PARIS -- When Jean Paul Gaultier debuted his haute couture show last month in Paris, eyebrows were raised a little higher than usual. Known for his boundary-pushing shows that once saw the likes of Madonna and Bjork, Gaultier featured a French reality star this year, something that has ruffled feathers in the fashion industry. Are the French losing their grip on high fashion?
Nabilla Benattia is a media-proclaimed "bimbo" who won the affection of French audiences with a famous one-liner during a video confessional on a reality show where she discussed a dispute with a co-star over purchasing shampoo ("Non mais allo quoi" or "No, but like, hello?"). In short, this former teen model, complete with breast enhancements, has the mass appeal of Jersey Shore's Snooki. This vulgarization is something that many fashion critics and journalists found jarring on a haute couture runway. Gaultier and various journalists, like Style.com's Tim Blanks, have sparred recently on Twitter about the choice. Blanks called the choice "a bit down-market" but Gaultier defended it as showing different levels of society.
According to the brand's PR director Jelka Music, Gaultier liked Benattia and sought her out for the show. From the beginning, the designer has always embraced non-industry models, even if they were celebrities, defying runway norms. "It is just the nature of the brand and of what Mr. Gaultier stands for," Music wrote in an email. But the fashion industry and media have largely viewed Bennatia's presence as a low-end debasing of the brand.
For Alison Bancroft, Paris-based author of Fashion and Psychoanalysis, the media scandal with Benattia is not so much with French fashion as with France's industry bad boy, Gaultier himself, whose day in the sun may have passed. "To my mind it seems like he's trying to keep his work a bit more 'street' when he's actually late middle-aged and a bit out of touch," she said. Sending Benattia down the runway, she said, was probably a well-calculated stunt to get media attention.
"The new collection was nothing I haven't seen before," Bancroft added. Even New York Magazine quipped that his recent show was "tacky in the best way, as always" while the New York Times said Gaultier was facing "artistic burnout" in 2012. Despite the now-expected outlandish designs, Gaultier's parent company Puig reported a 12% rise in profits in 2012.
While the media did give Gaulier a bit of extra press, the choice of using Benattia was not entirely radical -- nor was it the first time Gaultier used a French reality TV star on the catwalk (France's first reality sweetheart, Loana, walked in his show in 2002). Ru Paul and Victorial Beckham have also made their way down runways at certain points in various cities, showing how the industry does sometimes embrace non-professional models, if they have compelling reasons to be there.
Still the fashion industry still treats them with a certain suspicion. Bancroft said she wouldn't expect to see a reality star on a catwalk, not even in edgy London, if he or she had not gone on to do something more interesting or noteworthy. Benattia, who, after her ascent to fame, has done little more than inspire a potential reality show of her own and some taglines for Ikea, doesn't fit such a bill.
French reality TV, like its counterparts in the United States, or the United Kingdom, does breed music stars and overnight sensations, but always in the context of popular culture. As in most countries, it is also considered by many to be a low-brow form of entertainment. But fashion, Bancroft says, thrives off innovation with inspirations bubbling up from such pop culture. "While [fashion] changes, it also remains the same. You find a lot of historical influences in fashion and people take ideas and make them new again," she said of the French designers.
Unlike London and New York, Paris-based fashion has not evolved much since the 19th century when name-brand labeling became a mark of haute couture. The French industry has never quite pushed the boundaries like the Brits or even the Americans. "Why it chose to stay conservative rather than edgy, I suspect that it lies in the character of the French more than fashion itself," Bancroft said.
In any case, the backlash against the reality star's strut down the catwalk is a clear sign that many in the industry are not interested in revolutionizing French fashion. "It's got its framework very neatly laid out and does not tend to operate outside of that framework," Bancroft said.
And the framework seems to be working. France dominates 30 percent of the fashion and perfume industry, and the country's largest luxury brand LVMH alone reported an increase in earnings to $38.1 billion in 2012. And if the lines at Parisian department stores are any indication, the French are doing something right, even if Gaultier doesn't play by the rules.
Photos: P. Stable (Top: Benattia making her way down the catwalk, Below: Gaultier and Benattia)