Fashion’s Wild Man Hits L.A. : Designer: Jean Paul Gaultier’s star-studded AIDS benefit tonight is already pegged as a madcap glitz-o-rama. But is it also a sign that he is, dare we say, growing up?


What is that man doing on that sawhorse, riding backward in the saddle with the reins between his teeth?

Who are those flamethrowers on stilts and those jugglers spitting Ping-Pong balls?

And why is that middle-aged woman--dressed in nothing but a strapless leotard and fishnet hose--here for a job interview?

At this grungy Hollywood sound stage, things are exactly what they appear to be. This is a temporary job placement office. It’s just that this one was custom made for Paris designer Jean Paul Gaultier--the guy on the horse.

Fashion’s wild one is here to sign up models for his first Los Angeles show, a fund-raiser sponsored by the American Foundation for AIDS Research, tonight at the Shrine Auditorium. Patti LaBelle and Luther Vandross are just the warm-up acts. Then comes Madonna, Gaultier’s most famous client. And with luck the fashion show will begin some time before the audience has to be at work Friday morning. Raquel Welch and Billy Idol are modeling. So is Dr. Ruth--that’s right, the 4-foot-something talk-show psychologist with the gray hair.


Gaultier has always had an appreciation for older women, including one elegant amateur of about 70, Evelyn Tremois, whom he uses in his Paris shows. And he prides himself on his eye for “different types of beauty,” as he puts it.

So it’s no surprise that this Monday afternoon casting call is total amateur hour: kids skipping school, streetwalkers, bikers in leopard-print pillbox hats. And they all stand a chance of finding a place on Gaultier’s runway.

He finishes his photo session for a trade newspaper, then steps down from the saddle. Gaultier is a muscular man with hard-body biceps that he pumps up daily during workouts at his Paris home gym. And he’s close to 6 feet tall, which no one who has watched him take his bows after a show would ever guess.

Of course, it’s hard to judge a man’s height when he’s standing in the middle of a basketball court like the one where he presented his fall collection last March.

Conventional is simply not Gaultier’s thing.

Fashion watchers think of him as the man who, in the course of a 16-year career, has dressed men in skirts, women in corsets, poodles in pantyhose and Madonna in cone-shaped bras for her 1990 Blond Ambition tour. No one would ever dress that way, his critics say. But Gaultier says he’s just imitating what he sees in real life, starting with his own grandmother.

“She was a faith healer, a nurse and she read Tarot cards,” he recalls of the late Marie Garrabe. His accountant father and secretary mother used to drop him off for a day with Grandmother when he was a little boy growing up in a suburb of Paris.

“When she was 75 years old she didn’t see very well anymore,” he says. “She made mistakes in how she dressed, things happened by accident.” One evening she put on her heavy black hosiery, black satin bloomers and camisole, and a suit jacket. “She forgot to put on her skirt. She went out of the house unfinished.”

The lingerie look was born.

Other visual eccentricities have caught his eye and found their way onto his runway. He once saw a homeless man wearing a pullover sweater on top of his overcoat, and used the idea that season. Even his most provocative outfits are versions of what he sees in the London and New York nightclubs he has long used for fashion fodder.

Still, when these raw materials get filtered through Gaultier’s fingers, the results can be astounding.

“He’s not just showing crazy ideas put together with spit and string,” says Joan Kaner, Neiman Marcus fashion director. “He’s a wonderful craftsman, and he’s very influential. He’s given us many ideas that get copied by other people. Serious designers look to him.”

Off-the-shoulder jackets, pin-stripe pants suits for women, cyclist shorts as replacements for ubiquitous blue jeans, all trace back to Gaultier.

But the 40-year-old createur would be the first to tell you that he hasn’t always been in favor. After apprenticeships at Pierre Cardin and the couture house of Jean Patou, he started his business at 24 after he secured a loan, with collateral from his father. The fashion press was in no hurry to give the nod to Gaultier’s tuxedo dresses for men, garter belts as accessories for women’s suits, or his and her hot pants. By the late ‘70s he was more than $10,000 in debt.

Then Kashiyama, the giant Japanese investment firm, backed one of his collections and kept the partnership going. In 1988, Gaultier broadened his customer base by launching a lower-priced, Junior Gaultier line (sold at Barneys, South Coast Plaza). Prices average about $100 each, versus about $600 for the signature label.

Although the Junior label is still not readily available in the United States, it hasn’t hurt business much. Company sales climbed to $80 million in 1991, says Gaultier’s business partner Donald Potard.

In his latest attempt to capture a wider audience, he is now introducing Gaultier jeans for men and women, to be in stores next fall. The average price will be about $50.

Next comes the big one: Eau de Gaultier, due on cosmetic counters in 1993.

“An empire,” says Donald Potard when asked how big he wants the company to grow. He is Gaultier’s business director, and a friend since kindergarten. And, like his partner, Potard is not the strait-laced type. His gold-nugget ring from Texas turns his finger green, and he explains the company’s recent restructuring program by offering that he is a Scorpio.

Still, he must be doing something right. Eighty million dollars in sales is not for amateurs.

Perhaps financial security, or the fact that he is growing up, have started to soften Gaultier at the edges. Even his hair suggests the change. It used to be a peroxide jolt with dark roots. Now it’s buff colored, easier on the eyes, and the roots aren’t so apparent.

Gaultier’s shows have changed, too. Those angry young models with the cigarette butts dangling from their lips who acted out every kind of sexual fantasy on the runway have faded. He’s turned to whimsical characters and themes related to world events that he translates into fashion with loving inventiveness.

In 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, Poles and East Germans migrated west and Gaultier showed a collection reflecting the refugees’ plight. In a mix of humor and humanism he dressed models in a jumble: Fair Isle sweaters over sequined evening sheaths and ski boots, tweed jackets, hoods and feather Boas--all worn at once.

In 1990, Francis Menuge, the company’s managing director and Gaultier’s longtime lover, died. There were rumors it was AIDS; Gaultier denies it. He memorialized their life together in a show that explored romantic love of all types. Men and men, women and women, and occasionally even women and men, walked arm in arm in twos and threes. Their clothes were interchangeable: his and her floral print T-shirts, bloomers and jackets.

That night the stage was draped in filmy fabric and the bridal dress that ended the show had a veil of the same material. As the model walked down the aisle it became apparent her veil was part of the stage draping. The whole place came unraveled in a witty reminder of human foibles and frailties.

This unabashed tenderness for the world and its tribulations is far from Gaultier’s original way of expressing himself. (People still talk about the live turkey he delivered to one Paris fashion editor who criticized his work.)

Just lately, among the body grippers, he has worked in a few graceful, handkerchief hem skirts. “Short and tight is not the only way to show sexy,” he concedes. “I’m looking for more fluidity.”

Could this be the end of arrogance?

Not likely.

The tip off?

“I love the corset.”