The inventions of Jean-Paul Gaultier

February 1984: “The badly-dressed people are always the most interesting,” says Jean-Paul Gaultier. His zany and iconoclastic creations have managed to bemuse even the most modern tastes. Here are six of the most striking, described and photographed by the designer himself.

In February 1984, Jean-Paul Gaultier was experiencing his first taste of global fame. His was already big in Paris, but his reputation had started to spread fast in Milan, London and New York. He also featured in the The Face in a story that celebrated six of his most innovative and striking pieces, from his high tech” collection to his revolutionary corset dress. Later that year, Gaultier sent an orange shirred velvet conical bra dress down the runway at his autumn/​winter show. The silhouette would become one of his most iconic designs, made world-famous, years later, by Madonna. The singer approached Gaultier in 1989 to create costumes for her Blonde Ambition tour.

Last night in Paris, Gaultier showed his final collection. When he announced only days earlier that his spring 2020 couture show would be his final hurrah, it was clear that we were in for a real treat. And of course, the celebration of his 50 year career in fashion that took place at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris did not disappoint. There were over 200 looks shown, each payed homage to Gaultier’s extensive back catalogue of hits. Boy George belted out a rendition of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Coco Rocha performed an Irish jig. That’s before we mention the line-up: a string of his original models and muses walked (including Rossy de Palma, Farida Khelfa, Yasmin Le Bon, Erin O’Connor and Anna Pawlowski, who walked in his first ever show) alongside the likes of Karlie Kloss, DJ Kiddy Smile, Dita Von Teese and Bella and Gigi Hadid.

Now five decades deep, Gaultier’s inventions far surpass six. To mark his exit from the catwalk, we proudly republish this 1984 feature with the designer himself. 

This time, Stéphane,” orders a muffled voice, step through the frame!” The voice belongs to Jean-Paul Gaultier, his head hidden under the shroud of a large monorail camera. Ha!” Gaultier exclaims. It’s as if you were stepping out of a painting!” For a photo-session specially commissioned by The Face, Jean-Paul Gaultier has emptied his show-room, located in the grandest salon of his favourite hotel overlooking the Seine, and installed in the centre a giant gilt frame. Posed behind the frame, like still lives, the models will form a kind of retrospective gallery of the work of Jean-Paul Gaultier, directed, styled and photographed by Gaultier himself. 

The Parisian fashion designer took to the idea at once. With a few phone calls, he assembled a small army; hairdressers, make-up artists, models, photo assistants. 

Turn a little,” he tells a model. Oh, the tin can is missing from your arm. There. Move your arm up. Ah! I’ll add an ash-tray bag … Voilà. Perfect!” 

Voilà, the Gaultier style. 

The Gaultier style: light, supple, humourous, uncomplicated, disconcerting but never overly bizarre, it stays close to the preoccupations of the moment without stooping to pander to them.

Paris has been carried away by this style. Gaultier’s reputation has spread to Milan, London, New York, his name has become the one to drop after Kenzo, Castelbajac and Thierry Mugler. One might suppose that Gaultier, like these others before him, will soon pass out of fashion, making way for a new name even more spirited and original. Yet the Gaultier recipe contains a restless, playful ingredient that promises to help him outlast his contemporaries of the new French fashion.

Gaultier began to make his move in 1977. Then at the height of his powers, Kenzo would soon claim the throne, before embracing decadence on the one arm and commerce with the other. Thierry Mugler was causing frissons with his nouveau glamour, Claude Montana was showing off with designs inspired by science fiction movies and comic-book fantasies. Jean Charles de Castelbajac, meanwhile, was calling his collections Return to Earth”. And Gaultier? He was looking for the style of the Eighties. It proved predictably elusive.

His first show, in front of a mere eight reporters, offered designs inspired by India, the Philippines and Latin America. But it was ill-starred, and convinced few of his fledgling talent. From 1978 to 1980, Gaultier remained far behind Mugler, Montana and the rest, groping his way. Seduced by punk styles from London, he launched a collection of S&M clothes in 1978, but met with little success since the message of punk was after all design yourself!”. Then he caught on to the Sixties revival with collections called Dolce Vita” and James Bond” in 1979 that won some pockets of praise. It wasn’t until the beginning of 1980, though, that these turned to showers for his High Tech” collection.

This time Gaultier’s forecast was correct. He coincided with the cold romance of the future; electronic music from Britain and movements of young moderns in France. Since that show, Gaultier has always pinned down, if not all, at least part of the changing mood. His secret? A sort of prickly, good-natured rebellion. But not against his family, whom he loves, and about whom he is happy to talk. His father was a worker, but on his mother’s side lies a tale of genteel ruin and high misadventure. His maternal grandfather went to America to seek his fortune at the turn of the century, and came back broke. His grandmother was a magnetist, a profession now frowned on by official medicine. I owe it all to her,” says Jean-Paul Gaultier.

He was nine years old when, during a lull in his school lessons, he sketched his first designs. My grandmother had bought a TV, and I was very impressed with a documentary we watched on the Folies Bergere. The next day at school I drew a woman in plumes and fishnet stockings. The teacher was furious. She snatched the drawing from me and held it up for the class to see … I wasn’t at all humiliated. I was rather proud to have my creation displayed to the world!” 

The young Jean-Paul decided henceforth to pursue his success with drawing. At 18 he took his portfolio to Patou, a prestigious fashion house, who promptly snatched him up. At 20 he left Patou for Cardin. He stayed there long enough to polish his technique, but quit one day when the obligatory classicism of haute couture finally began to weigh him down. His plan: to start his own ready-to-wear label, as far removed as possible from the cool monotony of high fashion. To subsist in the meantime, he had to sell designs to the small companies who specialise in under-cutting the big high-street names. But with the patronage of a Japanese manufacturer named Kashiyama, and an Italian firm, Gipo, he was able to develop his own ideas…

Today, at the age of 31, Gaultier pursues a continuing revolt against the monotony, the conformism, and the heavyweights of his field. He rarely goes out. He avoids the chic parties. He works long hours and finds inspiration right outside his door: a shirt trailing outside a pair of trousers, an over-large jumper that has slipped down to expose a shoulder. Whole collections spring from such accidents. Unlike those couturiers whose grail is perfection, Jean-Paul Gaultier takes the casual, the comical, the neglected, the impossible, the worst bad taste, and turns it into a style. 

Here, then, are the six most remarkable inventions of Jean-Paul Gaultier: the High-Tech look; the corset dress; the backless T‑shirt: the backside-in-the-air trousers; the Folies Bazaar look; and the Dervish bra.

The High-Tech Look 

In 1978 and 79 Gaultier was living in a small studio apartment in Paris. He had no money and rarely went out. Instead he stayed in and listened to records. He was fond of Kraftwerk and especially Devo: a new look allied to a new sound.

We had the idea for the circuit drawings for a long while. My friend and partner Francis Menuge is mad about electronics; he designed a pendant necklace that flashed in time with the wearer’s heartbeat. But we were never able to persuade a manufacturer to market them. so we used them for our High Tech’ collection. I always work like that, taking materials or objects and finding another use for them. 

At the time, I had a cat. I was opening a tin of food for him one day and I thought: what can I do with this? I decided to make some sort of jewellery from it, so I opened the other end of the can and there it was: a bracelet! It was the same with the ash-tray bag. Take an ordinary ash-tray, deepen it with a sleeve of leather, and you’ve got a bag! I have a lot of fun with this modernist approach; appropriating objects for my own uses.”

The Corset Dress

Gaultier was living at the time in an area traversed by a lot of fashionable girls on their way to a nearby market. He noticed the revival of a starlet” look, a rejection of the feminist constraints. It was the return of short skirts, suspenders and lingerie. He asked some of these girls to model his collections. The Gaultier models were often small, round, imperfect, but more human than the tall fearsome Texan professionals. The press took it badly; one fashion writer dubbed these models les petits cochons (little piggies). But Gaultier uses them still today, and has no plans to change.

I had the idea for the corset quite simply because my grandmother used to wear them. She told me how girls used to drink vinegar so they’d have stomach contractions, while their maids pulled the laces tighter. I thought this rather sado-masochistic, but oddly fascinating. I was looking for an idea for an evening dress, and I just made it a sort of lengthened corset. It was at once provocative, funny, romantic and sexy; a real walking fantasy. And then there are the laces: one is obliged to ask someone else to undo them. It’s an instrument of torture, pleasure and revelation. It also binds friendships, so to speak.”

The Backless T‑Shirt

For years Gaultier had planned a collection for men. He was tired of seeing men dressed in grey jackets, grey trousers and classic shirts, himself included, since he had nothing else to wear. He had been listening to the music of The Residents, The Cure and Joy Division, but found his tastes leaning towards Talking Heads, with their mixture of synthesiser rock and African rhythms. For five or six years he had had in his files the sketches for‑a T‑shirt with a low-cut neck at the front and back, but the design was never quite right. One day in his work-room he noticed, on a tailor’s dummy, a yachting shirt that one of his stylists had cut the back from for another project. All that was left was a band of cloth at the neck and one at the waist. With a few details tidied up, he had the master-stroke for his 83 collection, The Man Object”.

Walking around London and New York, I got the feeling that the era of the sexy male had arrived. In London people had swapped the eternal grey trousers for exotic pirate culottes. In New York, the Americans were in the throes of the body-building craze. There was no question for me of copying the pirate look, nor of getting into sportswear, so I asked myself: what would erotic clothes for men look like?”

The Backside-in-the-Air Trousers

I wanted something that would inspire fantasy, rather than fit in with the habitual image. With Vivienne Westwood it’s the rebellion that’s foremost. But I wanted something more seductive. I set about observing the habits and the faults of masculine dress, to try and use them for something more chic and sophisticated. When I was little I was always being told to tuck my shirt into my trousers. I hated this so I used to do the opposite, leaving my shirt hanging out. I thought this was very smart. That’s where I got the idea of leaving trousers hanging open at the back. It’s always the badly-dressed people who are the most interesting!”

The Folies Bazaar Look

Gaultier regularly spends two or three days walking around the streets of London. He particularly likes the Kings Road, with its mixture of varied, individual styles. He took inspiration from the fact that, in the midst of an economic crisis, people found expression through their clothes, they affirmed their ideas and found a positive strength. The example of English youth persuaded him that he himself should go further, exaggerate his own ideas without worrying about being misunderstood.

For the Folies Bazaar, like the rest of the collection, I drew on my strolls around London and came up with the idea of an end to the black mood’. I thought: depression is in the head. What I wanted was a mixture: on top, a kind of blouse, which then unfolds like an Indian sari; and underneath, bedouin trousers. It’s a mixture of antique prints and eastern styles. For this collection I decided to forget about folk-lore or exoticism, and just be cosmopolitan, like Paris itself.”

The Dervish Bra

…As for the Fez brassiere, I can’t really remember how that came about. I know I was quite impressed by a film I saw where the main actor was walking around wearing a dinner jacket under a djellaba. It was another sort of telescoping, like the music of Talking Heads. It’s this telescoping I wanted to get across, an oscillation between the First and Third Worlds.” 

With his most recent collections, Jean-Paul Gaultier achieved a veritable notoriety. To judge from his cuttings and the large crowds pressing to get in to his shows, 1983 was his year. He used his influence to present a new generation of French designers, dubbed the Savage Stylists”, in a show that he himself staged. The message is clear: Jean-Paul Gaultier doesn’t fear the changing of the guard.

Make-up Anne Guiomar and Isabelle Marie

Hair Romain for Patrick Ale and Catherine for Mod’s Hair

Photos Jean-Paul Gaultier photographed by Bernard Matussières

Assistant Bertrand Marignac

Concept Claire Mizés 


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