PARIS — Jean Paul Gaultier, the French designer who put Madonna in a bullet-bra and men in skirts, scandalized the couture establishment by hosting the TV show “Eurotrash” and never forgot his sense of humor, yet could cut a tuxedo with such panache he was regarded as an heir to Yves Saint Laurent, said goodbye to the runway after 50 years on Wednesday night .
He did it in the gilded 19th-century Théâtre du Châtelet, where the Ballets Russes once danced, in front of a packed 2,500-seat audience that included the former supermodel and the former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and the designers Nicolas Ghesquière (who began his career as a junior assistant to Mr. Gaultier), Christian Lacroix and Dries Van Noten, who had made the trip in from Antwerp, Belgium, just for the evening.
And he did it with a greatest hits spectacular starring friends and family, from the actors Béatrice Dalle and Rossy De Palma to the models Yasmin Le Bon and Paris Jackson, plus the burlesque star Dita Von Teese. Plus Boy George, who opened the whole thing with his own version of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” and closed it with “Church of the Poison Mind.”
Mr. Gaultier, 67, stepped back from the ready-to-wear runway in 2014, but this was his final farewell — at least to shows. It seems he will continue to have some role in his company, which is owned by the Spanish group Puig, and he’s already dabbling in a sideline as a cabaret director. He announced his departure from the catwalk only five days ago, via Instagram.
How do you sum up a career for such a crew? Especially one that broke so many boundaries and pushed so many buttons?
It’s been a while since Mr. Gaultier was considered the enfant terrible of fashion, courting controversy by finding inspiration in the clothing of the Orthodox Jewish community, pulling down the velvet rope of inaccessibility with one of the very first contemporary lines, challenging gender stereotypes, putting models of all sizes and ages on the catwalk. A while too, since he balanced all that rebellion with cutting skills — learned in the ateliers of Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou — so perfectly judged they made a neophyte to fashion sit up in sudden understanding: Oh, that’s why this costs so much, and is worth it. It just looks so ineffably better than anything else.
(I was that newcomer, it was 15 or so years ago, and I’ve never forgotten that moment.)
To a certain extent, simply surviving a half century is an achievement in a fashion world where these days designers seem to come and go almost annually. Mr. Gaultier navigated the move from family-run artisanal houses to global brands dominated by mega groups, and did his time as creative director of a big house, taking the reins at Hermès from 2003 to 2010. If he has been, latterly, more of a prankster than anything else, wallowing in his own thematic puns — 1980s pop stars! Nanook of the North! — sometimes to the detriment of the clothes themselves, he also helped the shape the industry as we know it.
His final collection was no different; balanced on the knife edge between showgirl and chic, listing toward the former. Mr. Gaultier overindulged himself with more than 200 looks, not just reminders of favorites past (corsetry and underwear-as-outerwear; denim sliced and embroidered and elevated; tuxedo trousers turned into hot pants in front, the legs streaming out like a train behind; the blue-and-white-striped marinière; a body suit with the naked body embroidered on top) but examples of his artistry; his ability to make you look — and then think again.
He didn’t just recycle his themes, he upcycled his fabrics, melding silk ties into striped skirts, leather bombers into a bubble mini, and false-fronting jackets onto the top of corsets.
Camouflage coats billowed like clouds; columns of crochet encrusted in elaborate embroidered runes; basket-woven leathers; a breast plate made from mother-of-pearl shells atop a skirt made of real sponges.
“I have opened all my drawers, taken back all my old collections,” he wrote in his farewell note. “I have used my archives as material. Goodbye, the brand-new; hello, the brand old. What I did at the beginning with no resources, I do today with my inheritance to give life to new creations.”
Overlying it all was such a reservoir of well-earned good will, it cast the entire collection in a rosy glow.
And it was a potent reminder, as the designer was carried off on the arms of his cast, dancing and hugging his way into his future, that fashion ought to be both challenging and fun, and is best accessorized with laughter.