For Traffic-Stopping Fashions, Street-Smart Jean-Paul Gaultier Steers France to a Wild New Look

updated 05/06/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/06/1985 01:00AM

Like pilgrims streaming toward Mecca, the fashion groupies and buyers were coming to worship at the shrine of their latest hero. Inside the vast Paris dance hall, they leaned over the balconies to get closer to the action. Down below on the runway, models with ratty mops of hair, their noses dusted with white powder, cruised nonchalantly past the clicking cameras. Some of the mannequins wore skirts with one pant leg, others pranced blithely past in jockey shorts over ski pants. And then, as a male model in chiffon and feathers curtsied to the crowd, the show soared to its androgynous climax. Its heart conquered, the awed flock rose cheering to its feet. Mon Dieu, how would the late Christian Dior, king of haute couture, have stood it?

Such irreverent high jinks are the trademark of the reigning bad boy of French fashion, Jean-Paul Gaultier, 33. In his rapid rise to stardom, Gaultier has tossed tradition and convention, once the staples of French fashion, out the window. In Jean-Paul's upside down circuslike world, men wear skirts and backless sweaters and women sport oversize striped suits. Gaultier even calls his latest men's collecton joli monsieur (pretty gentleman). "Look how men dress in Scotland and India," he says. "Putting a skirt on a man is not a travesty. Putting a bra on him is."

Gaultier's high-priced clothes are no joke. He may masquerade as a fashion prankster, but he is a highly trained designer skilled at turning out unconventional classics. "He breaks rules not just to break rules, but because it works," says Bergdorf president Dawn Mello. Among the stars seduced by Gaultier's blend of cross dressing and British street fashion are David Bowie, Tina Turner, all the members of the British band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and—of course—Prince.

Still, Gaultier has his detractors. "I don't see what people see in his clothes," grumbles French designer Claude Montana. "He destroys the notion of elegance. It's street fashion that I see all the time outside the windows of my atelier."

Gaultier's grandmother, Marie Garrabe, a faith healer and medium, has been his major source of creative inspiration. When he reached grade-school age, his working parents (his father is a retired accountant; his mother was a secretary) sent Gaultier to spend winters with Marie in a Paris suburb because she was home more than they were. In his free time Gaultier sketched Marie and her clients and sometimes watched the Folies Bergères on television; when a teacher caught him sketching a showgirl, he was made to walk around with the drawing pinned to his back. One of his earliest memories is of his grandmother's corset: "I found it beautiful and intriguing." He once bleached her hair improperly and turned it violet. "She was crazy with rage," he chuckles. Today Gaultier's own short brush cut is platinum.

By 15, Gaultier had begun to draw his own collections, which he then lavishly praised in short reviews that he wrote for his own amusement. On his 18th birthday he landed a job as an apprentice with Pierre Cardin and continued his training at the house of Jean Patou. By 1976 he had scraped together enough money to present his first collection. The debut was a complete disaster. But Gaultier rapidly emerged from his defeat with a successful "Grease" collection inspired by John Travolta. By the early 1980s, he had somersaulted into center ring.

More than hysterics and hoopla surround Gaultier. His firm grosses more than $15 million annually, and Bergdorf Goodman has opened a boutique devoted to his styles. "Today there's success," Gaultier reflects in his 19th-century Parisian home. "Tomorrow, maybe not." But some things will never change. Even though she died in 1979, his free-spirited grandmother continues to inspire him. In a recent burst of whimsy, Gaultier designed a cone-shaped bra to be worn over a dress. "I want to go further than what goes for good taste in Paris," he says. "If you don't, you end up doing nothing. I'm trying to find balance between the eccentric and the classic." Maybe, but to most people the scales still look tipped.

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