Jean Paul Gaultier | Fashion Freak Show

by Long Nguyen

At the end of the Fashion Freak Show stellar two hour live multi-media cabaret revue dance performance at the Folies Bergère, the French designer Jean Paul Gaultier appeared in a video broadcast and stated that the entire show was a dream of his since he was a young boy who had the audacity to dream that one day he would have a major show at the legendary venue that had hosted the likes of Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett, Fernandel and Josephine Baker.  As a young kid, he had the propensity for drawing illustrations, often with bizarre depictions of clothes in the video portrait where Rossy de Palma was his teacher, and he once practiced his emerging talent dressing his own teddy with a corset top and makeup.  

Via video montage, singing, and dance performance, The Fashion Freak Show showcased the seminal moments of Gaultier’s life and career from his birth in Arceuil to the moment he realized he wanted to be a fashion designer, after devouring the scenes from the 1945 Jacques Becker’s Falbalas that depicted a narcissistic couture fashion designer’s obsession and seduction of women including his friend’s fiancée to find inspirations for his collections.  The guest star model, Anna Cleveland, wore a blue silk dress with a train long enough to require not only a hanger but a rolling rack. She paraded on stage in a sketch on the chaotic back and front stage scenes from his first fashion show in 1976 that also included Marie Mayer, a comedienne and model for the Classique Gaultier perfume, in a long black biker and spray painted tutu skirt.  Cleveland, who has taken time off from modeling for her role, also performed a great scene as Josephine Baker along the Cuban dancer-model Lazaro Cuervo Costa as a tribute to the singer’s 1926 appearance wearing a skirt made of hanging bananas.

As it was autobiographical, the show contained moving scenes of the young designer played by Patrick Kuo, the Australian-born dancer who has joined the house of Ninja since moving to Paris two years ago. It also followed the relationship with Gaultier’s partner in life Francis Menuge, from their meeting, with a large projection of an idealistic and colorful portrait done by Pierre & Gilles, to the moment of Menuge’s passing from AIDS after the years frequenting the nightlife of London to Le Palace in Paris, as portrayed in an S&M scene with the dancers wearing cut-out vests, quilts and vinyl dresses that showed how the designer incorporated underground cultures into his fashion vision.

In between were costumes created especially for the show, remade from Gaultier’s original runway versions.  Many of the designers runway looks over the last four decades are dispersed throughout the show – the velvet corset cone dress from fall 1984, the tattoos looks from spring 1994, the underwear as outerwear from from spring 1998, or the houndstooth head to toe look from fall 1991.  The burlesque dancer Maud’ Amour partially undressed herself and went topless dancing and singing perhaps in a nod the to tradition of the famous location as well as a tribute to the bare breasted Madonna in a September 1992 AMFAR charity show in Los Angeles or Naomi Campbell in a high waist pencil skirt and red wool beret in January 2002.

This was not the first time that Gaultier had done a revue-dance show as a way to exhibit his fashion designs.  In 1985 he collaborated with the avant-garde dance choreographer Régine Chopinot in a show called ‘Le défilé’-- French for a fashion show -- where as usual, the costumes were extraordinary renditions of some of his runway, now as tutus, corset dresses, and trompe d’oeil knits worn by dancers simulating a fashion presentation.  Besides the famous Blonde Ambition tour where Madonna wore several of his satin corsets on stage, the designers collaborated with filmmakers Peter Greenaway’s 1989 The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, Pedro Aldomovar’s 1992 for Kika, and Luc Besson’s 1997 The Fifth Element. Pictures of the costumes for these movies were displayed in a sequence on the stage and overhead monitor.

The exception was for a lengthy revisit of the seminal men’s fall-winter 1996-1997 show – ‘L’homme moderne’ -- the first men’s haute couture show that took place in a hotel particulier near Pigalle in January 1996.  This time around, Catherine Deneuve provided a video narration as she called out the number and name of each outfit in the same way over two decades ago when each male model carried a number indicating their look on the show program with an announcer called out the number and a description of the outfit.  

I remembered that men’s show in 1996, and the dancers wore identical looks today -- a brocade riding coat with leather skin tight pants and lace corset bustier with cock feathers worn with black pants and shirt and tie.  Gaultier did much to dismantle the traditional and rigid formality of menswear fashion by creating a powerful hourglass silhouette with tailored pinstripes cut to emphasize rather than hide the male physique of menswear since his first men’s show called ‘Homme objet’ for spring 1982 where male narcissism and eroticism were worn by pin-up boys with each of their outfits.  

A pivotal scene in the show – Plastic Fantastik – portrayed a dancer completely wrapped in an outfit made from surgical bandages going to the named department store where she can purchase a new limb, a better butt, or a rounder boobs on different floor to alter herself to adhere to the prevailing aesthetics on what is beautiful. The recorded announcer also mentioned that the second floor specialized in men’s virility boosting services.  More than any other parts of the show this scene epitomized the Gaultier life and work ethos – that beauty is everywhere.  Decades before the current trend of diversity, Gaultier had casted models of all types, races, and origins as an embrace of his core belief not only in multicultural world – Mongolia, Hassidic, Eskimo, Punks, Rockers – that inspired many collections but the cast of ‘beauties’ who waked those shows came from everywhere in the world and of different shapes.  The plus-size model Crystal Renn did his fall 2006 show.

Gaultier treated the sexes by imparting the power of seduction to both genders on an equal scale like the men’s spring 1997 show at a converted brothel where the men were the objects of desire. Genderless clothes, streetwear as high fashion, tech in fashion, and diversity were no yet issues in fashion then as they are so predominant today but these issues were more personal before he made the gender-neutral clothes fashionable and diversity a must.   Perhaps for this he was labeled enfant terrible - a denomination for an outsider a rebel who wasn’t viewed as part of the dominant system as he was simply so far ahead of his times in his vision of society and in how he portrayed people through his own language – clothes. To achieve truly modern fashion that reflected the evolving society at large is a significant heritage. The exaggerated corsets and the men’s skirt-pants serves as objects of power much like the way Yves Saint Laurent put women in pantsuits in the early 1960’s as a challenge to societal patriarchy.

In the beginning sequence of the show, there was a phone conversation with a supposed Karl Lagerfled-like figure, but as a black man with a white wig, dismissing Gaultier’s first show in 1976 as trashy for its non-bourgeois approach and for basically turning a trash bag into a dress as total nonsense.  But by the end of the performance, it is hard to underestimate Gaultier’s contribution to modern fashion in elevating to triumph the repressed, the Kitsch, and the camp to redefine the notion and ideal of taste and elegance via clothes and this is clearly visible throughout this performance.

The very strong and harmonious 15 member cast including the aerialist Julie Demont, the acrobat Nacer Marsad, the singer-dancer Mike Gauthier, the model-dancer Grégoire Malandain, the House of Ninja voguer Lea Vlamos, and the singer Demi Mondain, reflect this diverse ‘city’ much like inhabitant the city of Paris and much like the audience who were watching the show whose cast members frequently engaged with because the audience was also an integral part of the show itself. As a bilingual set, the show surely has potential for an international tour to other major global capitals in the coming year.  

Fashion Freak Show at Folies Bergères, Paris runs until December 30, 2018

Purchase tickets Here


Fashion Freak Show
Written/Costumed by Jean Paul Gaultier

Direction by Jean Paul Gaultier and Tonie Marshall

Choreography: Marion Motin

Music: Nile Rodgers

Scenography: Eric Soyer

Lighting: Dimitri Vassiliu

Video: Renaud Rubiano