PARIS — “It’s my ideal catwalk show, we hope it will touch people and that they will love it,” said Jean Paul Gaultier, standing in the foyer of the Folies Bergère, looking a little bleary-eyed from taking in the final rehearsals for “Fashion Freak Show.” His first stage production will open today at the storied cabaret, which served as one of his earliest inspirations.
The couturier brought in scriptwriter and director Tonie Marshall, daughter of Micheline Presle who played the female lead in “Falbalas,” the 1945 romantic drama set in the fashion world, which triggered Gaultier’s desire to become a designer. It’s one of several family ties linking the project, including the decision of Anna Cleveland, daughter of Pat Cleveland, part of the original Gaultier posse, to put her modeling career on hold for six months to star in the show. (Her moves are as good as those of the professional dancers, and she stars in most of the scenes, including one where she plays a topless, shimmying Joséphine Baker in a banana tutu and fishnets.)
Gaultier was visibly moved by the gesture. “It’s very emotional for me, I wanted to thank everybody, all the models that I love, the people that I’ve worked with. I would not be where I am today without all of them because each one of them gave me this energy and inspiration,” he said, likening the experience of putting together “Fashion Freak Show” to giving birth.
The show unfolds as a flashback through the defining moments of the couturier’s career, starting with a video of Gaultier as a young boy in a fictional operating room in his hometown of Arcueil, France, in 1959, sewing a cone bra made from newspaper onto his beloved teddy bear, Nana.
A narrator dressed as Nana, played by Anouk Viale, steps on stage to declare: “I’m Nana, the first transsexual bear in history, the first creation of Jean Paul Gaultier. It’s on me that he created the cone bra, long before Madonna.” She then invites the audience to “travel inside Jean Paul Gaultier’s memories, to penetrate his soul.”
And what memories.
Conceived as a series of tableaus mixing video, song and dance, scenes include Gaultier’s first fashion show in 1976, a comically amateur affair featuring an amalgam of looks from across his career, from his iconic tutu, biker jacket and nail-studded bustier ensemble to a corset cage dress made from measuring tape, tattoo bodysuits and the designer’s iconic striped mariniére gown with a feathered skirt. There’s also a corset section and a witty homage to the geometric designs of Pierre Cardin, his mentor. (Gaultier on his 18th birthday was hired as studio assistant by the Space Age couturier.)
There are laugh-out-loud moments, including Gaultier posing pregnant on the front of a tabloid and Antoine de Caunes — Gaultier’s co-presenter on cult British show “Eurotrash” in the mid-Nineties — sparking up a cigarette dressed as the Queen of England, sat front row at one of the couturier’s shows alongside the likes of Diane Pernet and Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard, aka Pierre et Gilles.
More sobering is the death scene of Gaultier’s life and business partner, Francis Menuge, who died of AIDS in 1990, accompanied by a haunting rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by cult French singer Catherine Ringer of Les Rita Mitsouko. There’s also some erotica, including a drawn out S&M scene in London from Gaultier’s clubbing days in the Eighties.
On a lighter note, Vincent Darré can be spotted dancing in a scene set at Le Palace, with platinum-haired singer Béatrice Demi Mondaine, star of the local edition of “The Voice,” in the role of androgynous Gaultier muse, Edwige Belmore, who manned the door. Her costume: a marabou-feather white tuxedo jacket striped with black crystals that Belmore paraded in one of Gaultier’s early shows. Farida Khelfa, also part of his posse, makes an on-screen appearance in the show.
Among the numerous video cameos, Spanish actress Rossy de Palma plays the schoolmistress who pinned a sketch to Gaultier’s back after she caught him drawing in class. (It backfires on her when all the kids queue up asking for one.) Swigging on Champagne between the exits, Catherine Deneuve also stars in a video announcing the looks for the couturier’s spring 1984 men’s couture collection, “Boy Toy,” with a live runway show. Madonna, who famously sported Gaultier’s cone-bra bustier on her breakout 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour, gets a lot of play on the soundtrack, with Gossip singer Beth Ditto and Dita Von Teese popping up in the show’s footage on giant screens.
A plastic surgery scene toward the end, themed around the designer’s pluralistic approach to beauty, and starring Viale wrapped head-to-toe in bandages, features a parade of body-distorting costumes by the couturier. “That’s it, that’s what I want,” she exclaims at the end, pointing at an image of an old, wrinkly face.
“A lot of people want to do plastic surgery, but also clothes, with the use of padding and prosthetics, are a kind of plastic surgery. And people can do what they want,” said Gaultier, who appears on screen at the end of the show to share some words.
“What you are seeing tonight is the realization of my childhood dream. At nine, it was my dream to stage a show with feathers at the Folies Bergère, and here you all are sharing it with me.
Everyone is beautiful, you are all beautiful. We are all freaks, and freaks are chic,” he adds, bursting into laughter.
Up in the rafters in one of the final show rehearsals was Cleveland, watching her daughter give it her all.
“I’ve been taking in the show from all the different areas of the theater,” she said. “It’s untouchable, it’s like looking into a jewel box.”