Le freak, c'est chic!: In the world of Jean Paul Gaultier and the Fashion Freak Show

As London braces itself for over a month of Jean Paul Gaultier’s theatrical extravaganza, 'Fashion Freak Show', we look back at the life and work of the fashion world’s 'enfant terrible'.

"I’ve always loved freaks, weirdos, agitators, the mixing of different aesthetics, the unexpected encounters," says Gaultier, when describing his upcoming production. "This transgressive energy will be on show for all to see."

Which other designer of his calibre could write and direct a show fusing together both haute couture, circus artists and giant teddy bears wearing cone bras to pay homage to their illustrious career and humble beginnings?

Described as a blend between a musical revue and a fashion show, Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show presents his story through an elaborate production that includes 200 costumes inspired by Gaultier’s extensive archives, original music composed by Nile Rodgers, a giant video backdrop and guest star cameos from the likes of Rossy de Palmer and Catherine Deneuve.

The show originally premiered at the Folies Bergère in 2018, the cabaret music hall in Paris that first introduced a young Gaultier to the world of fashion and entertainment when he watched a performance of theirs on television. After embarking on an international tour, including a short run at the Southbank Centre in 2019, Fashion Freak Show now claims The Roundhouse theatre as its temporary home this summer and will run for 52 shows.

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The production has been slightly adapted to cater to an English audience and will pay deference to the city that has inspired Gaultier throughout his 50-year career.

"In London, people express themselves," JPG says. "They speak with their clothes. France is more snobbish, beige, chic."

The designer has been in awe of London’s diverse, anti-establishment culture, since his first visit here in the 1970s, so it seems only fitting that the show should be staged in Camden, the natural home of the punk spirit.

It was this love for the avant-garde and defying conventions that would cement Gaultier’s notoriety as the 'enfant terrible' of French fashion – a term which refers to a precocious, rebellious genius.

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"He is of the most influential designers of end-of-the-20th-century fashion," says Bronwyn Cosgrave, co-founder of the podcast platform, Wondercast and former features editor of British Vogue. "There is so much he has contributed to plant the seeds of what would become fashion in the 21st century."

When he launched his first collection in 1976, he would shock the conservative Paris crowd with his irreverent style, consisting of masculine clothing for women, men in corsets and garments made from recycled material such as tin cans.

He would further push the boundaries in the 1980s with his dresses made from rubbish bags, the launch of his Boy Toy collection for men, including the striped Breton sailor shirt which would become synonymous with his brand and of course, the infamous conical corset.

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Many may associate the cone bra with Madonna - arguably his most famous collaboration – with him designing the costumes for her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990, but it was actually a teddy bear called Nana who Gaultier, at the tender age of seven, invented his original cone bra for.

Growing up in the Parisian suburbs, he was first introduced to fashion by his maternal grandmother who owned a lot of vintage clothing and corsetry. She encouraged the young prodigy to do whatever he wanted, and when his parents refused to buy him a doll, he created a bra made from newspaper for his teddy bear and painted the teddy’s face in his grandmother’s makeup instead.

Source: Jeune Public

Though not everyone shared his grandmother’s enthusiasm. The boy wonder would receive a spanking from his teacher when she caught him drawing pictures of the feathered Folies Bergère dancers that he had seen on TV. This is one of the many pinnacle moments of Gaultier’s life that features in the stage show, with De Palmer playing the role of the stern schoolmistress.

Despite never receiving any formal training and his only education coming from fashion magazines, the 18-year-old Gaultier was hired as an assistant by Pierre Cardin, who was impressed with his sketches.

"I think that was instrumental in him being grounded in the craft of couture," says Cosgrave. "Cardin was the designer who started off in Christian Dior's atelier and he worked on the New Look collection which is the grassroots of modern couture."

After establishing his eponymous label in 1982, Gaultier began bringing street style to the catwalk, striking a balance between the outlandish and wearable, timeless pieces. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and beyond, he became a household name, with his partnerships with celebrities and strong female figures like Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Marion Cotillard and through presenting the late-night Channel 4 show, 'Eurotrash', before retiring from the runway for good in 2020.

"He's been such a master of infiltrating pop culture," says Nick Ede, television presenter and pop culture expert. "With things like Eurotrash, he really took the piss out of himself. Another designer may have thought it terrible to be associated with people getting their boobs out or pornstars or sex museums, but because we bought into his quirkiness, it worked really well. He became this pop culture figure that people might not have known was a designer and just thought was a crazy French TV presenter."

Celebrating the strange and the unique has been a defining motif throughout his work. Gaultier has been both praised and lambasted for his commitment to diversity and eclecticism, being one of the first designers to work with unconventional models like full-figured women and older men, as well as his disregard for gender roles, sending men down the runway in skirts and pioneering underwear as outerwear for women.

"He's made it acceptable to be a little bit different," says Ede. "His non-conformism was a pre-cursor to what we're seeing today. What RuPaul has done for Drag Race, Gaultier was doing this twenty years ago."

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With his forthcoming show, Gaultier hopes to continue to be a force for social change by tackling current issues such as plastic surgery and the effects of social media. However, we can still look forward to seeing the campness and showmanship that we’ve come to associate with the designer.

"This show is frivolous and fun,” says Ede. "It's a great way of introducing fashion to people, but it's also a great way of creating a really fun retrospective and I think people, particularly post-pandemic, are wanting to have a stimulating experience - and this is what he's created with this show. It will secure his legacy once again."

Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show runs from July 15 to August 28 at The Roundhouse. Tickets are on sale now.