Umbrella

by Alexander Fury .

The designs of Jean Paul Gaultier are a direct aesthetic descendent of Elsa Schiaparelli's couture - irreverent, iconoclastic, witty but nevertheless always luxurious. These elements have become Gaultier's trademark, both in his own label founded in 1976, and in his work for the esteemed house of Herm├Ęs, who appointed him Creative Director in 2003.

This umbrella, taken from Gaultier's latest Hermès collection, is a synthesise of Gaultier's contemporary creativity and Hermes' centuries-old craftsmanship. Hermès was originally established as a harness workshop purveying equestrian wares to the European nobility, and that tradition is still the cornerstone of the company's wares, taking luxury leatherwork to new heights. And what could be more indulgently, unashamedly luxurious than a crocodile-covered umbrella? For their A/W show, Hermès hit on a clever ruse - sheathing the stalwart accessory of the quintessential British gentleman in precious hides, and sending out each and every model besuited, bowler-hatted model clutching a different example.


All terribly witty, if more than a little Inspector Gadget. But that seems an appropriate reference: Gaultier's inspiration was City of London suiting by way of John Steed, the secret agent of the Avengers series. Subverting the luxury of its materials with cheeky referencing of pop culture, this umbrella seems far removed from the grand Hermes tradition - but both Hermès itself and Gaultier are fixated with the idea of tradition. Hence, Gaultier chose to rework the iconic Hermès Kelly bag in miniature, strapping these diminutive versions to the umbrella handles.

Wit, subversion, inversion. These are all common games in contemporary fashion, and increasingly we are seeing them played with more and more established houses. Karl Lagerfeld set the trend with his first collections for Chanel back in the eighties, thumbing his nose at Coco's legacy and referencing the street as many times as the salon. Even as he approaches sixty, Jean Paul Gaultier remains the French fashion establishment's favourite enfant terrible - a seeming contradiction, as during the last decade he has become more a part of that establishment than ever before. Since 1997 he has created haute couture, the über-traditional and distinctly Parisian art of hand-crafting clothing for a ever-diminishing clientele of extremely wealthy women, and has designed for Hermès - a bastion of French luxury - for the past seven years.

Haute couture is a good jumping-off point to discuss this fashion object. Gaultier's couture, while still a loss-leader, is experiencing demand that outstrips supply as the world's super-rich turn to Paris for unique and exquisite products that cannot be found anywhere but the realms of custom-crafted clothing. With two-year waiting lists for their handworked leathergoods, Hermès' continued and continual success is another example of this search for one-off and extraordinary fashion objets.