Jean Paul Gaultier, enfant terrible of fashion, steps off the ramp
There was drama, a faux funeral, contortionists and camp comedy as Jean Paul Gaultier, 67, bade farewell to the runway last week. His final show championed feminism, gender fluidity, and hit out (albeit gently) at fashion as a culprit in the escalating climate crisis.
“I think fashion has to change,” he wrote, in a letter that was distributed to every guest at the show. “There are too many clothes, and too many clothes that are useless. Do not throw them away, recycle them!”
He called this his first upcycled haute couture collection — he had returned to his archives, he said, and used elements of previous collections to create new works of art. There was a baby doll dress made up of dozens of baby’s dresses. Skirts made up of shredded stockings and gloves. A corset dress made up entirely of pink satin belts.
It was a fitting conclusion to a 50-year-long career that encompassed a series of firsts, and a decades-long dedication to fashion as art.
Gaultier has dressed stars from Nicole Kidman and Christina Aguilera to Beyoncé and Rihanna. Most famously, he crafted for Madonna the conical bra corset that underlined her unique brand of sexuality, when she wore it on her Blond Ambition tour in 1990.
Before it became cool to do so, he pushed for diversity, inviting models of varying ages and sizes to his ramps; he embraced streetwear and championed gender fluidity. He put men in skirts and draped them in gossamery fabrics; for women, he crafted bulked up jackets and leather, and, in one controversial case, garments inspired by the robes of Jewish rabbis.
He took his inspiration from the street, and from across cultures, pairing turbans with tuxedos, for instance.
Born to a clerk and an accountant, he never received formal training as a designer. Instead, he fell in love with fashion a child. His early inspirations were TV shows and his grandmother’s fashion magazines. As a child, he crafted clothes for his toys — often out of newspaper; by 13, he was designing for his mother and grandmother.
In his late teens, he began sending sketches to famous couture stylists, asking if they would work with him. Pierre Cardin was so impressed, he hired him as an assistant when JPG was 18.
He was known as a good-natured man and his farewell show reflected that, but so irreverent was he, that he was called the enfant terrible.
In 2019, the former creative director at Hermès collaborated with American streetwear brand, Supreme, on clothing, sneakers and a belt, among other things. Some of the clothes said ‘F*** Racism’, a throwback to his Fight Racism apparel from the 1990s.
He’s now off the ramp, but says there’s a surprise coming. A new project. It would be impossible to try and guess what it could be. Instead, let’s look back a few years, to when the journalist and travel writer, Raul Dias, met JPG, in Mumbai. Here’s the encounter in his own words.
I remember meeting Jean Paul Gaultier on a rainy September afternoon in 2007. I was at Hornby’s Pavilion at the ITC Grand Central hotel in Mumbai with my mother, on our monthly lunch date. From outside came the cacophony of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations.
I was a few weeks into my stint as fashion correspondent at a leading daily’s entertainment supplement — a role I had reluctantly accepted because the regular fashion writer had quit and they were still looking for a replacement.
I was so raw that it took a nudge from my mum to get me to look more closely at the man seated diagonally opposite us, eating vegetable stew and appams by himself. “Isn’t that Gaultier?” mum whispered.
A quick call to my editor confirmed that Jean Paul Gaultier was indeed on a very discreet visit to Mumbai. He was being hosted by a socialite who was intent on keeping the media away. The next day’s front-page lead would be mine, I was guaranteed, if I could deliver a short interview.
Now, I was just a reporter on assignment. I walked up to the genial-looking man and thrust my business card before his aquiline nose. “Ah, we share a name,” he said. “Not many know this, but my full name is Jean Paul Raoul Gaultier.”
He agreed, bless him, to an impromptu little interview that would be the only one he gave on that trip.
He loved India, he told me, and the Ganesh Chaturthi festival fascinated him. “I really wanted to see the colour and fervour for myself and I’m so glad to be here now. I have been fabric shopping like crazy,” he added.
JPG, as he is called, was first touched by India’s beauty in the late 1970s, when he first visited, as a young backpacker. “Whenever I think of doing something different, India is what inspires me to go ahead and play with my fantasies,” he told me that day. “The gypsies of Rajasthan are a great source of inspiration, so much so that my last collection had a male showstopper in a shimmering sari.”
As a parting shot, he let me in on a little secret. “Madonna was not the first person for whom I designed that bra,” he said. “As a child I created a paper model of the conical bra for my teddy bear, who wore it for quite a number of years.”