And hyperbolic as it sounds, the exhibition proves the summation to be spot on.
The show, entitled The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, celebrates the designer’s output from the 1970s to the present day, through a thrillingly immersive, and at times playfully unnerving, display.
The exhibition was initially created by Paris-based consultancy Agence Projectiles for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, curated by the institution’s Thierry-Maxime Loirot.
The Barbican’s staging of the show was co-curated by Leila Hasham and Catherine Ince, who worked with the Montreal Musuem, Loirot and Gaultier on designeing the thematic structure.
The show sees mannequins bestowed with creepily human-like qualities, thanks to projections onto their faces that let them blink, speak and apparently make eye contact with the viewer. True to Gaultier’s values, they’re daring, bewildering and ultimately very, very fun.
The mannequins are the work of Canadian manufacturer Jolicoeur International Inc, and help display around 165 of Gaultier’s beautiful, boundary-pushing garments, including the brilliant conical bra and corsets worn by Madonna on her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, and stage costumes for Kylie Minogue.
We also get to see costumes used in the films of Pedro Almadovar – a director whose off-the-wall aesthetic seems to fit perfect with that of Gaultier.
The Barbican show’s title refers to its narrative tracing Gaultier’s career from its naissance in the 1970s, drawing on the punky, DIY feel of the era, to its current day in the world of haute couture. As such, the lower level of the space is backed by graffiti-bedecked walls, nestling alongside a moving catwalk of mannequins.
The exhibition is split into eight thematic sections – The Odyssey of Jean-Paul Gaulter; Punk Cancan; Muses (among these are such stellar sartorial names as Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, as well as less obvious choices including The Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto); The Boudoir; Metropolis; Eurotrash; Skin Deep and Urban Jungle.
Each section demonstrates not only Gaultier’s final pieces, but the multifarious influences that led to their creation – shown next to mannequins or on the walls as we’re guided from the boudoir to the sex-dungeon to the trash-strewn streets and the catwalk.
Naturally, corsetry plays a fitting role in holding the show together, and we learn that it was Gaultier’s grandmother who first ignited his passion for the wasit-cinching devices that are at once devices for holding women in, and letting them express sexual empowerment and freedom. Other familiar tropes – the nautical nods; the stripes (which are being used on eclairs by Paul’s bakery especially for the show) – are introduces early on, at the ground floor of the show, before leading into the diverse worlds of film, music, sex and society at large that went on to shape the designer’s career.
The exhibition is exhausting and arresting, as well as being pleasurably democratic – the way Gaultier’s designs work with the overall mise-en-scene, the show doesn’t feel overtly aimed at an exclusively ‘fashion’ crowd, instead presenting the work as much as a series of artworks or an immersive cultural commentary as a straight-up sartorial story.
‘[From seeing the show] everyone will rediscover their individual style and playfulness’, says Barbican head of visual arts, Jane Alison. ‘There’s a genuine love of life that’s deeply infectious’.
This egalitarian, celebratory feel is echoed in Gaultier’s muses and reference points, which eschew willowy model types in favour of women (and men) from all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds.
This diversity and willingness to experiment is perhaps one of the many reason’s behind Gaultier’s long-lasting love affair with London. ‘[London] is different, and beautiful’, says Gaultier. ‘People there have so much sense of fun’.
Indeed, the city’s influence on his work is paramount throughout his career; from the punky vein that runs through the decades of rips, tears, mixing and matching fabrics and safety pins; to the sense of freedom and experimentation that London fosters more than most cities.
Gaultier’s list of collaborators is vast and glittering, with the exhibition showing photography by artists including Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman; alongside footage of catwalk shows, music videos and dance performances. Also on show for the first time in a UK gallery is the Gaultier Spitting Image puppet, and hair stylist Odile Gilbert’s metre-tall Mohawk headpieces.
‘Jean Paul Gaultier is a true artist’, says Alison. ‘What comes across in his work, first and foremost, is its sheet exuberance and creativity and also the way in which Gaultier embraces and celebrates diversity’.
Alongside The Barbican’s exhibition, this Friday sees the opening of London College of Fashion’s Space Gallery’s Be My Guest – a display of the designer’s graphic design work. The LCF show features imagery from the 1980s to now including show invites and advertising campaigns, which prove how the designer’s 2D output is as lovely, cheeky and brilliant as his three-dimensional creations.
Whatever his medium, the exhibitions prove that throughout his career, Gaultier is constantly transforming the meanings of fashion and designing, subverting the norms of dress through androgyny, transgression and a timeless exuberance.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk runs from 9 April – 25 August at the Barbican Art Gallery, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS