After Decking Out Madonna and Losing His Closest Friend, Jean-Paul Gaultier Softens His Fashion Cutting Edge

updated 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Perhaps Jean-Paul Gaultier's first fashion bombshell came in 1976. That year, his accountant father, Paul Rene, agreed to provide his only child with collateral for a bank loan, which he thought would be used to buy an apartment. Quelle surprise, alors, when, instead of procuring something on the. order of two rooms, high ceilings and lots of sunlight, Gaultier, then 24, used the funds to finance his very own fashion house. As it turned out, Papa was not the only one taken aback. Months later, at the young designer's debut, the whole fashion world reacted in shock to the strange and funky, anything-but-elegant streetwise designs. No one, it seemed, understood the inherent hip of pastel-colored tutus under black-leather jackets.

No one except Jean-Paul Gaultier, that is. Fashion's High Priest of Provocation has always been dedicated, he says, to thwarting "established order and social intolerance." Over the past decade he has turned corsets into sportswear (most notoriously in the tough-girl togs he designed for Madonna's Blond Ambition tour), sent ecclesiastically clad model "nuns" down the runway in garter belts, and dressed men in (gads!) skirts. Only nowadays nobody's balking. And so, with the old Gaultier-inspired fishnet-and-leather look about as shocking as a change of soup on the blue-plate special, the rascal of the runway is doing something really different: He's going soft.

Though his autumn show in Paris still included the high-fashion high jinks—such as white vinyl leggings and skin-taut tunics-that earned Gaultier his fame, the overall feel was gentle. "This collection was rosy and cheerful," enthused the New York Times, "a loving statement about the possibilities of dressing." In an unprecedented statement of harmony, male and female models shared both catwalk and clothes. Men wore muscle-hugging metallic tank tops decorated with pastel floral prints. Women wore man-styled double-breasted suits held off the shoulder by ribbons. Both wore floral leggings, yellow and pink accessories—even bloomers. "We all have feminine and masculine aspects to our personalities," explains Gaultier. "It's a reflection of reality."

Ironically, it was reality at its harshest that inspired Gaultier's tender touch. "We're not in the mood for violence and tougher-looking styles," says the designer, "because there's so much aggression around us right now. Not just the threat of international conflicts but also threats to the environment and the threat of AIDS." Indeed, Gaultier's show was dedicated to the memory of the company's managing director, Francis Menuge, who died last August. "I have been in love with the same person for 15 years," Gaultier said of his longtime companion. "It's my first love which continues. That person is a part of me."

Such frank disclosure is characteristic of Gaultier, a man known for doing precisely as he pleases. And though the pain of personal loss may now have softened his sartorial vision, it has not, Gaultier insists, weakened his resolve. "I'm not interested in being gentle," he says, "when it comes to speaking out against what I feel strongly about."

So he defends his kittenish clothes against charges that, in the age of AIDS, such titillation is inappropriate. "In present circumstances nothing could be worse than to cancel out desire," Gaultier argues. "Desire exists. It should be talked about and shown."

Gaultier inherited his free-speaking streak not from his father or secretary mother, So-lange, but from his endearingly eccentric grandmother, Marie Garrabé. Growing up in Arceuil, a middle-class suburb of Paris, he visited her at every opportunity. "She let me look at as much TV as I wanted," he explains. As a young child. Gaultier amused himself by "making up my teddy bear to look like Queen Fabiola of Belgium or whoever else happened to be in the news at the time." Later, inspired by the offbeat nature of Garrabé, a healer and a medium who was known to stroll the neighborhood dressed only in an oversize sweater and her favorite peach petticoat, Gaultier spent hours watching her draw tarot cards for her visiting friends while he plotted their hypothetical makeovers. Indeed, though Gaultier's first professional job came at age 18, designing for Pierre Car-din (and after that for the House of Patou), it was chez grand-maman that it all began. "I imagined them dressed in zany getups and made sketches of them: before and after," he says. By age 12, he was designing entire pretend collections and writing his own play press releases and reviews.

Today, of course, Gaultier leaves the reactions to the critics. And though some of them remain what he calls allergic, the youthful, provocative wit of his designs wins him mostly smiles—and sales: about $119 million a year. For Gaultier, such success now translates into a have-it-all lifestyle, which includes a new home with a glass-roofed dining room, a gym and a recording studio in the Pigalle quarter of Paris, near the Moulin Rouge. Lying in his king-size bed, as he is wont to do, with a plate of spaghetti on his stomach and a pile of television sets stacked one on top of another in front of him ("I'm completely neurotic about TV," he admits. "I watch all the screens spurting out different programs at the same time"), Gaultier nowadays is pondering how to keep his mischievous touch. "I don't want people telling me that my designs have to become more sedate now that we're a 'real' business enterprise," he says.

Not to worry. As always, Jean-Paul Gaultier just won't listen.

Karen S. Schneider, Georgina Oliver in Paris

From Our Partners