A cone bra-adorned teddy and the undying support of a grandma: the iconic designer leaves an all-singing all-dancing legacy at his spellbinding stage show, Fashion Freak Show.
With trends in a dizzying abundance, and fast fashion tearing through the high street, it is safe to say that when it comes to the notion of a fashion icon, rich in creative musings and unafraid to push the limits of convention, they stand out amongst the crowd. A precedent that appears no match for the mastery and skill of Jean Paul Gaultier. With humble beginnings rooted in the Parisian suburbs, Gaultier, aided by an unwaveringly-supportive grandma, nurtured a love for drawing and a fascination with cone bras that saw his childhood teddy bear sporting one, long before Madonna elevated the refined design from the maverick to icon status on her Blond Ambition tour. Quickly becoming the poster child for avant-garde dressing after blazing a trail for punk and gender-fluid aesthetics on the runway and taking the knowledge he harnessed from houses such as Esterel and Jean Patou and leaving his unapologetic stamp on them, he now stands as one of the most revered designers in history.
A story so rich in captivating anecdotes as the one above is also one that is almost impossible to do justice via the medium of written words. So, to pay homage to a man so rooted in the visual and physical, naturally, there is only one way to tour his legacy in the modern day: an all-singing and all-dancing stage show.
A magical affair that I was privy to as I took to Camden’s Roundhouse for the opening night of what is set to be a 52-performance-long run across August in the British Capital, Gaultier’s playfully named Fashion Freak Show is not one to be missed. A spectacle worthy of the name, creative and sexual inhibitions are left at the theatre’s doors as contorted bodies, aerial acrobatics and, of course, recreations of some of the designer’s most legendary runways, fill the stage as an all-singing cast celebrate his unique rise to the helm of the fashion world. But, while it may be a fantastical feast for the senses, that is not to say that the show’s tender core did not steer its course. From the adoration-invoking cameo from Gaultier’s grandma to the tear-jerking unveiling of the tragic passing of his partner, Francis Menuge, it became clear that while the bombastic glamour of the display was a true reflection of the man it centres around, it is also an ode to his plentiful heart and soul. And, with the man himself sitting amongst eager onlookers of the show’s premiere night, I could not help but glance back at him and wonder how it must feel to see the euphoric peaks and unimaginable troughs of one’s life play out before your very eyes.
Taking the time to help cure my curiosity, Jean Paul Gaultier sat down with Wonderland to talk the inspiring nature of London’s creative freedom, the birth of Fashion Freak Show and the upcoming release of his latest fragrance, Scandal Les Parfums. Head below to enjoy our conversation with Jean Paul Gaultier…
I have heard you reference ‘The London Way’ and its ability to allow for creative freedom, especially when dressing. What about the city do you think allows for this?
The first time I discovered creative freedom was at Pierre Cardin. I started working for him on my 18th birthday. He was a free man and always did what he wanted creatively. He taught me the value of freedom. When he would like something I did, he would tell me not to stop there but to design a piece of furniture with the same idea. I found it exciting that you could do what you wanted and didn’t have to stick to what was considered the norm. When I moved on to other houses in Paris, Esterel and Jean Patou, I found the atmosphere snobbish and stuffy and that is when I discovered London. There was still a retro mood with the fabulous shop Biba; there were girls with curves who were not afraid to flaunt them in tight dresses. Then a bit later punk was in the air. I saw the Rocky Horror Show in Kings Road before the movie. And then, I was very influenced by the punk movement. I would escape every weekend to London and it was like a breath of fresh air. I even considered moving but my work was in Paris and I couldn’t leave it.
I must take a moment to talk to you about the iconic final couture show! What a show it was! How did the vision for the show come to fruition?
Even though it was my retirement from fashion I didn’t want it to be sad in any way, I wanted it to be a celebration of my 50-year-career in fashion, and I wanted it to be at the Chatelet Theater where I saw my first play when I was six with my grandmother. I have invited, as models, friends that I have worked with over the years – models whom I’ve known from the 70s and 80s, new friends, actors, ballet dancers, Boy George and Catherine Ringer sang – there were a hundred and fifty models, more than 200 looks all of it was a joyous mess and I surprised myself by being relaxed and enjoying it all. The idea was to say goodbye to fashion and show how much I loved it and how happy I was to be part of it for so many years.
I can imagine your life has transformed quite a bit since your departure from the house! When was the moment that you realised it was your time to step away?
I have retired from fashion, but I have not retired. I have so many new projects at the moment that sometimes I feel that I work more than before. But at some point, I have felt that fashion has changed and that I had difficulty finding the freedom that I had in my beginnings and throughout my career. It has become a competition between big groups, marketing and advertising, and that doesn’t really interest me. Also, I felt it was time to leave my place to younger generations. That is why my name continues in haute couture through collaborations with the next generation of designers. I had that idea a long time ago, at the beginning of the 90s when Christian Lacroix left Jean Patou, to establish his own house. I suggested to the then owners of Patou to have each season a different designer from a young generation like Mugler, Alaia and myself. That never came to be but, thirty years later, my idea has finally come to fruition and there have already been three designers presenting a couture show under my name.
While you may have stepped away from the house, that is not to say that you have stopped channelling your creativity into projects, most evident in Fashion Freak Show. Let’s discuss how this play came to be! What inspired you to put on such a display? What can viewers expect?
Before I saw the film Falbalas by Jacques Becker, which inspired me to work in fashion and become a couturier like the principal character in the film, I had seen the premiere of the Folies Bergere on TV. I was so dazzled by the girls in feathers and fishnets that I drew them in class the next day. My teacher caught me and made me do a round of the classes with the drawing pinned to my back. But the opposite of a punishment happened. I was not very popular in school as I wasn’t good at sports, but suddenly everybody wanted me to draw something for them. I realised that I could be loved through my work. So from then on, I always dreamed of doing a revue and the time came in 2018 when Fashion Freak Show premiered at the Folies Bergere in Paris. I thought about what could be the theme of this show and I decided to tell the story of my life as that is what I know best. I am not good at writing, so I did the scenario visually – I storyboarded it. And I chose the music with Nile Rodgers that was important to me through different stages of my life. Marion Motin did the choreography and the late Tonie Marshall was co-director with me. Again, I asked my friends to help me – Rossy de Palma, Catherine Ringer, Line Renaud, Catherine Deneuve… Of course, there is a big part on London and Antoine de Caunes, my buddy from Eurotrash, makes an appearance.
You are of course known for your unconventional designs, but you have also made quite the name for yourself in the world of perfumes! What first inspired you to explore making scents?
It was part of my haute couture dream; Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin couldn’t have accomplished fame without a fragrance to go along with it. Long before it was financially doable, my partner, Francis Menuge, concocted a mix that blended, among others, candy floss and chocolate. I really loved it, it was like a kid’s aperitive, very sweet that once you’ve drunk it makes you want a second then a third etc.
Do you have a favourite scent that you’ve created over the years? If so, why is it your favourite? You also have Scandal Les Parfums dropping, and the story is one laced with desire, sex appeal and seduction! Would you say these themes are core themes in your creative ethos?
My first fragrance, Classique, which is going to celebrate its 30 years anniversary next year, is iconic and still very modern. I was inspired by my grandmother’s rice powder that she used in abundance as well as her rice pudding. A scent already mixed predominated by Vanilla.
Scandal Les Parfums are generous and excessive; they are an erotic millefeuille with caramel as the common ingredient for the feminine and masculine… addictive! Every fragrance is linked to sensuality, much more than a piece of clothes. Fragrance is the skin. I always wanted to have fun with my creations, play with subterfuges and appearances, and see past the traditional codes. Men skirts from my 1985 collection, the iconic Madonna corset in 1990 for the Blond Ambition tour, Naomi Campbell’s topless catwalk in 2002 and many more. Beautiful sexy women with curves, ethnic women, androgynous women. I don’t want to have just one specific image of a woman in my shows, I want to present what really exists. And the same for men. I also like to show attitude.
You have also chosen Parker Van Noord and Imaan Hammam as the faces of the fragrances! What made them the right fit for this particular campaign?
Parker and Iman are the perfect modern couple; it’s a story about desire. Her, an incomparable punch and endless legs. Him, torrid dimples. It’s a love match.
It is no secret that you have dressed some of the biggest style icons from the zeitgeist, both past and present, including Madonna, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian. But I want to know, who would you cite as your ultimate muse?
I think of different women when I am designing, I don’t like to limit myself to one muse. Of course, my relationship with Madonna at the time of the Blond Ambition Tour will always stay in my heart as we were two people who understood each other and we were on the same wavelength.
And finally, I want to know, what do you hope your future holds?
Plenty of wonderful things, I hope. I am looking forward to the new collaboration at the January couture, but also to many other projects that I have started that you will hear more about soon.