Jean Paul Gaultier

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Jean Paul Gaultier

French designer Jean Paul Gaultier (born 1952) became world famous for his avant-garde designs, usually first displayed in runway shows that are themselves media events.

Jean Paul Gaultier was born in France in 1952. Not interested in sports or any of the usual childhood pleasures, he was a prodigy when it came to fashion design. Young Gaultier designed a collection of clothing for his mother and grandmother at age 13. At age 15 he invented a coat with bookbag closures. When he reached the age of 17, he boldly sent his design sketches to Paris designer Pierre Cardin. Cardin appreciated his talents enough to hire the young man as design assistant. Gaultier worked for Cardin for two years. He then spent a year designing for Jacques Esterel before joining the House of Patou in Paris, working with designers Angelo Tarlazzi and Michael Goma for three years.

In 1976 several of Gaultier's sketches were published in Mode Internationale, a French fashion magazine. The sketches were favorably received by the design world. That same year Gaultier launched his design career under his own label for a company called Mayagor, as well as continuing to design free-lance ready-to-wear furs, swimwear, and leather clothing.

When Kashiyama, a well-funded Japanese clothing manufacturing conglomerate, caught wind of Gaultier's growing reputation, his career was launched. They signed him to an exclusive contract for men's and women's collections under his own name. Renowned as perhaps the most avant-garde fashion designer of his time, Gaultier was sometimes called the Prince of Perversity. He was known for keeping a keen winking eye on young London and New York street fashions, reinterpreting them with a dash of Parisian panache, then pushing them out on his runways. Some of his most recognizable cutting-edge designs are jackets, dresses, and jumpsuits with indiscreet cutouts that make the garments resemble cages. His unique designs also include dresses and tops with sliced open breasts and bralike torpedo inserts, fichu off-the-shoulder tops, multi-colored Lycra, vinyl and leather bike pants, and kilt-ish skirts for men.

His always outrageous shows were held in an amphitheater that was actually a converted slaughterhouse outside of Paris. The shows were considered the media events of each fashion season partly because tickets for the collection were so coveted. Ultra-fashionable throngs of Gaultier groupies, dressed in both his latest and now-classic designs, and masses of the fashion press vie, sometimes violently, for seats to see his innovative, thought-provoking parade of new designs. Even nonfashion celebrities show up—actor Jack Nicholson, former model Verushka, singers Grace Jones and Ninah Cherry, and exiled film director Roman Polanski.

In 1997 Gaultier displayed couture for the first time in a Paris show. In an article in Interview, he stated that "We are in a world where many people are staying at home on the Internet, not doing anything. I think the moment now for couture is right because it's a small fantasy. It's special, and for only one customer at a time." Gaultier was the only designer in the show to feature couture for men as well as women. Also noteworthy in the 1997 Paris show were corsets for men. Gaultier rationalized in Interview that, "I am for equality of gender. I say there's couture for women, so why not for men?" Although Gaultier derived his inspiration for design from the street in the past, and couture is generally perceived to be in the realm of the elite, he attempted to respect the tradition of couture with fabrics not normally used in couture.

Gaultier has been known for using unique looking models in his shows of all different shapes, sizes and ages. In Interview he explained that, "I have never really cared about what fashion's ideal was. There are different kinds of beauty and I always try to show that."

In 1987 Gaultier received the coveted French designer of the year award. In 1988 he launched a lower-priced sportswear line called Junior Gaultier, at first carried exclusively in a small store located in Les Halles, a funky area of Paris, and later sporadically sold in U.S. department stores. His other store, located on the chic Right Bank of Paris, contained his men's and women's ready-to-wear bearing high price tags ($1,200 for a suit). These clothes were also carried in boutiques in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. In 1990 Gaultier's talents were viewed by a wider, less fashion-conscious audience when he designed the entire wardrobe for the controversial British director Peter Greenaway film "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover." Long a fan of Greenaway's films, Gaultier and he decided that the clothing for this modern day morality play should change colors as the characters moved from set to set. Four sets of clothing were made: red for the dining room, blue for the parking lot, white for the bathroom, and green for the kitchen. One of his most devoted fans was singer Madonna, who on her 1990 Blonde Ambition international tour wore nothing but Gaultier suits with sliced open breasts covering a torpedo bra corset over menswear pants. She was also one of the first to adopt his lingerie-over-clothing trend in 1985.

In 1997, Gaultier collaborated with French movie director Luc Besson to design costumes for the movie "The Fifth Element", a futuristic sci-fi thriller. Although the film received less than enthusiastic reviews, the costumes were referred to as "body-conscious" and "outlandish" in reviews in National Review and People Weekly.

Although Gaultier's designs are sometimes considered over-the-edge, there is no question among the fashion historians or the retail fashion world that his multiple talents greatly influence the work of other designers. Gaultier imitations and sometimes blatant thefts of his somewhat insane designs often appear in more moderately priced department stores mere months after his runway shows.

Further Reading

Additional information on designers and fashions can be found in the Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion (1988), McDowell's Directory of 20th Century Fashion (1987), and Catherine McDermott's Street Style (1987). See also Andrew Edelstein's The Pop Sixties (1985), Alison Lurie's The Language of Clothes (1983), and Melissa Sones' Getting into Fashion (1984).

For periodical articles about Jean Paul Gaultier see: The New York Times, April 10, 1994; May 8, 1997; July 1, 1997; Vogue, October, 1994; Interview, April 1997; People Weekly, May 19, 1997; Entertainment Weekly, May 23, 1997; Rolling Stone, May 29, 1997; National Review, June 16, 1997. □