Fraulein Sasha Selavie relishes Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Fashion Freak Show @London’s Southbank Centre. 5 Stars!
There’s two French phrases which perfectly describe career maverick Jean-Paul Gaultier – enfant terrible (terrible child) and monstre sacre (sacred monster). Both, unsurprisingly, fit J-P more snugly than a designer condom dipped in superglue, evoking pin-sharp associations of some unprecedented, hugely unnatural prodigy, Shakespeare’s ‘changeling child’ indeed. Quite aptly, it’s a richly pregnant, imagistic trope also in the glam-rock retro-flick Velvet Goldmine, where an unearthly jewel gifted by aliens serves to spark Oscar Wilde’s fledgling muse, and is passed on through time as a potent, diversity totem to Jack Fairy, the movie’s alternate Bowie clone.
Still, never expect J-P to lazily plonk his cheeky butt on someone else’s laurels; always impish, audacious and the very essence of cultural promiscuity without limit, hisFashion Freak Show deftly hijacks themes of maternal horror worthy of Joan Crawford’s Mommie Dearest at her most beautifully deranged!
Let’s set the scene; loudhailers pierce velvet darkness, and immediately, a hospital delivery team appears, with the life-changing abruptness of an acid attack. Yes, it’s J-P making his biological entrance call, his evident exceptionalism and fabulous strangeness bamboozling orthodox diagnosis from the outset. As a theatrical framing device, it’s ideal, arguably only bettered in popular culture by the Velvet Underground’s shatteringly sinister Lady Godiva’s Operation on their White Light/White Heat LP, a grinding, pneumatic snarl sound-tracking a psychopathic sex-change surgery, an unforgettable intro to the Velvet’s compelling realms of sleaze, deviant sex and severely harmful (but oh so moreish…) drugs.
Still, those are not quite J-Ps spheres of interest, but nevertheless, he’s outraged battalions of brain-dead bourgeois prejudices, especially in the stuffier recesses of a still shockingly patriarchal France. F*ck respect for elders, tradition and authority – in common with the needlessly inappropriate contrarian John Galliano, J-P’s flipped an irrelevant, hugely charming derrier at centuries of social petrification, ceaselessly championing that inexplicable, French obsession with extreme youth, a mind-set that – metaphorically, at least – lets embryos get away with murder!
So, please, don’t insult J-P by expecting anything as mundane as theatrical logic, rationale or crushingly dull attempts at making sense. Rather, think of the show – the action itself – as a kaleidoscopic, impressionist explosion of the future contents of J-Ps’ skull from the moment of his voyeuristic delivery we’ve so eagerly spied on.
Oh sure, the signature, J-P outrage tropes are out in defiant, socially outraging force – the Madonna-era bullet bras, the stratospheric shoulder pads and the wickedly frenzied, pelvic thrusts irresistibly imposed by his Josephine Baker, banana skirts on men and women, their jaunty, stubby hems a priapic storm of lemon-yellow arousal!
Still, even the fiercest J-P couture falls flat if not worn by a Daphne Guinness or Tilda Swinton; mercifully, exceptional couture requires the devil’s contract of exceptional physicality to best elevate both, an assertion made tragically truthful by the appalling vision of fat, clueless, and – most unforgiveable of all – terminally gauche flesh forced into scraps of deathless elegance Gaga would killfor!
Oh sure, of course there’s music – how can any Gaultier show worth the name exclude the breathless pulse-beat of the catwalk? – but quite thrillingly, beyond the expected snippets of Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy and Plastic Bertrand’s toddler-tantrum punk Ca Plane Pour Moi, there’s the live, shredded-wire descants of singer Demi Mondaine, her punning nom de plume a term of withering, bourgeois contempt to demonise the Parisian hordes of whores, Bohemians and unclassifiable exotics.
As you’d expect, there’s a simply awe-inspiring devotion to finesse in every aspect of the show, most visible in the incandescent poise of the performers themselves. Dancer Lazaro Cuervo Costa stunningly genesplices the limitless pansexuality of late-era Prince with the lithe, sculptural fury of Usain Bolt, while a cheekily insouciant Jean-Charles Zambo marries a weightless, Fred Astaire eloquence into a riveting physique that’s a shockingly idealised Tyson Fury, way beyond the reach of the real boxer’s flesh!
However – for all J-P’s sparkling focus on fluffy, inconsequential ingénues and their radiant youth, J-P cannily salutes the formative voices of previous generations, including a startling, unexpectedly ebullient address from Line Renaud, the 91-year-old activist, actress and singer, proving – quite irrefutably – that the voices of committed excess speak just as eloquently whether they’re closing on the grave, or merrily mincing into adolescence. But – finally – how does one begin to summarise J-P’s cavalcade of outrage in a phrase? A supernova soufflé? No; as always, the French say it best- incroyable!