luxury houses, too, will take note of this bona-fide couturier.

Screen grab (top): Jean Paul Gaultier/YouTube. Photos: Gorunway.com

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