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A life in revue: Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show

He has cause to be excessively reflective at the moment. For almost a year, Fashion Freak Show, a musical revue of his life, has been performed nightly at Paris’s legendary Folies Bergère, and more recently at London’s Southbank Centre. Part fashion show, part cabaret, Gaultier co-wrote and co-directed the show with help from the screenwriter Raphaël Cioffi and film-maker Tonie Marshall. Another friend, Nile Rodgers – the legendary producer and co-founder of Chic (whose biggest hit, Le Freak, is the show’s theme) – provided the music. Marion Motin, a former dancer for Madonna, did the choreography.

Gaultier has wanted to create this show since the 1980s. “I said if I was to make a fashion revue, I have to make it in a modern way,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t write but I can write visually. And I love to cast. I would pick girls I saw in clubs in London or Paris. Characters I liked, that were different. Like Madonna! She was the sexy one, but she had the power. And she didn’t walk like a model; she walked like her.”

Gaultier created the conical-shaped bras and corsets for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour.

Gaultier created the conical-shaped bras and corsets for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour.Credit:Getty Images

The conical-shaped bras and corsets Gaultier created for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour – which became one of the most iconic designs of the late 20th century – are, of course, a key part of the show. So are the trench coats, the breton sweaters, the kilts and the tattoo dresses that are all synonymous with his name. But the opening scene is of a teddy bear, Nana, undergoing surgery.

Nana (who is male, it seems, but that’s children for you) was his first muse. Growing up in Arcueil, a southern suburb of Paris, Gaultier was an only child with an accountant father and a mother who was a clerk. They were loving and kind, but it was his nearby maternal grandmother, Marie – a provider of counselling, massage and facials, plus marriage and fashion advice to local women – who awoke his creative side.

When the young Jean Paul was four, he asked his parents for a doll. “They said it was not good for a boy to have a doll so it was better to have a bear.” A few years on, Marie let him watch the Folies Bergère cabaret performances on television.

“I loved it so much, the next day I took the feathers out of my mother’s duster and put them on my teddy bear,” he says. Later, Nana would have make-up – stolen from Marie. The first cone-shaped bra, in the form of pyramidal paper breast implants, went on Nana, too. “Nana is now retired, in a shoe box at home, but he is a superstar,” Gaultier says. A giant Nana replacement appears in the performance. “He is 30-feet-high in the show!”

Gaultier had few friends at school, chiefly because he was shy and terrible at soccer, but he gained respect when his teacher caught him doodling the women from Folies Bergère and punished him by making him parade around the classroom with the drawing pinned to his back. The others were impressed. “The next day, they said, ‘Draw a woman for me, draw a woman for me!’ ”

Gaultier spent a lot of time with Marie, sitting quietly in the corner as clients had therapy sessions; aged eight, he would hear her tell them their whole lives could be changed if they just altered their dress or hair, then he’d sketch them in imaginary clothes and agree. “It was my own education in a way,” he says.

He began his first job in fashion on his 18th birthday, after a neighbour sent his sketches to contacts in the industry, one of whom was pioneering French designer Pierre Cardin, who hired him as a studio assistant. “Nobody speaks about Cardin but he’s a genius! He always wanted to be new, new, new, and he said fashion will become something that isn’t there to impress people, but to promote something else!” Using haute couture as a marketing strategy; Gaultier would remember this.

Gaultier could be excused an ego the size of a room, but he seems never happier than when paying tribute to the influence others have had on him. Some people at Cardin were sketching “long silhouettes that were nice, with the proportions just right”, but Gaultier preferred to be looser, using a “mix of fabric, colour, finding ideas by mistakes”. Cardin encouraged him to be “free and crazy”, but the young Gaultier was asked to leave when he granted himself six weeks’ unannounced holiday as a reward for completing his first couture show as a studio assistant. “I thought it was like school! You work until June or July, then come back at the end of September. But no.”

Gaultier’s single, Aow Tou Dou Zat, 1989.

Gaultier’s single, Aow Tou Dou Zat, 1989.

He went to work for Jacques Esterel and Jean Patou, more traditional Parisian houses, before returning to Cardin in 1974. The next year, he bumped into Francis Menuge, a friend of a friend. “I said to my friend, ‘He’s attractive, yes, pity he’s not gay …’ And it turned out that in the holidays he’d been having some experiments.” (Gaultier’s realisation he was gay came a lot earlier. At 13, his grandmother gave him a knowing look and a novel in which “a guy in it gets f…ed”.)

Then 23, Gaultier fell in love with Menuge and they just as immediately began working together. Menuge was “business-minded, but also creative and sensitive and clever” and convinced Gaultier he was good enough to start his own line. At the time, Gaultier thought that, aside from Yves Saint Laurent and Cardin, most couturiers were playing it too safe. But Kenzo, a luxury house launched in 1970 by Kenzo Takada, had shown that ready-to-wear was now the place to be truly creative.

Gaultier presented his first collection at the Paris planetarium in 1976. It included biker jackets with tutus, and dresses made of placemats: designs informed by tradition but inspired by “the streets”. At that moment, other designers were pushing the “Parisian peasant” look. Gaultier ignored all that. “If something is a tradition,” it was once said of him, “he doesn’t touch it. If it’s a convention, he pulverises it.”

Over the next decade he became a revolutionary star, including in his casting, which featured the kind of models – such as the androgynous Farida Khelfa, of North African descent – who were then rarely seen on runways. His first men’s collection, the skirt-heavy Man As Object, in 1984, reversed the gaze. Later he would include tattooed, trans, “plus size” and disabled models long before diversity was encouraged.

“I always liked looking another way, and it shocked me that some couldn’t appreciate that people were different,” he says. “I never had a message, but through clothes you can say a lot of things about politics, sex, society.” It’s true, I say. Like Melania Trump’s coats. “Yes!” Unlike others, he’s said he’d “definitely” dress the US First Lady.

Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier at the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018.

Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier at the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018. Credit:Getty Images

By the mid-’80s, celebrities started to find Gaultier. Madonna wore one of his dresses to the 1985 American Music Awards. “I had loved her since Holiday,” he says. At the end of the decade, Madonna asked him to design 358 costumes for her Blond Ambition tour. Just as he started, Menuge – by then his boyfriend of more than 15 years – died from an AIDS-related illness. “It was horrible. I was very sad, I loved him. We made this thing [the business] together. I thought about stopping, but I went on.”

He threw himself into work. To break his timidity, Menuge had encouraged Gaultier to co-write and release a dance record, Aow Tou Dou Zat, in 1989 and he pushed himself further by designing costumes for movies, including Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, as well as launching his hugely successful corset-shaped perfume, Classique. And Eurotrash.

Gaultier loved Eurotrash, the TV show he co-hosted with Antoine de Caunes, which revealed European sexual mores to wide-eyed British teenagers and played up to both his Frenchness and campness. “When Francis died, I knew I can’t quit, I had to do something else, like this. I was the gay one, but it was done in a natural way.”

Before he died, Menuge had also been nagging Gaultier to give couture a go again. In 1996 he met Bernard Arnault – the chairman of the fashion conglomerate LVMH, which owns Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, and Celine, among other brands – thinking he might be offered the head couturier role at Dior. Instead that went to John Galliano, while Gaultier was asked to replace Galliano at Givenchy. “I say non.” He’d never dreamed of working for Givenchy, once calling it “very bourgeois”.

He opened Gaultier Paris, his own couture label, the following year and instantly loved the wild freedom and delicate fussiness of it. At the same time, though, he was happy to design for others: in 2003 he took on the creative directorship of Hermès, succeeding Martin Margiela, the avant-garde Belgian prodigy who had started as his assistant in the mid-’80s. Opening Gaultier Paris was undeniably smart. Couture houses tend to operate at a loss these days but they’re commercially justified by the value they add to the designer’s other ventures. In other words, Gaultier was about to sell a lot more perfumes.

In September it will have been five years since Gaultier announced the closing of his ready-to-wear division in favour of focusing on the twice-yearly couture collections that are required to be formally recognised by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. “There are too many clothes,” he says. “Even some companies set fire to them, did you hear? Crazy. More clothes, nobody to wear them, nobody to pay for them.”

He still enjoys designing as much as ever, “but fashion has truly changed, now it’s more like marketing. You have to make a contract to make stars wear the clothes. You pay them, it’s incredible.”

Well, is there anybody whom you would like to wear your clothes now? “They are always formatted by stylists – it is no more about personality.”

French singer Mylene Farmer, long-time muse of Gaultier.

French singer Mylene Farmer, long-time muse of Gaultier.Credit:Getty Images

What about the Duchess of Sussex? Or Cambridge? “I prefer the old English ladies. The Queen is starting to dress like her mother, in improbable colours, it’s truly great. Because she is old, she has an opinion, she doesn’t care about fashion.” His PR assistant shows him a photograph of Her Majesty’s hot-pink D-Day ensemble. “I love it! The only thing missing is that I think the inside of her carriages should be the same colour. There was one, Barbara Cartland? Her dogs matched her dresses. The animal people will be against me but I think it would be quite fabulous! Maybe the dogs would enjoy it, what do you think?”

It says something that Gaultier is here at all. Many of the other recent male titans of fashion have either run into financial problems (Christian Lacroix, Yohji Yamamoto), battled addiction (Marc Jacobs and Galliano) or committed suicide (Alexander McQueen). “I started very young, and I think I have the luck to still love it. I am still the child who loves to play his game.”

He’s certainly savvy: seven years as creative director at Hermès came to an end in 2010, but in that time he’d also calmly grown his own brand to include denim, eyewear, jewellery, childrenswear and homeware, at a time when other couturiers were panicking.

He maintained a certain kind of celebrity, too: he was still respected as a haute couture designer of considerable talent, yet he’s equally at home in pop culture. In 2012 he became the first designer to join the jury of the Cannes Film Festival. Brands such as Coca-Cola have asked him for advice, while celebrities, from Catherine Deneuve to Lady Gaga, continue to wear him. Today it’s estimated he is worth more than $360 million, with reported houses in Paris, Greece and in the Basque country.

Very little gets him down, bar politics. “It’s quite sad, no? I was hearing the same when I was a child, just lie, lie, lie. There is the young, like the girl from Sweden …”

The global warming activist Greta Thunberg? “Yes! She believes in something, sees things more fresh. It belongs to the young to make a big change.”

As a committed Anglophile, Brexit makes him sad, too, “but the English are insular, so they have that sense of being different, which I respect. I understand thinking you can lead by yourselves, by your own traditions. But I also like the idea of a united Europe.”

He’s recently worked with Madonna again, creating outfits for her new persona, Madame X. The vision – leather, eye patch, a lot of metal, blonde plaits – was her idea but their collaboration. “She wanted black, more gothic, and liked one old outfit in my [1994 ready-to-wear] tattoo collection that was Joan of Arc. Madonna has been Frida Kahlo, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, all fighting for women. Now she can be Joan of Arc, fighting for age!”

Gaultier is starting to think about his own age, and who might take over the empire. “Maybe I start to think about that, but it’s difficult, because there are a lot who are interested. I have some in mind.”

He has a boyfriend – “He is Greek! Actually I don’t know why I told you he’s Greek, it’s not important” – of several years, with whom he lives in Paris and frequently visits Greece. When there, Gaultier just sketches.

But he knows he’s getting old. He says he never used to pause and ask interviewers to remind him of the question. He’s also “getting fatter, [and] I don’t move as well. I remember one party, I had these huge heels, up and down the stairs here, but I tried them last year and couldn’t even stand up.”

I ask Gaultier how he thinks of his legacy, which prompts a detailed recollection of a 1986 British television advert for The Guardian. A skinhead is running down a street behind a suited businessman carrying a briefcase. The skinhead runs up to the businessman and the camera freezes. Viewers are led to believe he’s going to mug him, but the real danger is revealed to be a falling pile of bricks. The skinhead is saving the man’s life. I ask, that’s your legacy?

Oui, that I don’t always see things the same way as other people, and you can find beauty in everything. It just depends how you look at it.”

His PR looks at her watch; he’s late for another fitting. In Fashion Freak Show, he has made this the show of his life. For once, he’s his own muse. Describe it in one word, I say.

Fantastique!” he responds. The smile fades a little. For a fleeting moment, the enfant terrible looks like a child again.

“I would say honest. Before I started to work, I had a complex about not being interesting, about not having anything that would make people look at me. So I would invent things. I would say, ‘Hey, see that girl on the cover of Elle? She is my cousin.’ And of course she was not. Then I started to work, and it was like, finally, I didn’t need to lie any more.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in the Telegraph Magazine (UK).

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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