Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mr. Pearl: Couturier Nonpareil

Although Mr. Pearl has recently taken a break from wearing corsets, he looks forward to donning one again for the physical and mental attributes that such a garment can confer: “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.”
Mr. Pearl: Couturier Nonpareil
by Delia von Neuschatz

The adage “still waters run deep” may never have been truer than of Mr. Pearl, corset-maker extraordinaire. This designer’s shy, soft-spoken demeanor and quiet, orderly Parisian studio belies an explosive and extraordinary imagination. The self-taught Pearl has made bustiers for fashion luminaries such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Chloé and Christian Lacroix. He has cinched the waists of Kylie Minogue, Jerry Hall, Victoria Beckham, and the burlesque performer, Dita von Teese, among many others including, perhaps surprisingly, a sizable Middle-Eastern clientèle.
One of the designer's creations.
Mr. Pearl with Dita von Teese (née Heather Sweet). “Her love of enhancement and corsetry is truly inspiring,” says Mr. Pearl of his favorite muse. “To create and see her in corsets is the ultimate.” For her part, von Teese proclaims, “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.”
His hand-made, one-of-a-kind creations take months to craft and require numerous fittings. And, as one can imagine, they don't come cheap, starting at €10,000 (or about $13,500 at current exchange rates) for a basic piece. But, oh, the transformative powers they hold.

By wearing a corset on a daily basis for a year, Sarah Chrisman, the author of Victorian Secrets, said she ate less, thereby whittling her waist from 32 inches to 22 inches, improved her posture and had fewer migraines.
Mr. Pearl (right) enjoying the London nightlife in the 1980s.
Indeed, the revered designer may soon find himself bestowing hourglass figures on many more of the fashion-conscious as there appears to be a revival of the controversial garment. A recent book, Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself, written by a modern-day Victorian enthusiast, extolls the mental and physical virtues of corset-wearing.

“A foundation garment is very important to an outfit,” says Pearl. “It’s an enhancement of the beauty of nature. It affects your bearing and balance. It elongates the body and bestows elegance.” Pearl ought to know for until recently and starting long before Chrisman, he has worn a corset himself ... all day, every day while eating, sleeping and working, removing it only to bathe. And in doing so for some 22 years, he achieved an 18-inch waist.

Pearl’s captivation with corsets has been lifelong, ignited in early childhood by his grandmother whom he was sent to live with after his parents’ divorce. Born Mark Erskine Pullin to an English toolmaker in South Africa, the elder of two brothers fondly recalls: “My grandmother wore corsets so I became fascinated by them,” he said. “They were always salmon-pink. She used to let me lace her up. It took a long time as there were lots of eyelets and laces, but it was a great treat.”

Pressure to conform resulted in a two-year stint in the army and later on, a ten-year marriage to a South African actress. Stifled by the social mores he encountered at home, Pearl jumped ship as soon as he was able to cobble enough funds for a one way ticket to London. Once in the English capital, it didn't take long for this former ballet dancer to find work in the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden first as a dresser and eventually as a costume designer for classical ballet. In short measure, he also became a denizen of the nightclub scene, acquiring the alter ego of Pearl (re-christened Mr. Pearl by Isabella Blow) along the way.
Magazine editor, stylist and fashion muse, Isabella Blow, in one of Mr. Pearl creations.
It was a chance encounter with Leigh Bowery, the legendary performer and nightclub personality, which changed the course of his life. Engaged as Bowery’s assistant, Pearl soon started making costumes for the notorious provocateur. The benefits of this position far outweighed the paltry £20/day wages: “[Bowery’s] inspiration sees me through from day to day ... [He] really made me understand that extreme is what it is all about.”
Australian native, Leigh Bowery (1961-1994), like Pearl, moved to London in 1980 in search of freedom and glamour. The avant garde performance artist, club promoter, actor, fashion designer and pop star became an influential figure in the 1980s and 1990s in the art, fashion and music scenes of London and New York. Bowery's impact, still felt today, can be glimpsed in the creations of Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Boy George, Lucian Freud, John Galliano and Lady Gaga, among others.
More significantly, it was Bowery who introduced Pearl to Thierry Mugler at Suzanne Bartsch’s 1989 Love Ball NYC. Disguised as Bowery’s bustle, Pearl spent the evening gliding behind him on roller skates while topping up the performer’s glass with neat vodka, or “aqua v” as Bowery called it. It proved a fateful night for Pearl for the encounter with the legendary French couturier ignited his career. “He is a very generous man,” says Pearl of Mugler, “and I am eternally grateful. His universe is so beyond ... 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.”
Mr. Pearl’s beaded black corset for Mugler’s memorable “insects” collection of 1997. “Corsetry,” he says, “is the deepest, most intimate, most enhancing possibility physically and I’m fascinated by this. Corsetry presents endless, almost unobtainable possibilities. It could always be tighter, more beautiful, longer in the front.” One of Mr. Pearl's creations for Thierry Mugler from the designer's haute couture AW 97/98 collection.
Working for Mugler on both his prêt-a-porter and couture collections prompted a move to Paris and eventually to a cross-channel existence as Pearl began collaborating with other designers including John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen in London. Eventually, the thrice-weekly trips between Paris and London took their toll however, and today, Mr. Pearl makes Paris his full-time home.
Kylie Minogue wears one of Mr. Pearl's corsets for John Galliano.
An undeniable part of Paris' allure for the designer is held by his romantic abode a stone's throw away from Notre Dame. Built in the 17th century, it is one of the few buildings on the Ile de la Cité that was not razed by Baron Haussmann. Visitors pass through a heavy set of wooden doors, into a cobblestone courtyard centered around an ancient well and up a spiral staircase, its stone steps worn smooth by the passage of time.
Mr. Pearl's memento-filled salon glows softly in the dim lights.
Made of whalebone-reinforced cotton, this is a sports corset from the 1880s. As the use of whalebone is illegal today, Mr. Pearl stiffens his creations with steel stays. Whalebone, as Pearl explained to me, is a misnomer. The material is actually cartilage. “It’s ironic that the largest mammal on earth was able to make the smallest waists,” observes the designer.
Mr. Pearl made this green silk satin number – which he has worn himself.
This beaded black piece is from the late 19th century and was worn over the corset to further enhance the slimness of the waist.
This velvet corset is also from the 19th century. Original vintage corsets in good condition are rare finds.
In Victorian England, an average corset exerted a force of 21 pounds on the organs, while über-fashionable tight lacing, achieved only with the help of a maid or the leverage provided by a bedpost, could increase that to 88 pounds according to author, Judith Flanders, in her book, The Victorian House.

Above, right: A 19th century illustration showing the effects of tight lacing.
Mr. Pearl's atelier, located one floor above his salon, is lined with inspirational photos.
Mr. Pearl makes everything himself. That's Leigh Bowery's picture taped above the sewing machine. The designer was taught how to sew by his grandmother.
Dita von Teese's glamour shot is pinned alongside that of an Elizabethan nobleman proudly displaying his cinched waist and shapely legs.
The images above are of the beautiful Empress Elisabeth of Austria (“Sisi”) who maintained an 18-inch waist through rigorous lacing and dieting. Hers were usually the more rigid leather corsets, like those worn by Parisian courtesans, which could take up to an hour to tighten.
In 1898, Sisi was fatally stabbed by an anarchist in Geneva. She was so tightly corseted that she remained upright and no one realized for some time that she had been wounded. By then, she had lost too much blood. Purported last photograph taken of Elisabeth the day before her death at Territet, Switzerland.
A corset for Dita von Teese in progress. Depending on its complexity, a corset can take between one to six months to make.
von Teese in several of Mr. Pearl's creations ...
Mr. Pearl began tightlacing at the age of 30 after seeing a photograph of Fakir Musafar, pictured here in 1959. A native of California, Musafar (born Roland Loomis) is a pioneer in the realm of body modification and considered the father of the modern primitive movement.
Mr. Pearl is the rare designer, indeed, person these days, who is not interested in self-promotion. This intensely private man rarely allows himself to be photographed and will certainly not be posting any selfies on Instagram any time soon or ever. One won’t find him on Twitter or facebook and would search in vain for a url as Mr. Pearl does not have a website. Moreover, you won’t unearth any of Mr. Pearl’s creations in any store as he isn’t interested in manufacturing a commercial line either. “My work is not about being fashionable. I do not follow fashion at all. I’m interested in an ideal, a kind of expression of elegance, which really has nothing to do with fashion,” he says, adding, “These days people are more fascinated by the complications of a voicemail on their mobile phones than unseen sophistications.”

Accordingly, it is the past that Mr. Pearl mines for inspiration. Admiring bygone fashion giants such as Charles Frederick Worth, Charles James and Balenciaga, Mr. Pearl also looks to ceremonial dress to stimulate his fertile imagination. It is the Russian imperial gowns of Madame Olga Boulbenkova to which the designer is particularly drawn. It must be noted too that it isn’t only fashion which captures this sophisticate’s fancy. A love of nature, music and art fostered early on by his Dutch mother, likewise informs his designs.
Court dress of Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna from the 1890s, created by Russian couturière, Madame Olga Boulbenkova.
Today, Mr. Pearl collaborates with Jean Paul Gaultier and also takes on private commissions. His handiwork is not limited to corsets as he makes entire outfits for clients who make pilgrimages to his postage stamp-sized atelier from all over the world. At once steeped in tradition and completely original, backward-glancing and avant-garde, outré and discreet, Mr. Pearl, for all his years in the fashion industry, is a breath of fresh air for simply letting his work speak for itself.

A rare acquiescence to the times has been the setting up of an email account. To commission a one-of-a-kind creation from Mr. Pearl, potential customers can contact him at But, they may find him very busy at the moment for he is hard at work creating buzz-generating costumes for Thierry (or as he's now called, Manfred) Mugler's highly anticipated revue, Mugler Follies.