For a hot – boiling should I say – minute I didn’t think it was worth going to Southbank Centre, sitting in a stuffy theatre on one of the hottest days in UK history to a show that was running an hour and a half late on a work day. I felt bad for cousin, who was wearing a knitted Vivienne Westwood bodysuit with winter trousers topped off with Dr. Martens boots in 38 degrees! But, as the soon as those corset-wearing teddy bears danced onto that stage, it was clear that it was well-worth the hot wait, as both our hands began aggressively clapping away with Cheshire Cat grins taking over our faces. From the very start, the energy was immense, and it continued straight into the final second. The colours, the ever-so-clever set and the brilliant French cast had me gripped from the get-go. I must admit, before I saw the show, Jean Paul Gaultier wasn’t a designer I took much of an interest in, but now I can safely say I am well and truly hooked by his work.
The show took me on a journey through his fashion life, starting from Jean Paul as a little boy, and his love for his Grandmother’s corsets – the seed for Gaultier’s most notorious fashion piece as worn by Madonna had been planted. Sewing cones to a stuffed bear’s breasts (feels strange typing that), set the ball rolling for Gaultier’s blossoming fashion career. We watched how he rebelled against couture, bringing scandalous styles to the catwalk, and mocked Anna Wintour’s initial disapproval and quick turnaround as his success grew – a risky move for many designers, but he doesn’t care!
On his journey into the industry, he met his future professional partner, Francis Menuge, who was also his lover, and together they transformed Jean Paul Gaultier into a name that will forever go down in fashion history. They attended sex shows, curated cat walks and networked with leading names in the industry, until Menuge’s tragic death in 1990 after contracting AIDS. Jean Paul directs a stunning tribute to his late partner through the form of dance, and I struggled to hold back tears.
The show as a whole was not for the faint hearted. There was a consistent undertone of sex going on throughout, with certain scenes being far less subtle than others. The cast went from running around in sexualised teddy bear costumes to actually acting out graphic sex scenes on stage – to the shock of some of the audience! And after the emotional scene of Menuge’s death, condoms were thrown into the crowd to be reminded that safe sex is always the way forward – I wasn’t quite lucky enough to catch one. But all these scenes worked nicely together, cohesively telling an artful, risqué, upbeat and emotional story, where we laughed, gasped, and most definitely cried.
There seemed to be no rules, no restrictions, no regulations of the sort on stage. The cast appeared to be totally free and were either acting perfectly or not acting at all! It felt like the we were watching the coolest party happening right before us, and I can’t speak for everyone else, but I really wanted to get involved with the craziness of it all.
And, when I thought it couldn’t get any better, right at the end, Jean Paul Gaultier himself came out on stage, with nothing less than a standing ovation to greet him. It was a fantastic performance, filled with life, colour and energy, and I would watch it all again in a heartbeat, even through that unpleasant heat.
Sadly there are no more shows going on in London, but if the Fashion Freak Show ever makes a grand return, then you’d be a fool to miss it.