Jean Paul Gaultier has long had a reputation for pushing boundaries. Dubbed the enfant terrible of French fashion in the 1980s, Gaultier, born in 1952, launched his own career by sending sketched ideas to couture houses in an effort to get noticed. This brazen (and decidedly un-French) ploy worked, resulting in Gaultier being hired to assist Pierre Cardin in 1970.
Despite having no formal training, Gaultier launched his eponymous label just six years later, before unveiling his haute couture line in 1997. In 2003, he took over from Martin Margiela as creative director for Hermès. Bold, fearless and doggedly unconventional, in 1990, he dressed Madonna in the now iconic cone-bra corseted outfits for her Blond Ambition World Tour.
So, when he decided to show a retrospective of his work later this year in Paris, it seems only fitting that he would search out a venue as notorious as himself. He found it in the Folies Bergère, the Parisian cabaret music hall in the 9th Arrondissement where American-born French dancer Josephine Baker earned her fame.
Entitled Fashion Freak Show, the autobiographical exhibit is set to open on October 2 this year. While there have been shows of Gaultier’s work before, this one is unique in that it sets out to present not only his archive, but explain his life story, too. Described as being “more than a catwalk and not quite a musical”, it promises to throw aside the usual convention of dresses on static mannequins. Instead, Gaultier’s archive designs (plus some new ones) will be shown on models and actors, and accompanied by a live singer.
As part of this unconventional approach, Gaultier has called on the musical talent of none other than Nile Rodgers. A producer, songwriter, musician and composer, Rodgers may not seem like an obvious first choice, yet the two share a connection. While Gaultier was designing the corseted stage looks for Madonna's 1984 smash hit Like a Virgin, Rodgers was the producer responsible for its groundbreaking sound.
“Truly, honestly, if there was one person I would think about for the music, it was him,” Gaultier told AFP. “He is part of my life. Everybody loves his songs, has danced to them, has been in love with someone because of his music.”
As co-founder of Chic, Rodgers first found fame in the 1970s, when his distinctive guitar sound helped define the disco era. Since then, he has worked as producer for names such as Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Bryan Ferry and even David Bowie. In 2013, he came to the attention of a new generation via the 2013 song Get Lucky by Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams, and went on to work with Sam Smith, Sigala, Lady Gaga and the late Avicii. Rodgers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
Tasked with creating the soundtrack to accompany the visual spectacle of Gaultier’s work, Rodgers explained that while it will feature music the audience already knows, he owed it to Gaultier to layer it with newer compositions. “When you’re dealing with a theatrical piece, you are absolutely dealing with an emotional arc,” Rodgers said. “And that emotional arc may not be served properly with the original music. It has to change a bit.”
Emotion runs deep in Gaultier’s work, although it’s often hidden behind jaunty stripes and yards of tulle. Long before diversity became a fashion catchphrase, however, Gaultier was sending older and curvier models down his runways. He even favoured models who were heavily covered in piercings or tattoos, to challenge the norm of accepted beauty.
He is credited with kick-starting the grey hair trend in 2011, when he used silver-haired models for his ready-to-wear shows, while his advertising campaigns deliberately blurred gender lines, as did his costumes for the Luc Besson sci-fi film The Fifth Element (1997), where he dressed actress Milla Jovovich in bandages and actor Chris Tucker in a cowl-necked leopard-print catsuit.
Gaultier has also created stage looks for Beyoncé, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, and readily admits to finding inspiration in music. “I don’t think of fashion as art,” he explains. “Fashion is supposed to be superficial. It’s true that by fashion you can express yourself a little and tell things, but it’s not like music that goes through your nose, your ears, everywhere,” he said. “Music is something very beautiful and that we truly need, like eating.”
Fashion Freak Show is expected to run from October until April 2019 in Paris