Gaultier never received formal training as a designer. Instead, he started sending sketches to famous couture stylists at an early age. Pierre Cardin was impressed by his talent and hired him as an assistant in 1970. Afterwards he worked with Jacques Esterel in 1971 and Jean Patou later that year, then returning to manage the Pierre Cardin boutique in Manila for a year in 1974.
His first individual collection was released in 1976 and his characteristic irreverent style dates from 1981, and he has long been known as the enfant terrible of French fashion. Many of Gaultier's following collections have been based on street wear, focusing on popular culture, whereas others, particularly his haute couture collections, are very formal yet at the same time unusual and playful.
Although most people found his designs decadent at the time, fashion editors, notably Melka Tréanton of Elle, Claude Brouet and Catherine Lardeur of French Marie Claire, were impressed by his creativity and mastery of tailoring and later launched his career. In 1985 he introduced man-skirts, and produced sculptured costumes for Madonna during the nineties, starting with her infamous cone bra for her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, and designed the wardrobe for her 2006 Confessions Tour. Gaultier has also worked in close collaboration with Wolford Hosiery. He promoted the use of skirts, especially kilts, in men's wardrobe, and the release of designer collections.
Gaultier caused shock by using unconventional models for his exhibitions, like older men and full-figured women, pierced and heavily tattooed models, and by playing with traditional gender roles in the shows. This earned him both criticism and enormous popularity.
At the end of the 1980s, Gaultier suffered some personal losses, including his lover and business partner Francis Menuge, who died of AIDS-related causes.
Gaultier designed the wardrobe of many motion pictures, including Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, Pedro Almodóvar's Kika, Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's La Cité des enfants perdus (The City of Lost Children). He currently designs for three collections: his own couture and ready-to-wear lines, for both men and women.
In 1988 Gaultier released a dance single titled "How To Do That" on Fontana records from which came one of the first ever "single title" remix albums "Aow Tou Dou Zat" on Mercury records. The album includes mixes by Norman Cook, JJ Jeczalik, George Shilling, Mark Saunders, Latin Rascals, David Dorrell, Tim Atkins, Carl Atkins, and Mantronik. Co-written & produced by Tony Mansfield, video directed by Jean Baptiste Mondino. The album also featured a collaboration with accordion player Yvette Horner.
Gaultier has designed a number of the costumes and outfits worn by rocker Marilyn Manson, including the outfits for Manson's Golden Age of Grotesque album. In France the costumes he designed for singer Mylène Farmer gained much attention. In spring 2008 he signed a contract to be again the fashion designer for her tour in 2009.
In 2008, he designed the white and silver mermaid dress that Marion Cotillard wore at the 80th Academy Awards, when she won the Oscar for her performance in La Vie en Rose.
He is also well known for sponsoring the 2003–04 exhibit in the Costume Institute of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Artentitled "Braveheart: Men in Skirts," which showed designs by Dries van Noten, Vivienne Westwood, and Rudi Gernreich in addition to Gaultier's in order to "examine designers and individuals who have appropriated the skirt as a means of injecting novelty into male fashion, as a means of transgressing moral and social codes, and as a means of redefining an ideal masculinity."
In 2011, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Maison Jean Paul Gaultier organized a retrospective exhibit, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk." That exhibit is on tour with venues at the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design (Arkitekturmuseet) in Stockholm, the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City, the Barbican Center in London and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
He has designed the costumes for Kylie Minogue's international KYLIEX2008 tour, as well as the late iconic Hong Kong singer Leslie Cheung, who hired Gaultier to design eight different costumes for the last concert tour before Cheung's death.
In 2012, he was named as a member of the Jury for the Main Competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This is the first time a fashion designer was called to sit on a jury at the festival. He also designed the dress that Anggun wore as she represented France during the grand-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 held in Baku, Azerbaijan. In 2012 he also participated in the Cali ExpoShow in Cali (Colombia), showing his extense collection of perfumes and all classic clothes.