Jean Paul Gaultier surrounded by cast members from his Fashion Freak Show (Photo: Luke Austin)
French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier has never been one to play by the rules. The now 67-year-old never formally studied fashion, but got his big break working for Pierre Cardin in the early 1970s. He launched his own first collection at the midpoint of that decade.
His gender-fluid approach to design – putting men in skirts in the 1980s and shunning demure, dress design for more confrontational women’s couture – quickly earned him the moniker of the enfant terrible of French fashion. He gleefully embraced the title.
However, whereas enfant terrible successors such as Alexander McQueen dwelled on the macabre and dark, a camp playfulness often underpinned Gaultier’s work. This led to collaborations with such people as Spanish film director Pedro Almodavar, among others.
In the mid-90s, he made the surprising decision to co-host the British TV show Eurotrash. It brought his brand and fame to a whole new audience.
Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show
His decision to create a stage show – part Burlesque, part fashion show, part stage musical – is another leftfield decision, which, like Eurotrash, could initially be viewed with wariness.
Gaultier says Fashion Freak Show, which first premiered in Paris in late 2018, is the realization of a dream he’s had since childhood. His beloved grandma indulged his love of fashion and allowed him to play with her corsets.
He fell in love with the movie Falbalas and learned of Paris’ famous Folies Bergère. The seeds for a stage show featuring his own fabulous costumes were planted.
Gaultier: from childhood to fame
Fashion Freak Show features 18 dancers and singers. It follows an extremely loose narrative skimming over Gaultier’s life, beginning with him as a little boy, surgically ‘operating’ on his beloved teddy bear and getting into trouble at school for endlessly sketching his own fashion designs.
There is an imaginative use of screens and stage-wide projections, with videos depicting dramatized clips of his life and those who have influenced him. It’s also an excuse to drop in snippets of a few famous friends, such as Catherine Deneuve and Eurotrash co-host, Antoine de Caunes.
Musically, this is a pick’n’mix jukebox musical that tends to feature the dancers performing routines to well-loved favorites (Chic’s Le Freak, Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up, Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams) and some classic queer pop (Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax).
When it comes to live vocals, singer Demi Mondaine performs some of the show’s standout songs, including Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing and the easy listening take on The Doors’ Light My Fire. And of course, there’s some Madonna (Vogue) in there: JPG designed the singer’s iconic conical bra corset for her Blonde Ambition tour.
You can check out the soundtrack on Spotify.
The dancers constantly change outfits. These range between classic Gaultier creations (plenty of Breton-style tops and corsets) and new clothing he’s designed specifically for the show.
Show highlights include a breathless recreation of his first ever fashion show. The outfits still manage to astound and illustrate why Gaultier shot to fame.
Via video projection, France’s Catherine Ringer provides a joyous version of Chic’s I Want Your Love. As she does so, dancers representing Gaultier and former business partner and lover Francis Menuge twirl and fall in love.
In the second half, Ringer returns via video to sing a haunting I’ve Got You Under My Skin, while the dancer playing Menuge, his body no more than taut skin and muscle, succumbs to AIDS.
The song is both a metaphor for love and the then untreatable virus (Menuge died in 1990). It’s a powerful and somber moment in a show that’s otherwise brisk and joyous.
As a concept, Fashion Freak Show is something of a mongrel. It’s a celebration of Gaultier’s career, a lighthearted swipe at the fashion world (complete with affectionate digs at Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfield), and a song and dance revue.
Despite all the video production, there’s the occasional whiff of high-budget ‘stage school production’ in places. It would sit perfectly in Las Vegas. Despite Gaultier’s Anglophilia and punk references, Fashion Freak Show seems a slightly odd fit for the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.
If you love fashion, Gaultier, or devoured The Face magazine in the 80s and 90s, you will enjoy it. Will it extend beyond that core audience? Maybe not, but then maybe it doesn’t need to. This London run extends for less than two weeks, so grab those tickets while you can.
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