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- Hia Sinha
Although the definition of high fashion has differed through the ages, from the corseted gowns of the 16th century to the meat dress Lady Gaga wore at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, an indisputable spot in the fashion hall of fame definitely belongs to the inventor of the legendary cone bra worn by Madonna, Jean Paul Gaultier. He has worked with several stars, from Beyonce to Rihanna to Nicole Kidman to Cate Blanchett and was regarded as an emerging prodigy when he first started out. Having been an apprentice of Pierre Cardin, and the creative director of Hermes from 2003 to 2010, the French fashion designer has often been associated with abnormal materials such as tin cans, and his work often includes corsets and marienieres. His designs are androgynous and have generally been defined by the experts as ‘haute couture’. His work has constantly been a love letter to the unconventional and a HUGE cuss word to social boundaries.
Growing up in the suburbs of Paris, his grandma, Marie Garage, was the one that fed his affinity for fashion. Having a clerk for a mother and an accountant for a father, he never received proper training in the field of fashion designing, but he began sending his original sketches to other popular designers at a young age. His vision and fashion sense was so refined even in his late teens, that he was hired by Pierre Cardin at only age 18. That path did not end well for him however; he was sent to Manila to manage a local office. He found that he was not allowed to leave when there, and had to pretend to have a family emergency to leave. He never turned back. Following his year with Pierre Cardin, he successfully worked with several other designers and honed his craft even more, going on to launch his first individual collection in 1976.
Jean Paul Gaultier took inspiration from several things; from those in his surroundings to ideas he saw and read in the media. He was an avid reader of the fashion magazine Elle, and would create garments and try them out on his stuffed toys. The prototype of the cone bra, arguably his most famous garment, was actually stuck on his teddy bear in his bedroom for years!
He also loves and draws inspiration from India; having visited the country in the 1970s on a backpacking trip, he particularly enjoys the gypsies of Rajasthan, with their colourful garments and the overall aesthetic of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. In fact, in one of his collections, he had a male model show off a shimmering saree. For all his love that he gave to India, he was caught in a controversy when he tried to mash together cultures when one of his collections displayed a turban being worn in an inappropriate setting. Gaultier also drew inspiration from astrology, religious symbols, Celtic designs, tattoos and calligraphy. He was evidently fascinated by the cultures around the world.
As mentioned before, it was Jean Paul Gaultier’s grandmother that exposed him to the world of fashion. He was extremely close to his grandmother, claiming that she ‘was more interesting than his mother’. His grandmother was a wellness counselor, and initially used fashion related lingo around him when she would counsel women having marriage problems to ‘spice up their wardrobe’, which consequently revealed to him the potential power clothes could have.
Illustrated by Avani Gupta
Through his love for androgyny, Jean Paul Gaultier often created garments which had sexuality as the main theme but would also put emphasis on mashing together what would typically be considered ‘male’ or ‘female’ styles. He would create masculine jackets, was one of the first to put men in skirts on the runway, and was altogether known to use a darker colour palette which eventually lightened over the years. For example, for his first collection, he had his models wear motorcycle jackets, which were usually a symbol of toughness and paired them with flouncy tulle skirts, a material that was seen as feminine and girly. Not only were his style pairings unusual; the materials he worked with were even more so! He had a collection named ‘Throwaway Beauty’ which was dedicated to creating looks from tin cans and garbage bags. He’s been known to create entire dresses from belts, and tends to prefer the corseted silhouette.
Although having been recognised in the fashion scene ever since he entered it, his life changed entirely for the better when he first met Madonna in 1987. Madonna had previously worn one of his costumes, and Gaultier admits to it being in disbelief when Madonna first asked him to design 358 costumes for her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour as he was a huge fan of the singer. Undoubtedly, this tour was the one that shot him into worldwide stardom. Madonna and him had similar visions of sexuality as well as destroying the line between stereotypical femininity and masculinity, which Gaultier displayed in his fashion and Madonna displayed in her music. It was truly a match made in heaven.
Illustrated by Avani Gupta
Aside from designing, he has also had a successful career in fragrances; his perfume Classique has been recognised all over the world for having a unique bottle shape. He opened his own haute couture house and was made a Chevalier de la Légion D’Honneur- the highest order one can receive in France for merits in military and civility. Although Jean Paul Gaultier announced his retirement in January 2020 with a final runway dedicated to all of the styles he developed in his career, word on the street is that we have not seen the last of the King of Runways.