It’s been a relic of Victorianism, an expression of female sexuality, an "instrument of oppression and ill health" and a fetishist kink: has there ever been a garment of female clothing quite as divisive as the corset? Since its introduction in the late 16th century, the tightly constructed silk bodice stiffened by whalebone that holds the waist tight by lacing at the back simultaneously restricts and distorts the body as it celebrates and accentuates the female form. And from Jean-Paul Gaultier’s conical corset for Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour (referenced endlessly by her modern day successors, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga) to Dita Von Teese seductively vamping in a Martini glass; the power of the corset to provoke extreme responses remains undimmed.
It’s no wonder that designers from Gaultier, Lacroix, Mugler, McQueen and, this season, even the likes of Christopher Bailey at Burberry have responded to the corset with diverse interpretations over the years. And the man they frequently turn to is the South African born corsetier, Mr Pearl. “In its discipline, corsetry is empowering,” explains Pearl from inside his "postage stamp sized" atelier in Paris’ 4th Arrondissement. “It is about displacement, moving, arranging and elongating the vitals.” In addition to being the world’s finest proponent of this specialized craft, Mr Pearl is the living embodiment of his work – as a result of eating, sleeping and working in a corset 24 hours a day for over a decade, he has trained his waist to Scarlett O’Hara proportions of 18 inches. He states, “Corsetry is deeply intimate between two people. It is for this reason I wear them – to try to deeply understand the effects. This is my laboratory. I am only wishing to share this pleasure.” And while Pearl may work in the finest of couture traditions (creating the perfect wasp waist can take no less than 20 fittings), for him the corset goes beyond fashion. “I am interested in lasting beauty. I speak only from my own experience: the altered breathing, circulation of blood, the elongation of the spine and the compression of organs totally focuses and enhances the awareness you have physically and mentally.”
"Corsetry is about displacement, moving, arranging and elongating the vitals."
As a denizen of London clubland in the 80s, it took a chance encounter with the legendary provocateur Leigh Bowery to change the course of direction for this former ballet dancer. “Meeting and working with Leigh was a revelation,” he recalls, “His inspiration sees me through from day to day. His beautiful generosity really made me understand that extreme is what it is all about.” Bowery proved a catalyst for Mr Pearl’s career when he introduced him to Thierry Mugler at Suzanne Bartsch’s Love Ball NYC, prompting a move to Paris where he would go on to work on Mugler’s infamous couture shows. “He was a very generous man and I am eternally grateful. His universe is so beyond; he opened a door of this to me, the love of precision, the attention to every detail and not to mention the construction. His commissions pushed all boundaries in every sense. His thirst for the ultimate silhouette still haunts me.” His never-ending quest for beauty met its perfect muse in the voluptuous form of the burlesque dancer, Dita Von Teese who wears his corsets in her performances and would later get married (to Marilyn Manson) in a bespoke creation. He audibly swoons, “Her love of enhancement and corsetry is truly inspiring. To create and see her in corsets is the ultimate.” For her part, Von Teese opines, “I feel very fortunate to know this man who lives for glamour and keeps this lost art of corsetry as it once was alive and well. In this era when everyone wants everything quickly and cheaply, Mr Pearl is here for those of us that comprehend the true art of haute couture, understand the value of it and are patient enough to take the time to let it happen.”
And while he continues his collaborations with designers in addition to custom-making one-offs for private clients; Pearl remains discreet, refusing to let himself be photographed, preferring to let his exquisite work speak for itself. “There are people like myself trying to make a contribution to this fascinating subject. I believe its powerful mystery will ensure it continues, as it has been passed through the centuries proves that it will. There is no limit to beauty. I am thankful to have been in beauty's realm from time to time – she is everywhere if one cares to welcome her. I like to constantly work at it.”
Text by Kin Woo