His name is spelt out in a bright neon sign as I arrive in the dark and spacious exhibition space at the Barbican Centre…a name that is a fashion trademark in itself, and a promise of extravagance, diversity and originality. Jean-Paul Gaultier possesses a unique legacy within the fashion world, born from a spirit that always seems to think out of the box. This immense collection of clothes arranged in terms of influences and inspirations over two floors, as well as the way in which they are presented, is a direct testimony to this attitude.
Gender ambiguity, sexuality and feminine empowerment, cultural diversity and futuristic designs…It would seem hard to fetter Gaultier within a single show. Yet this retrospective is one of the most daring and insightful fashion exhibitions I have seen this year.
Jean-Paul Gaultier’s world explores places and ideas that transcend fashion inspiration and delve into all walks of life. In fact, the most notably aspect of his fashion, reflected throughout the exhibition, is his distinct desire to go beyond it and reach out to a world of stark differences, irreverence and anomality, celebrating it rather than sanitizing it or elevating it to a catwalk ideal. The gallery of his lifetime muses, models and inspirations surpasses by far that of vestimentary concepts and ideas such as the navy jumper, the punk movement or the Virgin Mary.
I think that curating fashion and historical costume is extremely difficult to acheive in an interesting and captivating way, however striking the content is. There are an immense number of constraints that must be taken into account, such as lighting, protection and encasing. There will most often be mannequins which can also give a ‘shop window’ feel to the display and make it feel kitschy. However this exhibition seemed to embrace the kitsch and dared to explore new ways to make the clothing displays seem more alive and interactive, giving it a theatrical and performative flair.
The exhibition plays with the idea of the fashion exhibit, ever-increasing and glamourous but always quite difficult to change around. The Gaultier’s exhibition resides somewhere between a shop display and a contemporary art performance, with models going from standing positions to sitting and reclining. On the ground floor, all of them invariably have a filmed model’s face projected upon the mannquin’s face, in consant, looped motion, either blinking or talking. Even Gaultier himself gets his own talking mannequin as his recorded voice welcomes us into the exhibition.
It is more than a bit unsettling to be surrounded by a dozen immobile mannequins with moving blinking faces or lips reciting poems or freetalk that has a performance art quality to it.This installation qualiy has been created and staged by Denis Marleau and Stéphanie Jasmin from UBU/Compagnie de Création de Montréal, while Jolicoeur International of Québec designed the mannequins themselves. without this unique craftsmanship, the clothes would not have been highlighted with the excentric and fanciful nature that best suits them.
In the first part of the exhibition, we are introduced to Gaultier’s marine collection, taking a classic French garment and giving it his own modern twist, followed by dresses inspired by Baroque Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary with a Gothic, elegantly dark touch; the models’ ethereal eyes seem to follow me around under the blue light, like an echo of a powerful presence on the catwalk frozen into place.
But not all of them remain immobile. As I walk into the larger space, a catwalk-like installation allowed the models to rotate while we sit into seats on the side, as though replacing the designers and fashion magazine editors in a real fashion show. Shapes, colours and texture vary yet the same spirit of extravagance and elegance remains, distilling itself into the rest of the display that shows Gaultier’s strong punk-rock influences, from his trips to London and inspiration from marginal counter-cultures, without sugar-coating or side-stepping them so that they could fit into a high-fashion ideal. They are complemented by amazing punk headresses that are part of the series of wigs creates for all the mannequins by Odile Gilbert. There is no particular chronology to these; designs from the 70s and 80s merge with present-day creations, while remaining in the same spirit.
In a sense, it is difficult to establish a chronology and grasp quite how revolutionary Gaultier was being at the time, because we now fully expect haute couture to create this spirit of provocation and of the extraordinary on the catwalk. There is a definite hommage through the predominance of punk in the largest space to both London and street style, rearranged in a theatrical fashion that sets the tone in its playful title: Punk Cancan. For the most part these are not organized in terms of different genres so much as ideas such as androgynity, unconventional beauty, stars…inspired either by his muses, people he worked for or models.
Enter The Muses, a sprawling collection of rooms under a thematic that is as eclectic in inspirations than in creations. Thus we find in one room Madonna and in the other Kylie Minogue, with the dresses that defined the power, sexuality and feminity that they wanted to convey on-stage. In another, we find again the likes of Dita von Teese, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. The exhibition has a definite stardom quality to it, emphasized by a series of celebrity portraits and extracts from concerts. This is only highlighted by the presence of the photographers that Gaultier worked with as well, such as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman or David LaChapelle.
This fun celebrity aspect is not neccessarily new but I appreciate greatly the way in which it mingled very known names to the names of models and muses that are not neccessarily known to the general public, part of Gaultier’s search for an unconventional beauty. One of the first to embrace a body and gender diversity that is still looked for and sometimes lacking today! Through the photos and video footage of catwalks surrounding the clothes, the attitude of his models, nonchalant yet defiant, seem crystallized through a particular footage of a 1984 catwalk with a model sporting a suit and long tailored skirt for his “And God Created Man” collection. This allegedly caused Vogue editors to rise and leave at once, followed by Marie-Claire and Elle…much to the glee of Gaultier who said to The Face magazine a few years later, “I was slated by the French press for designing clothes for hairdressers and homosexuals!”
Provocation led to scandal yet also brought along popularity and a taste for the atypical. Amanda Cazalet and Tanel Bedrossiantz’s androgynity contrasted with the distinctive look and strong personality of Farida Khelfa, with her long bushy hair and tall figure. A softer, more intimate atmosphere is explored through The Boudoir, where Falbalas, a huge inspiration for Gaultier, plays on an old set within a dark and soft array of corsetry and lingerie. In full display presides his iconic teddy bear with an (i)conic bra attached to its furry breast – an addition made by the young Jean-Paul in a house where, raised by his grandmother, he grew up aware of a feminine strength that found its way into his work, mingling elegance with empowerment. Secrecy and sensuality here are not equated with submissiveness.
From femininity in the boudoir we go back to Gaultier’s exuberance and the way in which it encompassed not ony the catwalk but also television, with his participation on Eurotrash, numerous parodies and artistic involvement within pays and films, amongst which The Fifth Element remains a masterpiece of kistchy science-fiction. Punk, gender subversion and the boudoir: is it all too much? Yes…but “too much” is very much Gaultier. This exhibition pulled off an all-encompassing view of his work that focused on its eclectic and contrasting nature, without homogenisation or concessions. It managed to stay true to the vision of Gaultier in the documentation of his work and vision, complete with sketches, photographs and footage to complement the presentation of the clothes. Yet it still possessed its own artistic identity through a clever layout on two floors and the innovative work on the mannequins. The exhibition’s travelling success around the world will continue with its arrival in Paris next year at the Grand Palais and I look forward to another glimpse into a unique world.