Last week, it was announced that Jean Paul Gaultier – the French designer and one-time l’enfant terrible famous for his corset bras – will stop producing ready-to-wear clothes for both men and women in order to focus on his haute couture collections and perfume. For the fashion world, shock was followed by sadness: was this yet another example of fast-fashion commerce destroying creativity? It is intriguing to compare the continuing success of Karl Lagerfeld, the Hamburg-born fashion designer, stylist, and photographer who has been the creative director of French fashion house Chanel since 1983 (Gaultier released his first individual collection in 1976). Chanel never release sales figures, yet with every passing season the brand’s ready-to-wear collections remain a pervasive presence in department stores globally. Chanel’s commercial success seems only ever to increase, standing in stark contrast to the “commercial constraints” and “frenetic pace of collections” cited by Gaultier as reasons for abandoning ready-to-wear.
Consequently, it is worth highlighting how Gaultier’s ready-to-wear was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The brand’s entire aesthetic is based on taboo, which is exactly the problem: brands centred solely on transgression will always be the quickest to age. As for Lagerfeld, his designs for Chanel constantly adhere to the fashion house’s aesthetic history – moderately masculine femininity via clean lines and monochrome, exquisite textures comprising any crucial details. Moreover, Lagerfeld’s general infatuation with eighteenth-century France is widely known. Nearly a decade ago, Lagerfeld stated in an interview: “From the age of five, at my request, my parents gave me a French teacher who initiated me into the French language and culture. At the age of seven I had a total coup de foudre before a reproduction of a painting by Menzel representing Frederick the Great surrounded by friends, one of whom was Voltaire”. Depicting a seemingly dead past, the painting’s combination of historical detail and vibrant atmosphere ensured that it appeared to Lagerfeld as an allegory, which explains why the painting proved so affecting. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin argues that, upon observation, “allegory” confronts “the observer” with the “facies hippocractica of history”. In medicine, facies hippocractica is the term used to describe the mutation of the face caused by impending death; for Benjamin, therefore, all allegory points to death. At the same time, the mutation described by facies hippocractica implies a quality of movement in allegory, which sets it apart from the symbol. Benjamin makes this distinction between allegory and symbol when he states: “The latter signifies merely a general concept, or an idea which is different from itself; the former is the very incarnation and embodiment of that idea”. The symbol is rendered stationary in its mere signification, whereas allegory is granted presence through its ongoing motion.
Here lies the difference between Lagerfeld and Gaultier, which I suggest explains their contrasting success. Throughout both his work and personal style, Lagerfeld embodies allegory, ceaselessly showcasing the past and all the death it entails while simultaneously suggesting novelty through vitality; he has mastered the allegorical art of reincarnation, facilitating life alongside death. Conversely, across his brand, Gaultier incorporates merely symbol; the result is a single static reference to taboos that stopped being transgressive some time ago. In its most alluring and therefore successful form, fashion is allegorical as it reflects history and therefore death in its endless mutation, promising something new and elusive with every passing season. Ceaseless novelty implies ceaseless death: the death of that which is not new. Often, the “new” is simply something old painted shiny and repackaged, yet the principle remains the same. Accordingly, in order to improve both his artistic and commercial fortune, Gaultier would perhaps do well to abandon his favoured symbolism and instead adopt allegory.