Glass attends Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show, for a night of excess, glamour, and teddy-bears

JEAN Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show opens with a short-film, focused around an operating table and group of ultra-glamorous nurses helping a doctor with needle and thread. Moments later, the doctor is revealed to be a six-year-old Jean Paul Gaultier, looking into the camera as English subtitles read “Jean-Paul, what have you done to your teddy-bear?”

 Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show cast, Southbank Centre

Revealing, as Jean-Paul describes it, “the first transgender teddy-bear”, the screen displays the image of the designer’s first ever teddy bear (and muse) wearing the designer’s now iconic cone bra. Possibly the only way to open such a daring and dramatic performance like Fashion Freak Show, the designer, and now producer, sets the wonderfully provocative tone for the rest of the show.

Before the show began, I, and I’m sure most of the full-house, had one question on my mind – what actually is this? Fashion show? Cabaret? The answer is actually both.

Image from Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show, Southbank Centre

In fact – before the show, I had the pleasure of attending Jean Paul Gaultier in Conversation with Anita Rani, where Gaultier discussed his desire to create a cabaret, but one that had a richer story-line than seen in the traditional genre. Detailing the story of Gaultier’s life and career, including incredibly intimate moments, it was also a chance for the designer to showcase his designs while breaking the boundaries of the conventional fashion show or presentation.

Needless to say, the costumes were outstanding, featuring everything from the classic satin bustier to huge furry teddy-bear costumes. This was a chance for Gaultier to really experiment, delving head first into the world of costume design and flourishing. If I was to summarise the show in one sentence, I would say it is a love letter to fashion, punk, and Gaultier’s greatest influences. Out of these, Gaultier makes sure to pay special respect to one of his first muses – his grandmother. Known as the woman who let Gaultier play with her jewellery and corsets, the designer acknowledges her importance while growing up. At one point during the show, the character joke about letting Gaultier play with women’s clothing over a football, acknowledging her open-mindedness and how this has shaped him artistically. Projected onto the screen during different intervals of the show is an actress representing his grandmother, symbolically watching over Gaultier’s fashion journey.

Image from Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show, Southbank Centre

Gaultier makes sure to pay special tribute to all women with Fashion Freak Show. Talking before the show, Gaultier remarked that he has always tried to subvert gender norms in fashion, telling the audience that at the beginning of her career mens blazers would often come with an inside pocket for wallets, and women’s did not – laughing as he remarks he would actually reverse this with his outer-wear. Humour and irony has always been at the forefront of Gaultier’s collections, however there has also been an underlying integrity towards social change. Influenced by the British punk movement, Gaultier expresses his desire to promote gender equity through his work – and this shows in Fashion Freak Show. One scene stands out as especially moving, seeing one performer undress from a tailored-suit to the James Brown classic single It’s a Man’s World.

Image from Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show, Southbank Centre

Unwinding his story from snubbed creative to one of the world’s most iconic designers, the show marks many important moments from his career – including his first ever runway show. Explaining before the show that it was a catastrophe, with clothes unfinished and models missing their cues, the mishap translates wonderfully onto stage, while paying homage to pieces from his first runway collection, including his iconic bin-bag dress.

It was at this part of the show that we were introduced to Jean Paul Gaultier’s characterisation of Anna Wintour, a far from flattering depiction of the American Vogue Editor-in-Chief. Tounge-in-cheek, almost Absolutely-Fabulous, style of comedy, these moments will make the show a delight to anyone working in the industry.

Image from Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show, Southbank Centre

Not only a glance into his fashion career, the show delves into the most intimate parts of Gaultier’s life – including his relationship with boyfriend and business partner Francis Menuge. Passing away in the late 1980s from AIDs, Gaultier retells the beginning and unfortunate end of their relationship 30 years later, keeping his death scene relatively short, and instead choosing to focus on the happiest moments of their partnership.

Overall, the Jean Paul Gaultier Fashion Freak Show succeeded in providing what I was longing for – excess, glamour, and amazing fashion. While it may fall short for those who don’t know much about the industry, who have to sit and miss out on the witty Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld references, there is certainly enough talent, dancing, and excitement to entertain even the most fashion-clueless of guests.

by Emma Hart

Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freakshow is currently touring Europe, for more information click here