3.18 / Review

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

By Matt Sussman June 27, 2012

Jean Paul Gaultier made his first cone bra when he was six years old. It was for his teddy bear, Nana, and the two crude papier-mâché lumps look like pasties made from discarded gum wrappers. The well-worn stuffed animal’s eye-shadow-and-lipstick-smeared face is further testament to the dramatic makeover it was subjected to by a precocious child who was obsessed with his grandmother’s foundation garments and later, would send off unsolicited sketches to established designers.

Nana is displayed at the de Young Museum opposite the pink Duchess satin corset-style bodysuit that Gaultier created for Madonna, who commissioned hundreds of costumes from the designer for her 1990 Blond Ambition tour. Perhaps the most iconic piece of pop costume second to Michael Jackson’s crystal-studded glove, Madonna’s bustier launched a thousand cultural studies papers and cemented for a wider audience the reputation that Gaultier had already earned in the early ’80s as fashion’s enfant terrible.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, which has arrived at the de Young after stops at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Montreal Museum of Art, features 140 ensembles spanning over thirty-five years of Gaultier’s couture and ready-to-wear collections. The retrospective not only offers a rare chance to closely examine some of the most inventive, irreverent, charming, and technically exquisite clothing of the last century, it also provides a more holistic picture of the influences, working methods, and long trajectory of the impish man behind the clothing.

The six galleries, thematically arranged by curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot with titles such as Boudoir and Urban Jungle, reveal the enfant terrible label to be something of a misnomer. The through-line from Nana to Madonna is not a desire to shock for shock’s sake but a tireless inquisitiveness. Regardless of where Gaultier’s sights land—whether on a simple trench coat or the attire Algerian immigrant women in Paris wear for grocery shopping—he arrived there guided by his openness and his pleasure in non-conformist probity. Each collection can be seen as a series of affirmative responses to a different question: “Why can’t Hasidic rabbis be chic?” “Why couldn’t punks be the descendants of cancan dancers?” “Why can’t men wear dresses?” “Why must corsets be oppressive?” “Why can’t clothing be funny and sexy?” With every garment, Gaultier’s answer is always a hearty “Why not?” coupled with impeccably precise construction that makes his imaginative leaps all the more spectacular while belying his lack of formal training. (Gaultier apprenticed with Pierre Cardin, Jacques Esterel, and Jean Patou in the early ’70s but never went to design school.)

The first gallery presents pieces from more recent couture collections inspired by mermaids and anointed Virgins, as well as a cross-section on what has become a signature Gaultier motif: the blue-and-white striped Breton sailor shirt. Here, it’s transformed into a floor-length evening gown that ends in a cascade of ostrich feathers and accompanied by a cruise-ready, wide-brimmed straw hat that forms the portrait collar of the jacket to which it’s seamlessly attached.

Jean Paul Gaultier. Cone Bra.

Emil Larsson. Body corset worn by Madonna, Blond Ambition World Tour, 1990, 2008; photograph for Dazed & Confused, April 2008. © Emil Larsson.


Jean Paul Gaultier. Cages collection. Calligraphie gown.

Jean Paul Gaultier. Calligraphie gown, haute couture Fall/Winter 2008-2009 (“Cages” collection); long silk satin and lace “cage,” sequined chiffon and lace sheath; 39 1/2  x 36 in. © Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier. Photo: Patrice Stabile.

The likeness of Gaultier himself stands among this alternative Fleet Week assembly as one of thirty-two talking mannequins designed by Denis Marleau and Stéphanie Jasmin, the directors of the experimental theatre company Ubu. Each mannequin head becomes a screen for the projected faces of models, muses, and customers from Gaultier’s extended circle, who reminisce, interrogate, smirk, and occasionally sing, much like the ghosts on Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride. Gaultier’s animated visage shares biographical episodes and ironically muses on the nature of being on display. The mannequins’ ambient chatter and unrelenting gazes—so often directed outward like those of Byzantine icons—are as wondrous and unsettling as many of the clothes they statically model. They make The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier feel much more alive than the comparatively studied and somber retrospectives of Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent the de Young has recently hosted.

This vivacity is also present in the clothes and comes from Gaultier’s rigorous re-thinking of form and function. Gaultier is of a generation of designers who looked everywhere for inspiration; they saw fashion as a series of codes to scramble and play with rather than as a mandate dictated by the social calendars of the elite. Balenciaga and Saint Laurent sent perfectly crafted cocktail dresses down their runways; Gaultier littered his with Molotov cocktails that explode and exaggerate gender norms while re-thinking the human form. He frequently turns the body inside out in his designs, as with the jet-embroidered silk velvet and satin skeleton-shaped corset from Fall/Winter 2010–2011 or the stage costume French singer Mylène Farmer wore that traces the circulatory system in delicate embroidery on a skin-colored netting. Gaultier renders the body into other shapes altogether, as revealed in a panoramic series of black-and-white photographs of the costumes he designed for choreographer Regine Chopinot between 1983 and 1993: torso-lengthening riffs on toreador jackets weighted with pom-poms and Seussian appendages of neoprene and bunched tulle. And, of course, there are the exhibition’s many variations on the corset, the garment perhaps most associated with Gaultier.

Gaultier’s decision in 1997 to join the ranks of haute couture at a time when the fashion industry was fretting over the future of made-to-order clothing has only given him a greater arsenal of technical resources with which to realize his ever-more-elaborate plays on codes. He has replicated the Vegas-style neon lights of Pigalle on an evening dress and embroidered a circle skirt with silk shaped to look like three-dimensional cursive handwriting piped from an icing bag. If there is a criticism to be leveled at The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, it is that there is simply too much to take in at once. The emphasis on showstoppers also leaves other aspects of his career unexplored, including, for example, his 1994 unisex line, JPG by Gaultier. But such complaints are minor given the extraordinary spectacle that has taken over the lower level of the de Young. It’s Gaultier’s world; we’re just lucky to be able to visit.


The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is on view at the de Young Museum, in San Francisco, through August 19, 2012.

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