Jean Paul Gaultier on opening a retrospective of his work at Expo 2020 Dubai

The designer talks exclusively to The National about dressing Madonna and breaking the rules

Jean Paul Gaultier by Herb Ritts, 1990. Courtesy Jean Paul Gaultier
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"It is an honour to be here, at this universal exhibition, and to be part of the France Pavilion, is incredible," Jean Paul Gaultier tells The National exclusively, as the couturier and "enfant terrible" of fashion arrives in the UAE to open a retrospective of his work at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Called Jean Paul Gaultier: A-Z, the exhibition runs from February 28 to March 31, and looks back across almost five decades of rebellion— from enlisting his friends as models on the runway and making skirts for men, to dressing Madonna in a conical bra.

Now, offering a snapshot of Gaultier's impact on fashion, pieces have been gathered from his archive for the exhibition.

Scroll through the gallery below to see pieces at the 'Jean Paul Gaultier: A-Z' exhibition at Expo 2020 Dubai:

As we walk around the show ahead of the opening, I wonder what it must be like for Gaultier to see so many of his designs together, spanning almost 40 years of creativity. "I feel like I am discovering some of them again," he confides. "Some of them are quite new, but there are others, I didn't remember how beautiful it was."

He says seeing them brings back "emotions and anecdotes", as he gestures to a look made entirely from men's ties, explaining how it was all about recycling. He points to another piece — a body suit that morphs into a jacket. "That was very hard to do, that transformation, that metamorphosis," he explains.

Another look — a cerise fitted gown with a ballooning headdress — took inspiration from closer to home. "This is about my grandmother," he says. "She had one of those old-fashioned hoods for drying her hair. So I made it for couture. And the handbag? That is the bag the hairdryer comes in. A couture hairdryer."

Gaultier and his team have made hundreds of dresses over the decades, and he's refreshingly candid about what he thinks of them. "Some of them I like a little less, but when there are so many, it is not possible to like them all," he says as he breaks into his famous laugh. It becomes easy to understand why this designer has enjoyed such a long and storied career, and why, when he announced his retirement in 2020, the outpouring of love for him was palpable.

Put simply, Gaultier may be a feted designer, but he is also incredibly likeable. Brimming with energy, stories bubble out of him, and despite being almost 70 years old, his energy is infectious.

These woman had such power, they were so free. I wanted my models to use their own walk on the runway, to walk normally — not cliched posing
Jean Paul Gaultier

Not only is the show at Expo 2020 the world premiere of an exhibition that will go on to tour the world, it also marks the first time Gaultier's work has been brought to the Middle East.

It has been curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot, who is something of an expert on Gaultier's work; this is his 17th show on the designer. “Over the seasons, he presented creations filled with humanism, tolerance and universal values,” Loriot explains ahead of the opening. “The history of fashion is not only written with silhouettes and trendy accessories, but also with real commitment.”

The exhibition shows clearly what an innovator Gaultier is and how consistently ahead of the curve he has been. One look, from 1980, was made from rubbish bags. "The bracelets were tin cans and the earrings were tea strainers," he says, laughing again. "My high tech collection."

Another dress made in 1989 was a deconstruction so that only the seams remained. Called The Cage, it was made from vintage satin and came with a long train.

In 1984, he pioneered underwear as outerwear, and a decade later covered models in clothes that mimicked full body tattoos. The following year, he sent men down the runway in skirts, while his debut haute couture collection in 1997 put pussy bow-style shirts on men a good 30 years before Alessandro Michele at Gucci had the same idea.

Butterfly corset from haute couture spring/summer 2014. Photo: Jean Paul Gaultier

Gaultier has recycled and upcycled, including a 2002 couture denim jacket made from eight pairs of vintage jeans, reduced to seams held together with delicate silken threads, and created 20 years before other houses thought to do something similar.

The show also has two cage corsets created for Madonna's MDNA 2012 tour, and highlights a professional relationship that began in 1990 when Gaultier first created a cone bra corset for her Blonde Ambition tour. Scandalous at the time, it was not about making a woman vulnerable by reducing her outfit to underwear, says Gaultier, but rather the opposite. "I wanted it to be like armour, not something sensual. She is a warrior." I take a closer look at how such pieces were constructed, and they are indeed heavily quilted, as if for protection.

Models Laetitia Casta, Vladimir McCary, Jenny Shimizu take part in the spring summer 1994 collection fashion show Les Tatouages (The Tattoos). Photo: Ellen Von Unwerth

A desire to show women as strong and powerful has been a recurring theme in Gaultier's work, stemming from his very earliest days as a designer. "I had no money and could not afford to get professional models. But I had friends, women, who had their own look, who were different, and I thought they were beautiful. So I asked them to model my clothes, to show a different concept of beauty. It was not a decision, it was just normal for me."

Gaultier wanted to celebrate every kind of woman. "These woman had such power, they were so free. I wanted my models to use their own walk on the runway, to walk normally — not cliched posing. If they couldn't, I didn't hire them. I wanted to show women who are free."

As well as the dazzling array of ideas, what really stands out about this collection of clothes is the sheer beauty of them. One look, for example, from the spring 2004 Samurai haute couture collection, is a bone-coloured billowing chiffon blouse over a fishtail skirt that is completely covered with miniscule pearl beads, which took more than 440 hours to sew. Another is a brown taffeta dress from the autumn 1997 haute couture collection, designed with what looks like a leopard skin draped across the front. In fact, the fur is thousands of beads, hand-applied to mimic the pattern. Working with the specialist Maison Lesage, it took more than 1,700 hours to create.

"When it came out [on the runway] people were like, 'Oh my god, this is prohibited', but it is absolute trompe-l'oeil. So I quite love this dress," he says.

While not every look is that labour intensive, with Gaultier nothing is as expected. Even a traditional ball gown, for example, arrives with a twist, such as for spring 2000 haute couture, crafted from ruffles of tulle in camouflage tones of khaki, cinnamon and papaya. It was later worn by Sarah Jessica Parker. Ruffling his hand through the folds of cloth, he explains "this is technically incredible. It is a ton of tulle, to make a camouflage motif, which is a military thing. We made it here in 3-D."

Elsewhere, one of the few menswear pieces on show is a mustard yellow, long-sleeve satin top, scattered with beading and cut as a corset. "It is an embroidered, couture top for men," Gaultier says. The other men's piece on show is a classic striped mariniere sailor top — a design Gaultier first introduced in his 1983 Boy Toy collection, and that would come to be a defining look of the decade — now remade as fragile horizontal bead work in white and blue.

This ability to keep audiences guessing has long been one of his trademarks, making it impossible to gauge where he would take inspiration from next. Included in this show are dresses inspired by Paris at night, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and even the aurora borealis, translated into an iridescent green obi on a black velvet gown.

The Durbar dress, from the spring Haute Couture 2000 collection Les Indes Galantes (The Amorous Indians). Photo: Patrice Stable

Gaultier started his career when he was 18, when he sent some sketches to the designer Pierre Cardin, who was so impressed that he hired Gaultier on the spot. Since then, he has embraced all manner of projects. In 1989, he created the costumes for the Peter Greenaway film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, while in 2019 he collaborated with Supreme on a capsule of faux fur and spray-painted denim. He has dressed Beyonce and Dita Von Teese, and created stage looks for Kylie Minogue, and in an act of coming full circle, the Paris cabaret Folies Bergere.

"I love fashion, it is my life. When I was 9 years old, I saw on TV the Folies Bergere and thought 'I want to do that'. So I put a feather duster on my teddy bears head, and put him in a conical bra."

Updated: March 02, 2022, 7:19 AM