Review: Jean-Paul Gaultier's Fashion Freak Show (Southbank Centre)

Gaultier’s fashion extravaganza plays at the Southbank

Fashion Freak Show
Fashion Freak Show
© Odieux Boby

If a keen wordsmith was looking up the definition of a kaleidoscope, then they needn't look any further than Fashion Freak Show, Jean-Paul Gaultier's performance extravaganza which runs at the Southbank Centre after a much-lauded initial debut in Paris.

Featuring every bell and whistle imaginable (and they're only the ones attached to Gaultier's costumes), this is a two-hour deep-dive into one of the most influential designers of the last 50 years. Over the space of two acts, punters are guided through Gaultier's life, from a surreal birth scene to his first encounter with bra-sporting teddy bears and through to the modern-day.

There's no plot, per se, and a lot of the run-time involves different Gaultier outfits being paraded across the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage, alongside brilliant music and choreography courtesy of Marion Motin. Gaultier blends new costume designs with some of his classics, mashing up older, iconic outfits with newer, more experimental pieces. You get the sense of an artist in conversation with themselves, in front of 900 people.

The scale and impact of Gaultier's work is impressive, especially when helped by Renaud Rubiano's videography and Per Hörding's lighting, and seeing how some of his earlier, avant-garde work has entered into the mainstream is a fascinating experience. There's a clear sense of care attached to the project, especially with regards to his relationship with partner Francis, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1990.

As something of a fashion novice, it was at times a bit boggling to see a clued-up audience whooping and cheering with each new outfit emerging from the wings. But this is a piece created by the fashionistas for the fashionistas, where a certain threshold of knowledge is expected but not vital.

If there was ever a jukebox musical for a fashion designer, then Fashion Freak Show would be it. It's hard not to get up caught up in the aesthetic exuberance of Gaultier's work, be it on film, catwalk, red carpet or simply as a pioneer of excellent stagecraft. From Madonna to The Fifth Element through to La cité des enfants perdus, this man's imagination has become a beating heart churning out creative innovation. Le freak, c'est vraiment chic.