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How 'Fashion Freak Show' charts Jean Paul Gaultier’s career from Pierre Cardin to Madonna

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The most stylish London theatre opening this year is undoubtedly Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show. This spectacular fusion of haute couture, music, circus, dance and fascinating autobiography – plus one or two celebrity cameos – covers 50 years of pop culture, as viewed by the enfant terrible of the fashion industry.

The production will strut its stuff at The Roundhouse this summer, the perfect pairing since London has always been a source of inspiration to Gaultier – plus the venue has its own storied cultural history. Fashion Freak Show originally premiered at Paris’s Folies Bergère in 2018, but you can expect a fresh staging for 2022.

Gaultier collaborated with Tonie Marshall, who made waves as the first woman to win the César Award for Best Director, on Fashion Freak Show. It features hundreds of Gaultier’s exquisite designs, plus filmed segments with friends and supporters. Expect big industry names, like Rossy de Palma and Catherine Deneuve.

This is also Gaultier’s chance to tell his extraordinary life story, and to salute all of his artistic inspirations – including the likes of Madonna and Kylie Minogue, whose music becomes an exhilarating part of the show. To get you prepped for this unique and unmissable event, here’s our guide to the incredible career of Jean Paul Gaultier.

Book Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show tickets on London Theatre.

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1952: Jean Paul Gaultier is born in Paris

Born to a clerk and an accountant in the Paris suburb of Arcueil, Gaultier was first introduced to fashion by his maternal grandmother, Marie Garrabe. He was something of a fashion prodigy, sketching designs from a very early age. He even created a conical bra for his teddy bear, Nana.

1970: Pierre Cardin hires Gaultier

Even though he had no formal training, Gaultier impressed Pierre Cardin with his sketches and was hired as an assistant aged just 18 – and still at school. He subsequently managed Cardin’s boutique in Manila, and became a favourite of Imelda Marcos. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though: Gaultier got put on a “no leave” list and had to invent a family emergency in order to flee the country.

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1976: Gaultier launches his first fashion collection

Gaultier managed to raise the funds with his partner Francis Menuge, and immediately made a bold statement with his first individual collection. His decadent, uncompromising vision wasn’t for everyone, but he was championed by several fashion editors, including Elle’s Melka Tréanton and French Marie Claire’s Claude Brouet and Catherine Lardeur, who appreciated his superior tailoring and artistic approach.

1980: Gaultier cements his infant terrible reputation by using rubbish bags

The designer was already challenging fashion norms by creating masculine clothing for women, putting men in corsets or dresses with trains, or using repurposed materials. That avant-garde gender-bending and recycling was more readily accepted in punk London. But he shocked Paris even further with a runway show featuring women’s dresses made out of rubbish bags.

1982: Gaultier launches his eponymous label

After a string of talked-about shows, Gaultier finally set up his own design house, backed by Japanese consortium Kashiyama. He continued to create eye-catching lines, such as his 1983 Boy Toy collection for men built around the “marinière” or striped Breton sailor shirt. He also began selling garments at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman, cementing his mainstream success.

1984: Gaultier wows London and Paris

The fall fashion shows in London and Paris were landmark ones for Gaultier. He launched a full line of skirts for men, and he introduced the women’s corset with cone bra that would become a signature piece.

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1985: Gaultier and Madonna join forces

It was the Material Girl who turned Gaultier into a global icon. In her 1985 movie Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna wore a gender-bending Gaultier piece: a skirt with men’s suspenders. She then asked him to design the clothes for her 1990 Blonde Ambition world tour, which included a clergyman’s robe for her controversial “Like A Virgin” performance, plus two corsets with that memorable conical bra – one peach, one solid gold.

1989: Gaultier makes movie magic

Following his collaboration with Madonna, the fashion guru became the go-to designer for several auteur and Hollywood movies. They included Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, Pedro Almodóvar’s Kika, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children, and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

1992: Gaultier branches out

With his fashion empire ever growing, Gaultier experimented with different commercial offshoots. He introduced the world to a street-style denim line, Gaultier’s Jeans, created a unisex label, and launched child and baby lines. He also put out his first ever fragrance.

1999: Gaultier partners with Hermès

Hermès acquired 35% of the Gaultier label for a whopping 150 million francs in 1999, which allowed for future expansion – like Gaultier opening its first standalone store, and gradually building that up to 40 stores worldwide. Gaultier further cemented the partnership by becoming creative director of Hermès from 2003 to 2010.

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2006: Gaultier dresses his first Eurovision contestant

The designer is a huge fan of the Eurovision Song Contest. In 2006, he designed the look for Greece’s entrant Anna Vissi. He then commentated on the final in 2008, and he produced two more significant looks: in 2012, he dressed France’s entrant Anggun, and in 2013, he dressed Eurovision host Petra Mede.

2008: Marion Cotillard wears Jean Paul Gaultier to the 80th Academy Awards

Cotillard went on to win for Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose, wearing Gaultier’s white and silver mermaid dress. Gaultier has dressed numerous other A-listers too, including Kerry Washington for Cannes, Lady Gaga for the VMAs, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian for the Grammys, and Katy Perry for the Vanity Fair afterparty. Plus Beyoncé wore his black cut-out dress in her “Run the World (Girls)” music video.

2008: Gaultier dresses Kylie Minogue

Gaultier designed tour costumes for another pop icon in 2008, the one and only Kylie. Her KylieX2008 tour featured eye-popping looks like her spiderwoman gown, American cheerleader, tsar and bellboy outfits, and a costume inspired by Japanese manga, plus a fabulous evening gown.

2011: The Gaultier retrospective is launched

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts partnered with Gaultier on a retrospective exhibition entitled The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. The exhibit then toured to venues like Stockholm, New York, London, Melbourne and Paris. In Paris, it featured in a special documentary too.

Gaultier also added another string to his bow that year, partnering with La Perla on a swimwear collection, and in 2012, he was invited to sit on the competition jury for the Cannes Film Festival – the first time that a designer had received such an honour.

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2016: Gaultier ends his ready-to-wear lines

The designer had been making numerous collections for both couture and ready-to-wear customers over the previous few years, but he ended the latter in 2016 in order to have more time to focus on his couture creations.

2020: Gaultier announces his retirement

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of his fashion career, Gaultier announced that his spring-summer 2020 haute couture show, which took place at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, would be his last. But his story now continues with Fashion Freak Show.

Book Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show (Photos courtesy of production)

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