Fashion Freak Show

Fashion Freak Show is a retrospective of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s career using a combination of catwalk, dance and theatre revue. It's on at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm until the 28th of August.

You should never be the author of your own retrospective, because the approach will always be rather selective and uncritical and the substance, therefore, rather thin.

As might be expected, the costumes are extraordinary - worn by a diverse array of models who strut and dance on the catwalk. We are taken on a timeline from Gaultier’s schooldays, the influence of Paris, his first fashion show, his critics, his liberation in London, dressing celebrities (Madonna is mentioned quite frequently), and through to his most iconic designs.

The show approaches the material with warmth and humour - and the affection for Gaultier in the London audience is palpable.

The choreography by Marion Motin, the design and videography by Justin Nardella and Renaud Rubiano, the lighting by Per Hording, and the choice of music - all flawless and the overall effect is truly spectacular.

However, conceptually there is something missing.

Revue, when done well, presents us with the absurdity and the contradictions of a world we all recognise. Even in its mildest form as light entertainment, it speaks directly to us in meaningful universal terms.

The catwalk, however, deals mainly in aesthetics and the fashion industry speaks mainly to itself - rather than to humanity at large. As on-lookers, we must not see ourselves represented on this stage. We are required to be passive consumers.

And while London’s fashion students would do well to go and see this show, because Gaultier’s journey - his sense of rebellion and his playfulness will be inspirational to them - the lay person might feel somewhat less engaged.

On the video wall, towards the beginning of the show, we see the fine detailing of a bodice with its pink ribbon being sensually unlaced. It’s a beautiful moment - displaying the intricacies of Gaultier’s clothing design, the material, the craftsmanship - all in intimate cinematic close-up.

For the rest of the show, the projected images from the roving camera eschew the fine detail of Gaultier’s design and are used mainly to create the busy chaos of a catwalk or nightclub experience. A place where celebrities go to be seen. There is instantly less focus on the clothing, and more attention paid to the celebrity lifestyle. There is even someone with a clipboard roaming the audience after the interval dividing notional guests into those who are on the VIP list and those who are not. It all feels drearily elitist.

The writing often uses fashion in-jokes, so that unless we are part of this world, we feel excluded. The programme notes help to an extent, but it’s best to gen up on the likes of Pierre Cardin beforehand just so you can keep up.

Some sections are over-written. For example, we are told that Gaultier rejected orthodoxy in order to follow his own path in life. And while this is both laudable and inspirational, we don’t need to keep being told.

Other sections are under-written, and leave most of the audience feeling rather confused – not entirely sure of the connections being made. For example, Gaultier’s work was influenced by his time in both Paris and London in different ways. Now this is potentially quite interesting in broader cultural terms, but these differences are not explored in any real depth, and once again we are expected to infer a lot from some nightclub sequences.

There is a beautiful moment when the show reaches the early 80s and we become aware that HIV is destroying lives. A solo dancer is silently lifted aloft in a pool of light. The experience seems to be symbolic rather than personal. Perhaps it was too painful an incident to be fully explored here. It does give us a powerful moment of reverence, but the avoidance of portraying anything truly personal and vulnerable misses the opportunity for us to experience anything more profound, such as grief.

Gaultier, with all of his talent, expertise and resources had the opportunity to present us with a review/catwalk hybrid that explores through dance and design some aspect of the human condition. And we might have left the theatre feeling transformed. Instead, he has made a show about himself, proving that however wonderful your work, you should never be the author of your own retrospective, because the approach will always be rather selective and uncritical and the substance, therefore, rather thin.

At some point in the future, someone else will look back on Gaultier’s life in all of its triumph and vulnerability and perhaps then will we get a true sense of his greatness.

Reviews by Mel Evans



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Since you’re here…

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The Blurb

Eccentric, scandalous, provocative, exuberant and funny as ever, this is an all-singing, all-dancing, costume-filled spectacle. Gorge yourself on this outlandish, passionate and larger than life production; an explosive fashion show and revue - dancers and circus artists wrapped into one. Revel in his secret fantasies. Live his journey: family, friendship, love, rebellion and broken taboos. It’s magic, it’s rude, it’s sexy, it’s sassy.

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