Jean Paul Gaultier is renowned for many things – his exceptional tailoring, his conical bras, his impassioned approach to sociopolitcal causes in fashion – and, on September 2, 1992, all of these elements united for a show that definitely mattered. In honour of amFAR (The American Foundation for AIDS Research), Gaultier held a fashion benefit whose runway included everything from lip-synching to Dr Ruth dressed in rubber to raise money for a cause that devastated (and continues to devastate) communities around the world.
“Tonight will be about protection... wear rubber and protect yourself!” – Jean Paul Gaultier
“Tonight will be about protection... wear rubber and protect yourself!” explained Gaultier before the show. “I think fashion can make people think... and what will be important in the 90s will be to wake up and look at what is happening in the world.” And this is perhaps what Gaultier is best known for, his work as an avant-garde provocateur who used fashion to challenge and subvert everything from taboos arounds the AIDS crisis to racial stereotypes and gender roles.
In The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, Suzy Menkes states that, “The burgeoning sexual freedom of women, seeded in the 1960s, culminated in Gaultier’s costume design for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. This rebel-with-a-corset moment was when runway and stage merged, bringing to a global public the vision of the conical bra that the designer had revealed first on the catwalk in the early 1980s.”
The amFAR show came only two years after the iconoclastic series of shows, and heavily incorporated its motifs into the pieces used (alongside Gaultier’s long-standing house codes), culminating in Madonna herself removing a tailored jacket to reveal breasts bared within a frame bra – apparently, an unchoreographed decision. As the Director of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Nathalie Bondil explains, “During the ancien régime, for a man to show his legs was a sign of phallic power; for Madonna to expose her breasts in a Gaultier-designed cone bra proclaims feminine power” – and that was the overarching theme of the show: liberating the disenfranchised through an spectacular display of fashion and celebrity.
Held at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, the event was chaired by Herb Ritts and Madonna, and raised over $700,000 for AIDS research. Set out like the streets of Paris, with a streetlight and a bench, over 140 outfits were shown within the space of an hour to 630 guests. Models wearing berets were interspersed with performance acts and Anthony Kiedis in striped rubber, lip-syncs followed music from the likes of Luther Vandross and Patti LaBelle. Everyone was on top form; as Madonna recounted, “I was supposed to wear a top and jacket like Jean Paul’s, but at the last minute I decided it was better to go out topless!” and her laid-back enthusiasm is one that seemed to reverberate through all of those involved.
“Everybody who was anybody in Los Angeles turned out the day the casting call was held,” remembers model Tanel Bedrossiantz – and the casting was, obviously, a particularly brilliant element of the show. Sex therapist Dr Ruth wore a rubber nurse’s uniform (“this was made for me in Paris!” she exlaimed), Billy Idol wore double leather, Racquel Welch was a super-sexed delight in lingerie while Faye Dunaway appeared almost in disguise with a trench coat and beret.
“I tried to capture their character and put it out even more” – Jean Paul Gaultier
Deee-Lite, Robert Downey Jr., Joe Dallesandro, Janice Dickenson... the list of celebrities on stage seemed almost endless, and were interspersed with Gaultier’s favourite models like Bedrossiantz and Christine Bergström. “I tried to capture their character and put it out even more,” said Gaultier and, with a Hollywood cast dressed in outfits that both celebrated those who wore them and Gaultier’s own exceptional style, it was an extravaganza of glamorous entertainment.
“I never thought that tour and those costumes would end up having such an impact – and a lasting one – on the media, music, fashion and pop culture in general, although it is great they did. Playing with the idea of gender, of what is masculine and feminine, and giving it a theatrical, humorous twist – it was a kind of political statement,” said Madonna of her Blond Ambition tour. The amFAR show took this impact and channelled it into a deserving cause, using the provocation of figures like Madonna and Gaultier to their greatest ends: $700,000 of charitable donation. What is worth remembering about Gaultier’s legacy is that it extends beyond its shock value; that it took punk attitudes and aesthetics and applied them to fashion, that he was an integral part of reinventing the idea of the female sex object and an icon for gay rights. His amFAR show is the definition of one that mattered – and, on top of it all, showcased an abundance of iconic fashion. Brilliant.