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“Strap on and Enjoy the Ride”: Behind the Scenes of Jean Paul Gaultier’s Crazy Musical | Arrange

A Visiting a dance studio invariably conjures up images of ballet buns, leggings, and the kind of perfect posture that most of us will never achieve. Dance Attic Studios in West London on a Monday morning in early summer does not disappoint. Dancers gather outside to smoke and chat, wearing a mix of sportswear and crop tops. Inside, they practically float between the different spaces of the studio.

The main studio is particularly lively, thanks to rehearsals for Fashion Freak Show, the musical revue based on the life of former fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, which opens this month at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, north London. Choreographer Marion Motin, wearing a Manchester United track top, mismatched tracksuits and an in-the-zone expression, leads a group of dancers across a stage at the show. Set in a recreated version of the Palace – a nightclub often referred to as Paris’s Studio 54 – it features music from Prince, Chic, Grace Jones, Divine and (slightly anachronistic) Amy Winehouse. If the dancers initially seem lanky and out of sync with each other, after less than half an hour they look great on the dance floor. A man on rollerblades, with a plastic cocktail tray, only adds to the ambiance.

Gaultier watches quietly, periodically calling dancers to discuss hairstyles and costumes. Dressed in a dark chambray denim shirt and jeans, accessorized with a greasy Coke and rimless glasses, he is different from the enfant terrible in Breton portrayed by Pierre et Gilles in 1990, or the chappie presenter cheeky in Channel 4 Eurotrash kilt. But, he soon sweats, only a little. He still employs classic French phrases such as “Ooh, la, la!” and likes to make slightly outrageous statements. “London is sex,” he says at one point, with an irrepressible wink.

The Fashion Freak Show, first presented at the Folies Bergère in 2019, begins with Gaultier as a schoolboy designing cabaret outfits for his teddy bears and goes through this disco moment, the AIDS crisis and collaborations with Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Pedro Almodovar. In addition to live on stage, his famous friends – including Rossy de Palma and Catherine Deneuve – appear in music videos.

Gaultier retired from mainstream fashion in 2020 after 50 years in the industry. “I said, ‘Fifty years in fashion is good, now I’m using my passion for something else,'” he told me during a break from rehearsals. Going to the theater wasn’t too much of an adjustment. “I knew [the story] because it was my life,” he says. “I couldn’t write but I could say [the story] by tables. He worked with director Tonie Marshall, who died in March 2020, to flesh out the tableaux for a full-fledged production.

He says the show is “not the conclusion [of my career] but a full circle moment” and maintains that this is the project he has worked on all his life. “It originally goes back to when I was nine,” he says. “I saw the pictures [of Folies Bergère dancers] on TV and I said, “Oh, I’d love to do scenes like that.” The next day I went to school and drew [the dancers] during the class. One of the teachers made me stand up and she put my drawing on my back. She wanted to shame me but everyone came [up to me]. I wasn’t good at football – ‘We don’t want Gaultier’ – but with the sketches all the boys smiled at me, so I was integrated.

Fashion Freak Show – as the name suggests – is full of fashion moments. It includes a life-size version of Nana, Gaultier’s teddy bear, and her corset outfit that inspired the famous conical bra Madonna wore on her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990. There’s also a scene with a fashion editor much like that of Vogue. Anna Wintour.

The Fashion Freak Show cast members prepare for their 52 Roundhouse performances. Photography: Antonio Olmos / The Observer

A huge room in the rehearsal studio houses the 150 costumes used in the show, ranging from brightly colored feathered gear to garments from the Gaultier archives, including couture denim pieces with crystals and a leather jacket from his premiere. collection in 1976. Each cast member has between six and 10 costume changes per show. Motin worked on production when she was in Paris and worked on stage productions for Madonna and Christine and the Queens. Speaking on the phone a few days after the rehearsal, she says the costumes are part of what makes the show special. “It’s a complete show with dance, video, music, singing, theater. It’s quite different. It’s not a musical review, it’s a hybrid – like Jean Paul.

Gaultier spent time in London from the 1970s – it was his experience in sex clubs at the time that led to this earlier statement about the city – and feels at home in the British capital. “In London, I feel more freedom,” he says. He remembers seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Kings Road Theatre. “I saw the poster, a black face with red lips and blood. I said, ‘Wow, we have to see this.’ He says Rocky Horror influenced him ‘a lot’, as well as the Fashion Freak Show’s maximalism and abandonment – down to his catchphrase ‘Strap on, hold on tight and enjoy the ride’ – a la now classic musical sensation.

Fanny Coindet, assistant director of the show, starred in the 2019 production of The Fashion Freak Show. Over a dancer-friendly superfood salad lunch, she says working with Gaultier showed her how important it is to evolve. “He always questions everything and always wants to take the show somewhere else,” she says. “The show never sits in one place and that’s how I feel the show can live.” Coindet admits, smiling, that part of his job is to think: what would Jean Paul do? “It’s about how you try to project the way he thinks. If I were him, what would I say? I’m always wrong! Still, the duo form a tight unit – discussing costumes and the cast to polish the show for its new audience.

Models, actors and dancers in rehearsals for the Fashion Freak Show
Models, actors and dancers in rehearsals for the Fashion Freak Show. Photography: Antonio Olmos / The Observer

Among the costume changes, the story is an integral part of the Fashion Freak Show. “It’s about the life of someone who’s really been through all kinds of things,” says Motin. It takes rejection – Gaultier was first laid off in fashion in France because he didn’t attend fashion school, instead taking a job with Pierre Cardin at 18 – life as a LGBTQ+ person in 1970s France, and a love story between Gaultier and his partner Francis Menugé. The couple met in 1975 and Menuge played a pivotal role in the designer’s launch of his own brand. Menuge died in 1990 from complications related to AIDS. It’s also part of the Fashion Freak Show, with a stage dedicated to safe sex. In the Parisian production, condoms were thrown into the audience.

“[I didn’t include him] to revive it but to do it [part of the story]“, explains Gaultier. “I started collecting in my name because of him… He gave me [that] as a possibility. Not at all financially because we were poor, but psychologically… He was still younger than me but he was smart to give me confidence.

Gaultier says his experiences as a young gay man meant he was “attracted to people who were different…I remember a girl at school with a red afro and skin so pale you could see the veins. She was fabulous because she was different. Different kinds of intelligence always appeal to me too, that’s kind of a theme. It’s the one that continues in Fashion Freak Show. The cast is diverse across ethnicities and body types – a striking move with dancers traditionally considered size zero and white. “It should be because we don’t need everyone to look the same, because that’s life,” says Motin, “and it’s inspired by life.” Gaultier is however still not completely satisfied. “One is still missing,” pointing to the elderly. “It’s the last taboo, that wrinkles are not pleasant.”

Coindet says this inclusivity, something that has long been part of Gaultier’s universe, is particularly what audiences want now: “Everyone [came to see the show in Paris], from the oddball kids to his established fan base. I think it’s very multi-generational… For a lot of people it opened doors and freed some minds. With dancing teddy bears, a diverse cast, a strong story and a disco soundtrack, London’s Fashion Freak Show is likely to unleash a few more.

The Fashion Freak Show is at rotundaLondon, to August 28.

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds