jean paul gaultier, from cones to couture

Wild, provocative, bonkers but always brilliant, Jean Paul Gaultier has never failed in his quest to excite and enamour his audience. This summer, the Parisian designer, once dubbed the ‘enfant terrible’ of fashion, is celebrating 40 years of iconic...

by Holly Shackleton
10 April 2014, 1:30pm

Jean Paul Gaultier

As well as featuring over 165 outfits, sketches and Polaroids, the exhibition houses Gaultier's childhood teddy bear on which he first experimented with his designs. This battered, much-loved bear has seen it all, from Breton stripes to corsets. As he can't speak to tell the tale himself, talking wax heads of Gaultier and friends greet you at the exhibition entrance instead. Freaky and fantastically funny: this is Jean Paul Gaultier at his best.

When Jean Paul Gaultier exploded into fashion's orbit in 1984, the world sat up and took notice. The Parisian, with no formal fashion training seemed to challenge everything that came before him, refusing to accept age-old traditions in favour of inventing his own. The themes of Gaultier's early collections reflected his desire to challenge his audience, and ranged from La Dolce Vita, James Bond, sorceresses, Dadaism, existentialism and the French gigolo to holiday souvenirs, rock stars, fencers, Japanese tourists and homosexual brides. "Only one thing ever remains constant in my work," the designer chuckles over the telephone from his Paris atelier, "my collections always feature sailor stripes, corsetry and tattoos!"

Canada's Musee des Beaux-Arts' exhibition, From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, celebrates Gaultier's trends in all their glory and is the first retrospective dedicated to the world-renowned French couturier; displaying over one hundred ensembles, including couture creations, original sketches and photographs. The exhibition is organised into five main themes: Paris, Fusions, Multi-Gender, Eurotrash/X-rated and Metropolis. It will also pay homage to Gaultier's many contributions to film, including costumes for Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, Pedro Almodovar's Kika and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's La Cité des Enfants Perdus, proving that the designer's fascination with how we present ourselves goes much further than just clothes.

Born in Paris in 1952, Gaultier was enchanted by the power of dress from an early age. He spent his childhood sketching weird and wonderful creations, which he duly recreated on his beloved teddy bear. "My teddy bear was wearing the cone bra long before Madonna!" the designer giggles. "My parents didn't want me to have a doll, because it wasn't good for a boy to have a doll, so I dressed my bear instead. I made him a conical bra out of newspaper, fixed together with pins."

My teddy bear was wearing the cone bra long before Madonna!

By the time Gaultier hit his teens, his passion and artistic ability had sky rocketed. Jean Paul was regularly sketching designs and sending them to his favourite designers, one of which was Pierre Cardin. Cardin hired Jean Paul as a design assistant in 1970, after being impressed by the sketches he received from the young Frenchman in the post. It was a move for which Gaultier feels eternally grateful. "Cardin taught me freedom, he took me without any schooling and he showed me that you didn't need a diploma, because with the right amount of passion anything is possible. You just have to be confident in your choice." At the time Cardin was also working on furniture, so the young Jean Paul saw his talent stretch to include design of all disciplines. "It was great," he reminisces. "It showed me that style can touch lots of different areas not just fashion. It showed me freedom."

After a short stint at Jacques Esterel and Jean Patou, Jean Paul took a leap of faith and set up his own label in 1976. "I was completely innocent, but I wanted to jump into the water so I had to swim," he declares in his thick French accent. "It was the right moment for me. First I found a boyfriend (long-term lover and business partner Francis Menuge) who made me feel more sure about myself. I think I would have stayed working for a big house if I hadn't of met him, because I wouldn't have had that confidence. But he gave me the belief in myself and made me realise I could do it without money. The mistake everyone makes in fashion is that you need to belong to a big group in order to succeed, but you don't. You have to work your brain more without money but it is possible."

Jean Paul showed his first collection in Paris in October 1976, at the Palais de la Découverte to instant critical acclaim. He believes his dire financial situation attributed to his success. "Money spoils everything, especially creativity," Gaultier declares. By his second collection, he had no money to buy shoes for his models, so he borrowed heels from a local drag show instead, making sure all his girls wore thick, chunky socks so they didn't slip out of them.

Gaultier is renowned for using 'unconventional' models in his shows. The designer has championed diversity from the offset, bypassing big name models in favour of street casting girls of different ages, shapes and sizes, frequently opting for those who were heavily pierced or tattooed. "Why use a professional model who will walk for you exactly the same way she walks for everyone else?" he questions. "I'm fascinated by strong personalities, people who capture my imagination because they walk well in the street. Small girls, everyday people... Girls from the east are super beautiful, but to show just one type of girl is a defect - which is the thing I'm always fighting. One kind of beauty - NO. If I show a big girl, I'll always show a small girl. Chinese girls, black girls, Japanese girls, red hair, blonde hair I want all types of beauty because I love difference." 

But it's not only models Jean Paul has experimented with over the years. "The worst souvenir I have of my career is when I decided to use puppets instead of models," the designer reveals. "I dressed the puppets in my collection and moved them about with string, it was a disaster!" He laughs loudly at the absurdity of it all, before continuing in his singsong voice, "it was not alive and they all had the same head. It was a catastrophe! Reality really brings something, it's inspiring."

Gaultier's crusade to inject a healthy dose of reality onto our catwalks is what keeps his work fresh and vital; but whereas tattooed models may have raised an eyebrow in the late 80s, early 90s, is it possible for fashion to still shock and provoke in the same way today? "I think it's still possible..." the designer muses. "Look at Lady Gaga, she's doing something similar, stimulating a reaction through her clothes." 

Cardin taught me freedom, he took me without any schooling and he showed me that you didn't need a diploma, because with the right amount of passion anything is possible.

Gaga is just one of a handful of pop stars Gaultier has kitted out over the years; the designer has collaborated with some of the hardest hitting women in the music business; designing costumes for Auzzie songstress Kylie Minogue on her 2008 world tour, and the Queen of Pop herself, Madonna. Gaultier worked on Madonna's 1990 Blonde Ambition tour and 2006 Confession tour. He prepared over 1500 sketches for Madge, including the now iconic gold conical bra and corset; a revolutionary design that remains one of the highlights of his career and has been imitated countless times since.

Fearless and imaginative, Gaultier has well and truly earned his stripes as a fashion trailblazer. His spring/summer 85 collection, A Wardrobe for Two, saw the designer championing androgyny long before it became trendy to do so. In the same year he introduced men to skirts, a full decade before David Beckham stepped out in one of the designer's sarongs in the late 90s, racking up column inches and courting controversy. The French man's open mind has seen him use everything from tattoo prints to tin cans in his designs."It's important to have a sense of humour in your work," Jean Paul says, "to put a bit of distance between yourself and the clothes, to play." For Gaultier that means extracting inspiration in everything from the radical to the mundane. "For my High-Tech collection [autumn/winter 80], I was opening a tin can for my cat and I looked down and thought this could be an African bracelet or a metallic collar," he reveals. "There is not only one-way to see beauty. Good taste and bad taste are ubiquitous. What can be good can also be tacky - but what is tacky anyway?! In fashion, what you find beautiful now you will no doubt find distasteful in six months time."

'Tacky' is a word the designer positively coveted when he accepted the co-presenters role of Eurotrash, alongside fellow Frenchman Antoine de Caunes. The 1993 chat show aired on Channel Five and boasted "spectacular sets, cheeky yarns, gargantuan boobies, oddball antics, and of course - naked people in places you wouldn't expect to see naked people." It catapulted an unsuspecting Jean Paul to household name, with the designer reporting on all manner of weird and wonderful international topics; from rabbit show jumping to supermodel interviews. Jean Paul initially accepted the presenter's role as an attempt to overcome his shyness. "Eurotrash was brilliant," he enthuses today. "Do you remember when you were at school playing a joke and you couldn't stop laughing? That's what it was like on Eurotrash. We were always laughing too much. It was a lot of fun. I loved it. It showed a different side to Europe, with funny people." So what was his favourite memory from the show? "Interviewing Carla Bruni. She was chatting away about sexy places in Paris and now she's the First Lady - which makes it even more hilarious!" Gaultier left Eurotrash at the end of series seven to concentrate fully on his fashion career.

His hard work and dedication paid off, with the brand expanding steadily throughout the 90s to include Gaultier Jeans in 1992 and Haute Couture in 1997. Gaultier also launched his first fragrances; Jean Paul Gaultier for Women in 1993 and Le Male in 1995. With their iconic torso shaped bottles and functional tin cases, the fragrances are Gaultier's biggest sellers, omnipresent in the bedrooms and bathrooms of boys and girls across the globe. "Fragrance is so important," Gaultier explains, "it's the first garment we wear." One spritz and you're transported, as Gaultier intended, on a wild, sensual ride.

A lover of the good life, Gaultier was once a notorious party animal, regularly tearing across the Channel to sample London's gritty nightlife. Fast forward to the here and now and the Frenchman's not quite as nocturnal. "My favourite party today is in my bed or infront of my TV with a bowl of spaghetti!" he howls. But surely he must have some wild stories to tell? "Mais oui...." he chuckles cheekily. "London always had good parties. Whenever there is an economic problem the creativity comes out. People want to stand out and be different, much more so than in Paris, I find it very inspiring. Years ago I went to a rubber party in London, there was so much imagination at that party, let me tell you! I was like a voyeur, completely attracted and penetrated by looking and seeing what was going on. In London there is always surprise. And everyone loves a surprise..." Happy to have left the hazy, crazy daze of youth behind, and approaching his sixtieth year, what does the future hold for Gaultier? "I want to continue showing beauty where you don't expect it," he says simply. "I didn't go to school, I learnt from magazines and journalists. I loved that. It's part of my creativity to continue to challenge established things."


Text Holly Shackleton

Jean Paul Gaultier
The Barbican
holly shackleton
from the sidewalk to the catwalk