Jean Paul Gaultier: Celebrating the Genius of Fashion’s Enfant Terrible

Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer


No other haute-couture designer has been as closely associated with popular culture as Jean Paul Gaultier. Where contemporaries such as Alexander McQueen imbued his designs with a dark, 19th-century romanticism, and Miuccia Prada became known for marrying clean lines to an effortless, luxurious elegance, Gaultier has always been heavily influenced by the street, in all its multicultural and changing forms. This fascination with the world around him found its expression in many of his iconic ensembles: tight shirts resembling tattooed bodies; menswear inspired by traditional female garments; underwear as outerwear.


“I have been always influenced more by reality…to try to make it like people in the streets. It’s the best compliment,” said the 60 year-old designer at the San Francisco press preview for his solo exhibition, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, which opened at the De Young Museum in San Francisco in March.


And when they say “fashion world,” they mean it. The exhibit is a multimedia extravaganza, from the moment one walks into “The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier,” a blue-hued gallery, reminiscent of an aquarium, populated by French sailors and mermaids. There are six segments to the exhibition, each devoted to a theme that traces the designer’s influences: In addition to the Odyssey, there are “The Boudoir,” “Skin Deep,” “Punk Cancan,” “Urban Jungle,” and “Metropolis.” All feature atmospheric lighting, personal photographs from the designer’s life, and television screens displaying film clips, music videos, runway shows and other visual media in which Gaultier took part.


What really bring the whole experience to life, however, are the 30 shockingly realistic animated mannequins. Gaultier partnered with Montreal-based theater company Ubu Compagnie de Création to create them—including one of Gaultier himself, dressed in his iconic blue-and-white French mariners’ stripes, welcoming viewers to the exhibit. The designer was adamant that the show have this living quality; he was initially resistant to the idea of contemporary clothes being placed in a museum filled with works by deceased artists. His method of achieving vitality in a static medium is inventive; the effect, uncanny. There are the smirking, winking and talking “models,” of course, but more impressive (and unsettling) are the still and silent ones. They appear to be regular mannequins until a completely natural yet unexpected glance or blink jarringly informs the viewer otherwise.


Such playfulness is, of course, one of Gaultier’s hallmarks, along with a multicultural sensibility; models of all races walked his runway shows long before it became fashionable, and traditional garb worn in other countries has anchored many of his collections. Showcased at the exhibit are garments inspired by African, Asian and Siberian culture, each beautifully rendered and contemporary, and yet faithful to the clothing upon which they are based.


“Gaultier has such an interest in world cultures. He brings that over and over to his work,” says Kevin Jones, museum curator of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. “He gets interested for a season in one or two cultures, and he dives into them—what they wear, and the reasons why they wear them. Then he reinterprets them into his own aesthetic.”


That aesthetic might bring conflicting cultural elements together in unexpected ways. Take his Punk Cancan pieces, for example: tattooed, pierced and mohawked punks on the streets of New York and London made an indelible impression on Gaultier. But who else would have thought to bring traditional tartans and kilts into the mix? By deliberately turning haute couture on its head, Gaultier earned the moniker “enfant terrible of fashion.” On view at the De Young are many of the designs that display this blatant disregard for convention, in all their full, cheeky glory.


Exhibit A: the pointed corset bra worn by Madonna on her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, which brought Gaultier worldwide fame. There are pieces inspired by bondage and fetish wares. Bodysuits designed for singer Mylene Farmer, detailing the human circulatory, muscle and skeletal systems in printed fabric and sequins, are exceptional examples of art imitating life. And for the penultimate trompe l’oeil, consider the full-length, leopard print evening gown, created perfectly and painstakingly in beads. L’Enfant terrible is also a master craftsman.



Which should come as no surprise. Gaultier had no formal training in fashion design, but as a teenager, he sent sketches of his work to Pierre Cardin, who hired the talented ingenue as a design assistant. Later, he worked for the very conservative House of Patou, as well as Jacques Esterel. He released his first individual prêt-à-porter collection in 1976, at just 24 years of age. In 1997, he began producing haute couture in the very exclusive, heavily regulated French industry.


“[Gaultier] has established a ready-to-wear empire under his own name, but to also do French haute couture under his own name…it’s an extraordinary achievement,” explains Jones.


Sculptural feats notwithstanding, Gaultier’s clothes are precisely fitted and very flattering. There are many refreshingly understated ensembles on the rotating catwalk in Urban Jungle: women’s trousers and simple skirts, tailored blouses, fabrics in soft gray and beige. As Susan Orlean wrote of him in the September 26, 2011 edition of The New Yorker, “…many of his clothes are quietly beautiful and well tailored, with no attempt to shock.” That is true as well of a man’s three-piece suit, paired with a full-length skirt. The Western world is perhaps not ready for men’s dresses. But to see this handsome outfit, which retains its professionalism and masculinity, is to imagine a transformation in men’s fashion as revolutionary as the advent of trousers for women.


Truthfully, though, Gaultier’s subversion of gender norms owes more to the burlesque than the burly; the male dancers on tour with Madonna wore even more exaggerated brassieres than hers, and his menswear collections frequently feature tight leotards and lacy flared pants. In these pieces one can see the influence of the French cabaret show Folies Bergère, which his maternal grandmother, Marie, allowed the young Gaultier to watch on TV. At the press preview and in other interviews, Gaultier has described the large role Marie played in his life, and how the fashion advice she herself gave to others helped form his ideas of fashion and beauty. Marie’s salmon-pink satin corset fascinated the budding designer, resulting in a lifelong interest in women’s undergarments. Gaultier made his first cone bra, constructed out of newspaper, as a child, for his teddy bear, “Nana”; she can be seen in The Boudoir.


Nana was a precursor to Madonna, whose friendship with Gaultier subsequently ushered in a lasting association with popular music and motion pictures. Among the films featuring Gaultier-created wardrobes are Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, Pedro Almodovar’s Kika and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Clips from all of these films, as well as sketches created for the directors and production designers, are on view. No stone in the landscape of Gaultier’s life or career has been left unturned.


Credit for the comprehensive nature of the exhibit goes largely to Thierry Loriot, the chief curator. He reviewed more than 8,000 Gaultier pieces, interviewed dozens of people instrumental to the designer’s career, and sorted through hundreds of video clips and photographs. The result: 140 garments, 70 videos and numerous accessories, photos and other materials. For the numerous North American museum patrons who have viewed the exhibit (and the international patrons that will see it once it travels to Europe), this is a rare opportunity to view high-end fashion in the thread. As Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (where the exhibit debuted last June) pointed out at the San Francisco press preview, “It is easier to see a Van Gogh painting than an haute couture piece.”



Of course, From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is not the only exhibit bringing haute couture to the masses. Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective in Denver have both been wildly successful. Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations (also at the Met) is a much-anticipated exhibition. Couture as art form might raise eyebrows amongst the most orthodox museum personages, but the average museum visitor embraces the concept.


“Garments like the pieces in the Gaultier exhibition…there’s an aspect of creativity in them,” says Jones. “This allows them into the field of art. They are a legitimate cultural artifact.”


Diane B. Wilsey, president of the board of trustees for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, agrees, qualifiying that “The pieces have to be exceptional. It can’t just be somebody’s closet.” Unless, of course, that “somebody” is Madonna.


The exhibit will run until August 19, 2012 at the De Young Museum.


Author Bio:

Nancy Lackey Shaffer is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos courtesy of the De Young Museum; photo on main page by Jean Baptiste Mondino.

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Jean Baptiste Mondino
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