Fashion Freak Show
Jean Paul Gaultier’s Ultimate Performance
Written by Daen Palma Huse, 24.07.2019
We enter the universe of Jean Paul Gaultier through a surgeon’s scalpel that cuts into the flesh of his teddy bear in order to fashion it with a cone bustier. One’s dream, another one’s nightmare, whichever it may be – the bear awakens to the year 1978 when Chic released the single “Le Freak” and starts dancing! The stage rapidly fills with teddy bears, glitter, cones, with much, much more to come… and we will never look back.
Jean Paul Gaultier has transformed performers into icons. Much more than a creator of fashion, I would call Gaultier a master of making fantasies come to life. Rossy de Palma is one of the muses that inspired Gaultier and that still carries the essence of a “Gaultier girl” – a distinctive look and buckets full of character. Before even ever having heard of Gaultier I watched films such as Almodovar’s Kika (1993) and was mesmerised by the visuals and performances alike. Gaultier designed the costumes for Kika and several others of Almodovar’s films including La Mala Educación (2004). His work as costume designer has been pivotal in forming the image of many performers, including Madonna, on and off screen.
We can feel that the show is a personal dream of Jean Paul Gaultier, it is executed with finesse but yet carries the air of something that is purposefully done ‘off the cuff.’ The performers connect to the audience, we feel part of the show. Mostly chronologically, the show moves through highlights and impressions of Gaultier’s career and life. Never boring, my attention is captured, and I think back to the style icon Diana Vreeland who stressed the need for what she called Pazazz!
One of my many personal favourites of the show was the reimagined banana dance that was opened by the graceful one-and-only Anna Cleveland, before being broken up by a change in music and the breath-taking appearance of Lazaro Cuervo Costa, who truly becomes a contemporary male Josephine Baker. His sculpted body echoes the music, dancing in front of the colourful posters of the 1920s, and challenges my perception; perhaps not that much has changed since Baker’s times I am thinking – certainly not the fascination with bodies that look different to our own, whether it may be the shape or the colour of skin. This becomes an essential message of the show; that we are all beautiful, even if we are as thin as Anna Cleveland!
In many ways, the Fashion Freak Show subverts perceptions of people across genders, ages, colours of skin or shapes of bodies. An incredibly sensual strip-tease in the second half of the show alongside a stunning vocal performance by Demi Mondaine leaves the female body exposed though empowered. The intimate act of undressing becomes publicised on stage – Gaultier’s corsets taking centre stage.
The overall staging of the show is imaginative and refreshing. Light, dance, optical illusion and materials are used at an unbelievably fast changing paste, yet impressions last as we are given enough time to soak in this visual explosion. Seldom have I seen the effective use of digital projections in stage performances that have not overpowered the musical performers or dancers.
In the second half of the show that rides the waves between singing, dancing, comedy, art and fashion, there is a particularly poignant moment: The scene shows a “Plastik Fantastik” world that is created on stage with bandaged bodies searching for further body amendments – hands, legs, anything. The scene ends with a tongue-in-cheek morale; after seeing glimpses of projected black-and-white portraits of beautifully aged skin the character who is shopping decides they want beautiful wrinkles!
Gaultier’s couture show for men is re-enacted with Catherine Deneuve presenting each garment on-screen. Jean-Charles Zambo needs to be pointed out for his very cheerful performance and his connection to the audience. He carries the male fashion show effortlessly alongside the presence of Mike Gautier and Ritchy Cobral as well as all of the other performers.
The closing sequence of the show that follows a personal message by Jean Paul Gaultier as a large projection, centres around different bodies and beauty of all. Particularly strong is the final moment when we realise that clothes are but a shell to our bodies. Throughout the show, I enjoy the fact that “fashion” is not taken too seriously. Intersected with plenty of humour, we not only enjoy the visuals but are left feeling touched. Whether it is condoms being distributed in the audience, the member of the audience that is asked on stage, or an intersected sketch, all of these remind us to enjoy life and not to take ourselves too seriously.
Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion Freak Show, Southbank Centre, London, 23 July 2019 – 2 August 2019