The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk

by Alex R. Travers

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Rarely has a museum exhibition brought fashion to life. Yes, on a certain level, museums have excelled at the designer retrospective, a recent example being the Met’s touching tribute to Lee McQueen in 2011. On another level, though, the institutions tend not to focus on designers who are still alive and working. And who can blame them? Fashion is, in fact, infatuated with legacy and revitalization, and museums put high premiums on the past and—though it’s not often verbalized—the passed-away. But what about the couturiers that are just beginning to hit their stride or are still going strong, like Jean Paul Gaultier. If institutional curators are targeting these types, what does that say about the designer?

Dismiss any preconceptions you may have of the Brooklyn Museum’s latest exhibition, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” (open through February 23) being a retrospective of Gaultier’s oeuvre. It’s more like a contemporary art show that educates and illuminates, encouraging its viewers to look deeper into the designer’s 30-plus year career and figure out where he’s going next. As you walk through each room, you’ll find neat parables that reveal Gaultier’s inspirations. (On a second visit, I noticed that there’s no tidy bow that ties up the exhibition—no definitive end; to exit, you have to walk back through the rooms you have already seen.)

Throughout the show, visual marvels multiply. Using high-definition projections, a number of mannequins are given life-like, expressionistic faces, which seem to take cues from the bots of the dystopian sci-fi film I, Robot. Eerie as they are, their cinematic qualities have magnetic—for lack of a better word—personalities. After you’ve stared at them for a while and watched them flirt, blink, or mouth a secret, they raise their eyebrows and say, “Welcome,” or, “Hello,” making you feel like a voyeur to something lifeless. As you take your eyes off them and examine the clothes they wear—all Jean Paul Gaultier garments that span the length of his lifework—it’s hard not to wonder if they are now glancing back at you. In a talk with model-turned-curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot, Gaultier admits, “It’s better when the clothes come alive.” So even when the mannequins don’t address you directly, they spin, move on a faux catwalk, or are positioned, as if by a prankish puppeteer, in motion—a few of Loriot’s expert curatorial touches.

In the first room, you’ll learn that Gaultier got his start in fashion during the 1970s (Pierre Cardin hired him when he was just 18). It was also a time when money, sex, politics, fashion, rebellion, and acceptance all got together, creating a sense that these disparate worlds could seamlessly blend into each other. And no one at the time was better at translating that into something tangible than Gaultier. Check out those leatherette pants from the “James Bond” collection, the skirts for men, or the suits for women. You don ‘t need to know the first thing about couture to be spellbound.

Loriot, the 37-year-old who amassed this impressive collection, has always been fascinated by the designer’s childhood. Next to Gaultier’s famous salmon-pink corsets, clips from the 1940s film Paris Frills play, the movie that, Gaultier acknowledges, inspired him to become a couturier. (If you haven’t seen Paris Frills, it’s about a Parisian dressmaker who seduces his friend’s fiancé.) In that same room, which partially resembles a boudoir, there is also a teddy bear named Nanna from his early youth. “I wanted to transform the bear,” tells Gaultier. “He was the first one to wear the pointed bra—before Madonna!” In interviews, the designer often tells another story about his childhood. Back in school, he was caught in a classroom drawing a scantily clad woman who looked like a vedette at the Folies Bergère. The teacher made him pin it up for all to see. But then, most likely due to the drawing’s adolescent appeal, the once unpopular Gaultier all of a sudden gained his peers’ acceptance. Their immediate demands were certainly early echoes of what his clients would later ask of his couture dresses: “Make me one!”

Perhaps that was the moment when Gaultier was injected with his perpetual confidence. Since that event, his accomplishments have soared—“You either go up, up, up, or down.” No waylay for Gaultier. Just look at all his ready-to-wear collections: free of boundaries, clever, theatric, and wildly exciting. Many even called his shows extreme. Fair enough. But why are his collections so extreme? Because he crafts with undiluted passion, an emotion that cannot be modulated. Pair that with his expert eye for tailoring and the demands he instills on the seamstresses of the house and it’s no wonder that these garments are in a museum. It took 295 hours, for example, to craft a “Calligraphy” gown from the Fall-Winter 2008 Haute Couture collection—I had to fight my way to get close to that. (Extra props to the museum for eliminating glass enclosures and allowing photography.)

The nagging question, though, is whether the glory days of Jean Paul Gaultier are over. Which is to say that this exhibit—spectacular as it may be—is more a commemoration of the designer’s past than an indicator of his future. But when you hear that thick Parisian accent filled with joy, curiosity, and color talk about his love of design, you can’t help but to root for him to keep going full force. After all, we’ve watched Gaultier go from fashion’s enfant terrible to the top of that rarified strata known as Haute Couture. His next move could surprise us all.