The corset is probably one of the trendiest pieces of clothing today. It’s a fierce statement against a time when women were expected to cinch waists and define their silhouettes with corsetry for 400 years. So when American pop star Madonna stepped onto the stage in 1990, Japan, sporting a pink satin corset at her own concert – the world, well, gagged.
The visionary behind Madonna’s pearl-clutching look was French haute couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Unconventional and avant-garde, Gaultier’s designs have been famously worn by Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue. In 1980s his models strutted down the runway in gender-neutral skirts, then later wore vinyl corsets and tin can bracelets.
The Enfant Terrible’s first model
On a sunny afternoon, Gulf News met the ‘enfant terrible’ (as he’s called in France for upending norms) at Expo 2020 Dubai, surrounded by an equally fashionable crowd. He chatted with fans and muses alike on the terrace of the France Pavilion, in his signature neutrals – a navy blue tee and black pants. Gaultier conversed with so much ease, you could hardly tell it was his first-ever visit to the UAE.
And fashionistas in Dubai found it hard to move on from the iconic pink corset. He said: “To be honest, I love Madonna, but I didn’t [make the corset] for her. I made it for my teddy bear.”
Many geniuses have their humble beginnings but few would’ve started out like the fashion designer. At the age of nine, Gaultier was sketching his ideas at school and recreating them on his teddy bear, Nana. Dolls would’ve been ideal, he adds, but his parents had been hesitant. With no formal fashion schooling, Gaultier went from an assistant to designer Pierre Cardin to launching his own JPG brand.
‘Jean Paul Gaultier from A to Z’ in Dubai
Tucked away on the ground floor of the pavilion, stood some 40-odd pieces by Gaultier that offered a glimpse into his five-decade-long career since 1976. Expo visitors in Dubai were the first to see the exhibit, titled ‘Jean Paul Gaultier from A to Z’, curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot.
“This is the 17th exhibition I’ve done with Jean Paul Gaultier,” the Canadian curator told Gulf News. “It’s a chance for people to see some pieces up close that have taken 1,700 atelier hours to make. It’s easier to see Picasso in a museum than seeing Gaultier’s work like this.”
The first Gaultier piece you’re met with is burlesque star Dita Von Teese’s monarch butterfly corset. Worn to close his 2014 spring/summer runway, the vivid blue corset set with black velvet rods and sheer organza wings took 130 hours of atelier work.
Along the way, we spoke to Farida Khelfa, French-Algerian filmmaker and Gaultier’s long-loved muse. She wore a pin-stripe blazer, a 1990s limited edition by JPG: “He saw me in Paris at 16, and asked me to walk for him right away. I walked for him for many decades till 2020, up till Gaultier’s last show.”
Further down the line is a long jersey dress, interlaced with woven leather from Gauliter’s 2010 spring/summer collection. Actress and influencer Georgina Rodríguez wore it to the 74th Cannes Film Festival in 2021.
“The best way to start,” Gaultier addressed the young crowd, “is to have no money.” Falling under the category of Upcycling is a ‘garbage bag’ dress from his very first collection. Gaultier tells Gulf News it’s one of his most memorable pieces, since he was forced to push the limits of his creativity with little resources. “If you start from a big house, you’ll have it easy.”
We also spotted a 22-year-old fashion student and designer in the crowd, decked in a chocolate brown JPG coat from the 1990s. Oscar Kraye, Lebanese expat and model, attributes the three-tier corset belt and jewellery to Gaultier as well. Kraye is a student at Dubai’s French fashion institute Esmod.
Madonna’s cage corset is up ahead. A 155-hour atelier work of black vinyl lined in silver, the conical look made a comeback at the singer’s ‘MDNA Tour’ in 2012.
The last of the collection celebrates the designer’s eye for detail and craftsmanship. Boasting 1,700 hours of beaded work, the leopard dress from Gaultier’s 1997 fall/winter collection is a brown taffeta evening gown. The rhinestone embroidery was a collaborative move with the House of Lesage.
According to Loriot, the month-long exhibit will wrap up its premiere in Dubai and move to Marseille, France. In January 2020, Gaultier bid adieu to the industry with a final couture show in Paris, and models who walked for him in the 1980s and 1990s, got to walk once again.
Though no longer the director of his haute couture, the 69-year-old designer has kept his brand alive. He enlists different designers every season to interpret the Jean Paul Gaultier vision, a new era that began with label Sacai’s creative director Chitose Abe in 2021. Next up is a musical-slash-fashion show celebrating Gaultier’s career that will resume in London this July 2022.