There's a point very early on in Jean Paul Gaultier's "Fashion Freak show" when you realize that it's not appropriate for viewers under the age of, let's say, 11. At least, that's how old I'm guessing the little girl in the crowd whose mom I saw cover her eyes while dancers on stage mimed eating each other out. It's also somewhere around this time when an announcer comes on stage to vocalize what most of the audience (the bulk in attendance being prim and proper Brits) was far too polite to say out loud: "You're probably thinking, 'what the hell did I just watch?!'" Though we'd only reached the end of the second act, she continued, "this is a look into Jean Paul Gaultier's mind." His genius, frenetic, sex-filled mind. But more than that, it's a glimpse into the extravagant life of fashion's enfant terrible, and how he built a reputation as such.
The performance — which has been dubbed part revue, part catwalk show — starts at the beginning: Guests look on as a nine-year-old Gaultier performs "surgery" on a teddy bear. Inspired by the cabaret shows held at the Folies Bergère in Paris, which his grandmother allowed him to watch when he was little, he would dress his bear like the women he saw on television as a child. His first toy creation — "the first transgender teddy bear," as he tells TV presenter Anita Rani during a talk at the London Southbank Centre — is the same design he would become infamous for years later: the cone bra. "At first, you know, I didn't do it [for Madonna]," he recalls. "It was my first creation and so I wanted to do something around this."
From there, the cabaret shows which inspired his very first design, come to life on stage. Over the course of two hours (plus a twenty minute intermission), we're taken through the films, music and dance that inspired Gaultier's legendary career; through the carefree days of his youth at Le Palace (Paris's equivalent of New York City's Studio 54) and in London during its punk era. The show is, by all means, a celebration: of life, of love, of beauty. But it touches on dark times in Gaultier's life as well. At one point, after a Red Light District-esque dance scene comes to an end, a voice over the speaker asks if anyone's seen where John's gone. "He went to the hospital to visit Francis," someone chimes in, referring to Francis Menuge, Gaultier's boyfriend and business partner who died of AIDS in the '90s. "I hope it's not that disease." We're then presented with a somber dance solo that's quickly followed up with an upbeat rendition of Charles Wright's popular '70s song "Express Yourself." This version changes the lyrics to "protect yourself," while performers skip up and down the aisles, giddily handing out condoms to the audience.
Then, of course, there's the fashion. The show features over 200 of Gaultier's pieces — both old and new — worn by dancers and shown off on makeshift catwalks. One scene is meant to be a callback to Gaultier's very first show (that he himself called a "disaster" in terms of production), which included dresses made out of garbage bags, lots of denim and camouflage and even more leather. Another recreates a moment in his career that seemed to ruffle more than a couple of feathers: He sent men down the runway in skirts and lace bell bottoms in a time long before gender-bending fashion was seen as both trendy and acceptable.
Gaultier isn't challenging convention today quite as much as he used to: He stopped putting out a ready-to-wear collection back in 2014 (though he still does couture) and part of that, he says, is because he's concerned with the fashion industry's overwhelming consumption. "Too many things are being produced and not enough people are wearing and buying them," he told the audience Tuesday night, noting that he'd much prefer that people recycle their clothes by creating new pieces with items they already own —something he did when he first got started. But another reason why he's dialed back on designing is because he's getting older. "Some young designers are doing very good things and they have this spirit," he says. "I think that, when we get older, maybe you don't have the same energy to do things yourself. I think it's good that the young ones take my place."
After viewing "Fashion Freak Show", it's clear that the youngsters he speaks of will have a lot to live up to. During the talk, Rani asks Gaultier why he chose to pay tribute to his career with this elaborate performance rather than putting together something like a retrospective at a museum. He explains: "A lot of people have never seen a fashion show, and so I wanted to show them — the person that doesn't know a lot about fashion. I wrote it not for reading or the words, but by the way of vision. Even if you're from a different country, you can understand."
For those aforementioned folks who've never been to a fashion show, I'd like to state for the record: This was more fun than any runway show I've ever been to.