By Paul Flynn
His cross-gender curiosity spilled seamlessly over to his work. Famously, Gaultier began dressing his teddy bear, Nana, as a child. “In the cone bra,” he says, “a long time before Madonna.” In the pop icon, he found his most famous populist figurehead and fan. He had already cultivated figures with striking subcultural resonance; he introduced the terrifying Parisian nightclub scion Farida Khelfa to Jean-Paul Goude and courted the French ‘Punk Queen,’ Edwige. He featured a then–unheard of Jean-Claude Van Damme on his first menswear show invite, “in a tuxedo jacket, a fez, a turtle neck, and a mask. At this time, he was just another karate champion.” But his relationship with Madonna was to pivot on a higher watermark for fashion and pop-cultural subversion in her Blond Ambition tour.
They had met earlier. “She wore one of my white corset dresses to the premiere of Desperately Seeking Susan in New York,” he remembers and then reflects on the first MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall, at which she performed “Like a Virgin” in a cotton-candy-colored wig to hesitant industry applause. “The atmosphere was truly scandalous,” he says. “People didn’t appreciate it at all. Me and my friends were obsessed by her. Why? Because it was a woman, and a woman cannot be provocative on her own terms. It was symbolic. I felt very close to her. It sounds maybe pretentious, but what she was showing, the kind of girl she was, was very attractive to me. She was confronting all the things I was confronting about the inequality of the sexes.” They were instantly kindred spirits. “I said later, if she hadn’t asked me to make clothes for her, I would’ve killed the one that she did ask,” he says.
Their collaborations are well documented in The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, a divine retrospective of his work currently on tour (it arrives in San Francisco’s de Young Museum this month). The accompanying book to the show is a fashion archivist’s fantasy piece: men in skirts, the golden age of the supermodel, aggressive underwear as outerwear, all delivered with witty uproar. The breadth of Gaultier’s reach is astonishing. He has costumed films for Peter Greenaway, Luc Besson, and Pedro Almodóvar. One page uncovers the legendary sleeve for Cameo’s Word Up! album, another an Anton Corbijn image of Nirvana, with Kurt Cobain resplendent in one of his sequined knits.
If everything is delivered with a devil-may-care attitude to upend fashion imagery, it was because, well, the devil did care. He cared a lot. His association with AIDS fundraising was atomized after losing his long-term lover and business partner, Francis Menuge, to the disease in 1990. “Just after he died, I said to myself, ‘What do I do now? Do I stop?’ ” he reflects now. “At least I have done what I set out to do. Maybe I even went further than I thought I would. This was only ever for me about doing the thing I love and enjoying my job. He was maybe more ambitious than me. All I wanted to do was make my own collection under my own name. You know the expression about losing an arm? It was like that. He was both my arms. Maybe he was the legs, too? The heart, definitely.”
It isn’t difficult to read everything that has happened since as a kind of tribute. “My life is my work,” Gaultier says. “Very quickly, I started to see it as our baby, in some way. It was what we had in common. So I went on with it. This was all his and my creation. All of it.”