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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?

September 24, 1992|MARY ROURKE | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

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.

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