Julien Dossena put forth a modern and fresh take on how fashion archives can be reinterpreted during his show as the latest guest designer for Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture. The presentation, held at the brand’s Paris headquarters on July 5, was created especially with the house’s sprawling archive in mind. Picture this: gilded, ostentatious, ornate, military-style blazers with matching headpieces; pinstripe bustier corset suits; and golden, liquid-mesh chainmail gowns all hit the runway during the very first moments of the show.
In the darkened arena, a spotlight followed each model on a catwalk so narrow that legs and wandering phones easily invaded the aisles. “I really wanted to be close to the people so they can almost be touched by the dresses,” Dossena told me a few days before his Gaultier debut, from the Paris atelier on the Rue Saint-Martin. “I remember the old shows of Jean Paul, which forced him to put those people and the models together with just enough space to go in between the people. I loved that energy because people were talking to each other, facing each other, and the models were interacting.”
Ever since Jean Paul Gaultier “retired” from the world of fashion in 2020 and opened his namesake brand to collaborative guest designers, the label’s couture shows have been the talk of the town. And naturally, when it was reported in March 2023 that the fifth collaborator to join the program would be Julien Dossena, artistic director of Paco Rabanne, there was plenty of hype.
Dossena began his descent into Gaultier’s world back in March by “having discussions with the Jean team and looking around in the archives at pieces we were interested in,” but the designer has been studying the icon of French fashion since childhood. “As a French boy, we know Jean Paul Gaultier from birth,” Dossena said. “He was the one who made me think that it was a real job to design and do fashion.”
Dossena has been working at the equally culturally significant French fashion brand Rabanne for 10 years now, making his mark as a designer who both brings forward the modern idea of what the historic Paco Rabanne image is while also building on its heritage codes. Still, this was the designer’s first attempt at couture. “It’s the territory of freedom,” he said of his interpretation of Jean Paul Gaultier. “For me, that means progress—and, as a believer in humankind, putting all the people together in a universal theme.” If you thought there was a lot of gender play in Dossena’s show, you’d be correct, as the looks were largely inspired by Gaultier, who very early on put male models in skirts. “He wanted to express that genuine, sincere, feeling in his work,” Dossena said. “I had to edit and to pick some of the ideas that I wanted to express. But there is that mix in the attitudes, which mix different garments to create another conversation between them.”
Prior to getting down to work, Dossena visited the fabulously famous Gaultier archives, which are fluid in the fact that they’re available to reference or repurpose. “It was more like going to a beautiful exhibition where you have the right to touch the pieces,” he said. The designer drew from the historic (and controversial) Chic Rabbis collection from fall/winter 1993-1994—all crisp, black, floor-length tailored coats; chunky trapper hats; and wool skirts. Dossena also took a deep dive into the equally memorable but less documented 1988 Jean Paul Gaultier show “La Concierge est dans l’Escalier,” which recontextualizes the apron mixed with tailoring.
Of the utmost importance when referencing the Jean Paul Gaultier archives was strength in the sensuality in the body: “A little bit provocative, but at the same time, really sensual and sincere,” Dossena said. The designer was also interested in getting to the heart of what reflects the true Jean Paul Gaultier aesthetic: styling an embroidered dress and with sneakers, or mixing things up to express your own fashion sense, “or, let’s say, to be whoever you want to be at that moment,” Dossena added.
He also reworked the corset—a staple in the JPG universe—and constructed lingerie. But the most interesting part of Dossena’s collection were the points where Gaultier references crossed over into modern Rabanne territory. The Frankenstein fusion of both French heritage brands wasn’t just striking, it was a visual feast for the eyes—a moment of enlightenment for the fashion intellectual, or any else quick to pick up on archival codes. “Jean Paul has already been inspired by the work of Paco Rabanne. Sometimes some of the things that I developed at Paco Rabanne feel like they could go really well in the expression of Jean as well,” Dossena said. “It’s a light conversation to build characters in the most balanced way possible, in order to not lose any of the cool and any of the weird that you can find in both houses.”
And true to past Jean Paul Gaultier guest designers, Dossena didn’t show anything at all to the master designer ahead of time—which means the show was the first time Gaultier saw a single piece from the collection. “He really wanted to stay out of it, because for him, the most important value for creative people is to have total freedom,” he said, adding, “Genuinely: Jean Paul loves to be surprised, and he loves to see the interpretation of his work by discovering it at the same moment in the fashion show.” As models flew down the runway beneath the bright spotlight, Gaultier himself was incredibly animated, smiling and reacting with delight in real time.
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