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Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show

The famed French couturier opens up about his transgender teddy bear, the theater of fashion, and his forthcoming show at Paris’ iconic Folies Bergère cabaret

Prosper Keating: Jean-Paul, you have a new project, haven’t you? 

Jean-Paul Gaultier: Definitely, yes! New and old at the same time. It’s a kind of cabaret, at the Folies Bergère—a review. It’s been a thing with me since I was nine years old.

We are having lunch together in Jean-Paul’s dining room at his vast Paris headquarters in the Arts-et-Métiers quartier. In fact, we’re talking more than we’re eating, about all sorts of subjects, and I am failing miserably in my journalistic duty to remain focused on the topic at hand because Jean-Paul’s conversational enthusiasm is so infectious. One is never bored in his presence and we talk of music, of the London he loved and still loves, of British street style, and of the traveling retrospective he did with the Montreal Musée des Beaux-Arts. We also speak about his childhood, his transgender teddy bear, and how Paris’ iconic Folies Bergère cabaret show turned him from the school misfit into the go-to guy for saucy pictures. And, of course, we discuss his Fashion Freak Show, which will run at the venerable Parisian cabaret from September to December 2018.

JPG: It was in ’61, something like that. I was with my grandmother in our house. She had the TV and I saw the owners of the Folies Bergère, Mr. and Mrs. Derval, talking about their new review, Je T’Aime aux Folies Bergère. You can’t really translate the title. It doesn’t mean anything. But it doesn’t matter.

And then, I saw it! The girls coming down with feathers, fishnets, and straps, you know? Glittering. It was like, my God, it’s beautiful! I was so stunned and impressed. Afterwards, I wanted to dress my teddy bear like that. He was already kind of transgender, you know, not a real boy bear. The day after, I went to school

I was not liking so much school, you know? I wasn’t listening to what was saying the teacher, so I sketched a woman in fishnets with glittering jewels and some ostrich feathers on her ass. The teacher, she came up behind me, made me stand up, and gave me some bang-bang-bang on my fingers.

PK: She beat you?

JPG: Yeah, she beat me. And make me go on the stage in front of the class. She pinned my sketch to my tablier d’école, my school blues. And then she made me go to the different classes to humiliate me, I suppose—to make me feel embarrassed. But what happened was completely the opposite. I was kind of rejected by the other boys because I was not good at football. I was very bad. 

Ils disaient, “Gaultier, what is that guy about? He doesn’t play with us. We don’t want him!” They really didn’t like me, but now, they were smiling at me and asking me to make sketches of beautiful girls like that for them.

So my sketching became a passport for me, opening all doors. It started like that and became fashion. For me, fashion was not just about putting clothes in shops. It was about runways and salons de couture like I saw in the movie Falbalas. Models walking, lights on their faces, with people looking at them and clapping. It was a show.

Released in the English-speaking world as Paris Frills, Jacques Becker’s 1945 film noir about fashion is known to be one of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s keystone influences and provides a clue to the deeper sensitivities of the reflective man behind the showman act he performs with such aplomb before the cameras. Shot in Paris in 1944 during the German occupation, Falbalas was not released until after the Liberation.

PK: So fashion is theatre? For you?

JPG: It’s theatrical. It was the theatrical ways that I loved. So after seeing Falbalas, I start to sketch fashion. I did not go to a school of fashion because, no, they’d say, You have school. They’d say I was too young. At the age of 18, I went to Pierre Cardin because I sent him some of my sketches of fashion.

When I had to do my own show, I wanted to present it my way, which was more likely to be spectacular. One thing I have to say is that I was lucky to go to Pierre Cardin. It was already in the ’70s, on the day of my 18th birthday, the 24th of February, 1970. 

That July, I helped him for the Couture and he was presenting in a very theatrical way. He spoke into the microphone, under the lights, saying, “Hello, this is my new collection… For the woman who will go to the moon.” 

PK: Man was landing on the moon for the first time…

JPG: Yes. The show was very futuristic and very theatrical. The girls had to be appealing but in a theatrical way. So when I started to make my own collections, it was with girls who were not models. I wanted girls that impressed me because I think they were the ones that were able to wear my clothes.

Maybe my clothes were not as modern as the girls, but the girls were very modern. Thinking modern, you know? Feminine and strong at the same time. I wanted to show that. Not the way we would present for Couture. I wanted to present the opposite. 

I was choosing the music with my boyfriend. We were choosing it for the episodes that would go with it. We wanted to present characters and heroines like in the movies. Of course, I had been inspired by cinema. I’d been inspired by theatre also. I’d been inspired by rock stars—David Bowie, Mick Jagger…

PK: Alice Cooper?

JPG: Alice Cooper was quite incredible! Of course! And Jimi Hendrix—his afro. Julie Driscoll, who moved so well and was so sexy and beautiful. With her hairdo, like a small afro but small, small, small. She was very French, in a way. That was what I wanted in my shows. And, of course, I was influenced a lot by The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This was before punk. But the Rocky Horror Show was already punky. 

PK: Proto-punk…

JPG: Exactly. Exactly, exactly, exactly, exactly! And gothic at the same time. So I loved what I saw. I presented one collection, which was kind of gothic, you know, and at the end, there was a coffin that opened and a girl that came out. She was like a witch. The dress had a fringe made of little plastic skeletons. Like the ones for children at Halloween. The French press did not accept this. Didn’t like it. But the English loved it.

PK: Show business, in a way. Almost as if the fashion was of secondary importance because you were putting on a show. An impresario putting on a review.

JPG: In some way. I see a lot of shows. When they proposed the exhibition with the Montreal museum, normally I would refuse a project like that because, for me, it is for dead people. When you are dead, you can have an exhibition. When you see clothes on a dummy, it’s not beautiful because there is nobody inside.

The dress is a part of the body. It’s like the hair. A part of the body. I mean, the hairstylists, like Odile [Gilbert] are even more connected with the person than the couturier. The couturier’s clothes are worn for a night, but the hair, it will be on the pillow, still there the next day, making the woman more beautiful and attractive. I envy them for that.

You see women in Dior, Saint Laurent, etcetera photographed by Avedon, Irving Penn, all the old photographers, and then you see the clothes on dummies and is it not as beautiful. I wanted movement, but to have real models was not possible. So I thought about a show I saw in Avignon with faces projected onto the dummies. Projections, and maybe making them speak also.

PK: This is why you want to do a cabaret-review?

JPG: It’s part of everything I like. It will show fashion shows, many shows, but in a different way. It is also around beauty. It will be about hair, beauty, makeup, choreography. The gestural model of moving. A real show in the Folies Bergère, with everything, even singing—fashion, clothes, attitude, pose. C’est personnel. Personal.

PK: You’re coming home. 

JPG: Voilà! It’s that. It’s like a dream that came true. And it is fabulous because it’s there, and it will be like a fashion freak show. That is the title.

PK: Fashion freak show? 

JPG: It’s a fashion freak show. Voilà. There will be a lot of fashion freaks! [laughs] It is a homage to all the people that came to see my shows, love fashion, and are interested in fashion. 

PK: So you’re going to stage this spectacle at the Folies Bergère next year. What else can you tell us about it?

JPG: What I can say is that it will be very honest. Like I said, all the things that I like, all the subjects that interest me and that I show. It will be a little like my life, but in a kind of funny way, because my life is quite funny, in a way. 

It was said that I was always like in a dream, how I lived, how I met my boyfriend, etcetera. My little weekends, sexual weekends in London, things like that. Like, No Sex Please, We’re British [a dated but iconic 1973 British sex comedy]. I think it is the contrary! A lot of sex because we are British! And good sex because we are British.

PK:  Ah yes, the Britain you love and that loves you back. Jean-Paul, thank you very much for talking to us about your new spectacle. We look forward to talking to you again. 

JPG: With pleasure. À bientôt.

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