PARIS — Of all Western garments, it may be the corset that best illustrates the old adage that one must suffer to be beautiful. But Mr. Pearl, the notoriously reclusive designer who has furnished corsets for many fashion houses and glamorous dames, including Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kylie Minogue and Dita Von Teese, doesn't see it that way.
Today, Pearl, 46, known for his own 18-inch waist, fields private orders from his thimble-sized atelier here in the shadow of Notre Dame. "The bells ring so hauntingly all the time," said the soft-spoken designer, settling into a chair for a rare interview in which he recounted his fascination with the silhouette-enhancing device.
Pearl, who is probably best known for his collaboration with Thierry Mugler in the Nineties, has remained an éminence grise in the fashion world, well-regarded but elusive because of a disposition intimates describe as shy and fragile. Yet on the subject of the corset, Pearl is emphatic, stating that it's no object of torture and rather a "perfectly healthy" beauty aid.
"To me, a corseted body, with the shape of the indentation at the waist, is beauty in extreme; it represents absolute femininity," he said, tugging on the sleeves of his Chinese silk jacket. "[Corsets] are often viewed as lewd objects, but it's not that way at all."
Pearl first encountered tight lacing as a small boy, growing up with his grandmother in Johannesburg. "Every day I would watch her fastening her salmon-pink corset in front of a three-way mirror," said Pearl, noting that she needed it for medical reasons. "I was always particularly excited when she got a brand new one that arrived in a beautiful box."
His love of the garment re-surfaced while he was studying ballet as a teenager in London, a time when he worked on theater and ballet productions during holidays. Eventually, he set about taking old corsets apart to study their construction and began wearing them to experience first-hand their impact on the body.
"No school exists for making corsets. I learned a great deal from one English lady who collected them and who had a great knowledge of what a tight-lace corset requires," said Pearl, whipping out a headless photo of her torso, her waist reduced to the width of her neck. When worn over a long period, the corset concertinas the ribs and free-floating ribs, compressing them into the spine and in turn lengthening the spinal column. In fact, Pearl said the body adapts to such a degree that, after it does so, to go without one is tantamount to being like a snail without its shell."Breathing does become a problem, but it does not affect digestion," said Pearl, sounding as if he had just run up a short flight of stairs. "It can really modify one's body to quite an extreme point through time and patience."
By 1989, Pearl had established a network of private clients and moved to New York to freelance as a costume and corset maker, jetting over to Paris regularly to work with Mugler. "Mugler really understands silhouettes like not many others do," said Pearl, describing his most lavish work for the designer as one scaly half-fish, half-animal corseted creation that sported a metallic breastplate.
Today, however, he steers clear of the time constraints and stress that accompany fashion shows, opting instead to focus on private orders. And while Pearl finds working with celebrities extremely rewarding, out of all his clients it's an American, Cathy Young, who most impresses him, since she's the proud owner of a 15-inch waist. "To see her is very powerful," said Pearl. "It's an extremely disciplined art."
Queen Maud of Norway and Margot Fonteyn figure among Pearl's other icons, illustrated in postcards that decorate his walls, as does Grace Jones, whose CD propped atop a radio points to the designer's disco side. "It would be interesting if people would consider [corsets], since I believe liposuction and plastic surgery are quite ugly acts by comparison, and the results are not quite as becoming," Pearl said. "What a corset lace can do is much more attractive."
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