When the French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier was a young boy, he was taken by theatre. Attending some of the most famous French revues, he remembers the curtains going up and setting eyes on the extravagant costumes, hearing the loud music and sitting so close to the stage, he could even smell the powder make-up off the dancers. "I was enchanted," Gaultier explains over a cup of coffee at the Diva Café in Berlin's oldest theatre, the Friedrichstadt Palast. His eyes lit up. "I have dreamed of working on a revue ever since I was a little boy."
Gaultier has finally made his childhood dream come true. On October 6, The One stage production will open at the Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin, where Gaultier designed 500 costumes adorned with 150,000 Swarovski jewels. Sparkling, glamorous and eccentric, the production budget was 11 million Euros.
Directed by Roland Welke, the non-narrative plot takes place in an underground party scene, something Berlin is no stranger to. During an all-night shindig, one young partygoer loses himself in the night and finds meaning as he longs to find "the one," his soul mate. "If I was not a fashion designer, I would do something like this," Gaultier says, walking through the costumes on racks backstage at the Palast.
Gaultier was first inspired to become an artist by his grandmother, who introduced him to the world of fashion. Ever since, he's built an entire career on playful and edgy designs and has dressed everyone from Madonna (he designed her famed cone bra) to Marilyn Manson, Beyonce and Kylie Minogue. The incredibly personable designer who has a musical way of speaking, brings together streetwear, pop culture and extravagance in his designs, which have come to personify the marine stripe. Just as he has used tattooed models on the catwalk, Gaultier continues to do so with the costumes, dressing them in stripes and sailor tattoos -- but never in this context.
It seems as though Gaultier has been waiting his whole life for this moment, and it goes back to when he was just nine-years-old, recognising he was unlike most kids. "I was really rejected by others in school because I wasn't playing football," he said. "They called me 'la fille' but I wasn't a girl." After school one day, he did a drawing of a girl with fishnets and feathers; and was then punished by his teacher. "But the boys thought I was cool, asking me to make more sketches," he said. "Ever since, it was my dream one day to make a revue."
So last year, when Gaultier visited the Palast to see French designer Thierry Mugler's The Wyld, he couldn't hold back when he met the director. "Usually, if someone doesn't ask me, I don't say anything," he says. "But no, this time I said something. Maybe because I don't do ready-to-wear anymore, I feel freer. I said I would love to do it. The director said 'why not?' Now, voila."
The costumes bring together a mix of what Gaultier calls "clubbing clothes, extravagance and things from my collection that are truly me," he laughs. "Gaultier style."
He also brings together an unconventional mix of references, most notably the Village People. One costume shows a man dressed in a black leather Native Indian costume, calling to mind the band's singer, Felipe Rose. "The idea was fashion but to put it in a revue cabaret context with feathers, it's a mix," said Gaultier. "There are the tattoos that I've done for a long time. There is black leather, fetish stuff, sailors, fashion and the Palast, Its cabaret that lets you look into the nightlife scene. Very Berlin."
The inspiration for the costumes also comes from Gaultier's own experience in Berlin's nightlife underworld. "I've gone to Berghain, but other clubs too," he explains. "Berlin's nightlife is incredible, it's on its own; it has the energy of London in the late 70s and early 80s, a cool way of living and quite nice people."
A number of the costumes are inspired by famed Berlin characters, like the eccentric 80s classical singer Klaus Nomi, who also inspired Gaultier's spring 2009 couture collection. There is also a reference to Berlin punk queen Nina Hagen. "She was the first German punk, it was her," said Gaultier. "Nina Hagen is very inspiring." It's just another element in Jean Paul's love affair with the city, the designer has been visiting Berlin since before the fall of the Wall, watching the city change from divided to united. "I love the mix of modernity and tradition," he says, of the German capital. "I love it when you can go through the history."
The One is not a Las Vegas-style revue, though. "The show is cabaret and dance mixed with many things, it's a big European show," he explained. He started by grouping different costume styles that belong to a variety of subcultures. "I was thinking of groups of different people: punks, people into tattoos, S&M, sailors," he continues. "I like the story and the idea of bringing people from different social groups together. aristocracy meets labour, it's a mix I like to show in the clothes."
But considering the Palast is one of the biggest tourist venues in Berlin, and it draws a lot of older people, are the S&M influences too edgy for this crowd? Gaultier, who is 64, shakes his head like a rebellious teenager. "No, I did the S&M, the leather and the long feathers because I exaggerate things fabulously," he said. "It's completely what I love, it's extreme."
Despite its popularity, the theatre shows at the Palast have always been experimental; this is not the place you come to see narrative structured storylines or traditional musical theatre. There's no language barriers and most-if not all-of the music is instrumental. Palast shows are strange, bizarre and arty to the extreme. At their most recent show, The Wyld, a red-haired woman brought brightly dyed poodles out to jump through hoops before a group of dancers rode around the stage on BMX bikes. In other words, expect the unexpected.
Even though he didn't write the plot for the stage story, Gaultier keeps the focus on the theatre. "It's not a big catwalk," he said. "Of course, there is fashion but when you do fashion, you have to do something people can wear. This is not exactly fashion." It does get Gaultier thinking about how people see fashion today. "Now people look at runway shows through their mobile's camera, and tourists look at the sunset through the cameras," he says. "But it's not as beautiful as what you can see with the eyes. You can see this show in real life, which is more magical for me. Everything now is photo, photo, but this is not virtual."
The One opens at the Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin on October 6.
Text Nadja Sayej
Photography Sven Darmer