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The “Enfant Terrible” of French Fashion

January 23, 2019

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One of the best features of the Weekend Financial Times is the ever-popular “Lunch with the FT” where a crackerjack writer interviews a famous celebrity for one-to-two hours. Questions and answers are weaved into the lunch that often starts with: why this particular restaurant was chosen (by the interviewee), what appetizers or entrées to order, and finally, what midday drinks should be ordered (if at all). 

A DARING AND OUTSPOKEN CREATIVE

Late last year, Harriet Agnew, the Paris correspondent for the Financial Times interviewed the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier in one of his favorite Parisian restaurants. She describes the 66-year-old as “the original enfant terrible of French fashion, with a 40-year career as provocateur.” Synonyms for this include “instigator” or “radical” (I’d love to say, “hell-raiser” but I believe that’s a bit too strong).

WHAT IN THE WORLD DID HE DO?

According to Agnew, he made his name “by subverting the traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity through camp theatrics and outlandish inventions.” Let’s zero in on this. More specifically, he dressed men in skirts in the 1980s (shades of the Scottish kilt – more about that later).

TEN YEARS LATER IT WAS MADONNA’S BRA

Yes, you read that correctly. Gaultier designed a pink satin conical bra for the American singer. This propelled him to international fame. “I wanted to show that women can be strong and feminine at the same time,” he says. “And that every man is not like John Wayne.”

The seeds for this idea were planted early in his life. When he was six years old he wanted a doll – but his parents didn’t want him to have one so they gave him a teddy bear instead. He promptly used paper and pins to create a little pointed bra. “I wanted a doll,” he says, “so I created the first transgender teddy bear.” Maybe “hell-raiser” isn’t so far-fetched.

One of the original teddy bears – on display at the National Museum of American History. Photo: Courtesy of the Smithsonian

HE NEVER FIT IN WITH THE BOYS AT SCHOOL

He was never interested in football BUT he caught the attention of his classmates in other ways. He watched a Folies Bergère show on TV and was taken with the Swarovski crystals, ostrich feathers and fishnet tights. The next day at school he sketched what he had seen. “The teacher was furious,” he says, so she pinned the sketch to his back and led him on a tour of classrooms to humiliate him.

The whole thing backfired. The students loved his drawings and were intrigued by him. “After that, I realized I could be accepted through my drawings,” he says. (Revenge is sweet – I love this story.) At the tender age of 18 he was hired by Pierre Cardin as an assistant and then went on to design his first couture collection in 1997 without money or the backing of a big group.

NOW WHAT ABOUT THOSE MEN’S SKIRTS?

In the year 2000, he was invited to the wedding of Madonna and Guy Ritchie that was held in Scotland – where the groom was wearing a kilt. Gaultier asked Ritchie if it was true “that you wear nothing under it.” The reply was, “Of course” followed by a quickie demo (use your imagination).

WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND

In 2018, an autobiographical revue he wrote and directed opened at the Folies Bergère, the Paris music hall. When asked if he is still an infant terrible, Gaultier laughs and replies, “I am now the vieillard terrible, the bad old one.”

 

UPDATE: Shortly after I finished this blog I went shopping and, at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue, I saw a huge sign on Macy’s and spotted “Gaultier” in big, bold type. I couldn’t read the rest. The traffic light changed and the crowd surged forward. But yep, he’s still the infant terrible.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick


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