The Subversive Power of the Jean Paul Gaultier Corset

Madonna, Blond Ambition Tour, Rotterdam, 1990Photograph by Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

As more than 200 pieces of the designer’s archive go on sale in New York, a look back to the enfant terrible’s most memorable garment

Of the countless items of clothing that Jean Paul Gaultier is remembered for – over three decades of shows from French fashion’s enfant terrible makes for many a recognisable garment – few lodge in the memory quite like his spirited take on the corset. Two in particular: first, the slimmed-down curves of his torso-shaped Classique perfume bottle; second, his pink satin, conical-breasted creation for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour, an image of true pop culture ubiquity. 

The latter’s thrill comes from the way it turns the inside outside, making the previously unseen, seen. Gaultier may not have been the first to recognise the undergarment-as-outerwear’s capacity for subversion – fellow provocateur Vivienne Westwood placed a silk bustier atop a blouse as part of her A/W82 collection Nostalgia of Mud, and in the years afterwards pinched waists and large crinolines would become something of a signature for John Galliano’s Dior – but few people have approached the corset quite with Gaultier’s zeal. His had bite.

“The burgeoning sexual freedom of women, seeded in the 1960s, culminated in Gaultier’s costume design for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour,” wrote fashion critic Suzy Menkes in her introduction to The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier. “His rebel-with-a-corset moment was when runway and stage merged, bringing to a global public the vision of the bra that the designer had revealed first on the catwalk in the early 1980s.” Madonna’s message to the world? Strapping oneself up had never looked so liberating. 

In New York this week, cult vintage store James Veloria, (a combination of the founders’ names, Collin James Weber and Brandon Veloria Giordano, founded in a Chinatown mall) are pooling a collection of over 200 rare Gaultier pieces, gathered over the years, which will go on sale as a pop-up in Opening Ceremony. It is the first time that the pair are selling the work of a single designer in this way, but their longtime love of his clothing made him a fitting starting point.

“The first piece that I encountered was in high school,” Giordano says. “I found a pair of sailor pants with eye hooks that went up the back and striped cuffs and a matching fitted mesh sailor T-shirt that I still own. They were such fun takes on classics.” Weber too encoutered Gaultier young, buying a bondage strap jacket from A/W93’s Chic Rabbis collection. This was more than personal, though – the time felt ripe for a celebration of the designer’s work, less frequently intellectualised than his contemporaries. (A fact sometimes attributed to his appearance on satirical television show, Eurotrash.)

“There’s a sense of humour, fantasy, and wit to his designs that’s often lacking in fashion these days,” Giordano says. “His clothing is beautifully made, innovative in design and always a little subversive for whichever time period it was designed in. His legacy is a designer without boundaries – someone who has marched to the beat of his own drum and makes clothing for people who do the same.”

In the treasure trove is an iteration of his corset, here inserted, cage-like, into a jumpsuit and taken from Gaultier’s S/S89 show (similar pieces would appear in the fall collection of the same year). Constructed from linen, and combining the broad-shouldered tailoring of the era’s corporate uniform with the seductive allure of the corset, it encapsulated his knack for working on the boundaries of oppositions – power and eroticism; masculine and feminine; the boadroom and the bedroom.

“We’ve had some of the other cut-out cage pieces from that era before but never a jumpsuit,” Brandon says. “It takes these classic elements like suiting and corsetry that could normally feel conservative or restricting and subverts into something sexy, and powerful. It is a garment that forces you to stand tall and feel empowered and I think takes a very strong person to wear it.” 

Among the other finds available as part of the sale are a floral, graffitied men’s dress from S/S95, coiled leather bra tops and a selection of Gaultier’s vivid prints, including those from A/W95, his Mad Max collection. A lot came from the pair’s personal archive, but it also set them on a trail to discover other rare, and previously unsold pieces – including pieces from a woman who’s mother used to work for the atelier.

Is there a piece that got away? “That’s really hard to say. We’ve bought and sold so many amazing Gaultier pieces over the years!” Giordano says. “I think a big part of what makes us happy about our business is finding fun new homes for each garment and meeting people who are as excited about the clothing as we were. With this sale we’ve really put all of our favourite pieces from our own closet out there. It will be hard to see some of them go, but we know there will be lots more finds in the future!”

James Veloria is open at Opening Ceremony Soho, New York, until April 17, 2018. 

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