The wish to epater les bourgeois is not just Jean Paul Gaultier's modus operandi, but his very raison d'=EAtre. That's a whole lot of French, but for Gaultier it feels entirely fitting - and it was the foundation of his terribly French Autumn/Winter 2011 collection. It was French in its coded cliches of elegance, French in its language of refinement mixed with a slightly dusty, provincial chic, and very, very French in its opening model. She was Valerie Lemercier, a forty-something French actress, for those who didn't know (and without further consulting google.com, those non-Francophiles amongst us will remain none the wiser).
Gaultier decided to return to some of his favourite old tricks today, basing his Autumn/Winter 2011 show on the staid and old-fashioned idea of 'French Fashion'. Old fashioned is an apt term - Gaultier whipped his models' hair into towering grey bouffants like les grande dames of Parisian high society and paraded them out in the stereotypical garments of the French upper-middle class.
Quite naturally, those were echoes of fashion's greatest hits - the Chanel-alike cardigan suit, the pencil-skirt and trench-coat, the silken blouse with knotted pussy-cat bow at the neck. Why the models performed a bizarre burlesque routine, peeling off gloves and tossing garments willy-nilly until it looked as if one of his sable-trimmed wheelie suitcases had imploded mid-catwalk, is probably only known to Gaultier. Although as a high-camp take-off on the old couture traditions of slipping out of jackets to better display garments to les clients, it made perfect sense.
High camp is a running Gaultier theme, and he's as attracted to the jolie-laide as he is to the jolie-madame. Presumably the former was the idea behind this collection's dodgier moments of taste, ribbed lurex knitwear and multicoloured thrift-store brocades, for example. And yet, for all vaulter's instincts to shock, he just can't help designing beautiful, eminently wearable clothes. He often edits those garments out of his shows (at least, for ready-to-wear) or hides them under theatrical hi-jinks. But this collection provided ample proof of his talents. Prime examples: half-a-dozen riffs on the perfect trench, spare skirt-suits cut with an effortless ease, and a peppermint-silk blouse under navy blue Le Smoking, with faultless black trousers. That was as classic as any of Yves Saint Laurent's finest. Extremely bourgeois, but extremely chic.