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

‘A study in pure creativity’ is one of the many breathless appraisals given to the work of Jean Paul Gaultier at the opening of the Barbican’s retrospective of the designer’s work this morning.

 Jean Paul Gaultier The Virgin with the Serpents (Kylie Minogue), 2008 Virgins (or Madonnas) collection, “Aure´ole” gown. Haute couture spring/summer 2007 Sky blue pleated tulle gown with “rays of light” gold lame applique´s, long panels floating from the

Source: © Pierre et Giles. Courtesy Gallery Je´rome de Noimont, Paris

Jean Paul GaultierThe Virgin with the Serpents (Kylie Minogue), 2008 Virgins (or Madonnas) collection, “Aure´ole” gown. Haute couture spring/summer 2007Sky blue pleated tulle gown with “rays of light” gold lame applique´s, long panels floating from the shoulders in the backPainted photograph, framed by the artists181 x 137 cm (framed)Gallerie Je´rome de Noimont, Paris

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.

Ad campaign for the fin de siècle collection, Women's prêt-à-porter spring /summer 1995; art direction and photography: Jean Paul Gaultier
Ad campaign for the fin de siècle collection, Women’s prêt-à-porter spring /summer 1995; art direction and photography: Jean Paul Gaultier

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.

A nautical-themed mannequin
A nautical-themed mannequin

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.

Corsetry including Madonna's 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour stage outfit
Corsetry including Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour stage outfit

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.

Punk cancan
 

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.

 Jean Paul Gaultier First collection Women’s pre^t-a`-porter spring/summer 1977 30th anniversary retrospective runway show, October 2006

Source: © Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier

Jean Paul GaultierFirst collectionWomen’s pre^t-a`-porter spring/summer 1977 30th anniversary retrospective runway show, October 2006

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.

Jean Paul Gaultier Rock’N’Romantic collection Women’s pre^t-a`-porter spring/summer 2011 Model: Beth Ditto, lead singer of the band Gossip

Source: © Patrice Stable / Jean Paul Gaultier

Jean Paul GaultierRock’N’Romantic collectionWomen’s pre^t-a`-porter spring/summer 2011 Model: Beth Ditto, lead singer of the band Gossip

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’.

Je T'aime Afrique: A Jean Paul Gaultier "Mask" and silk tulle wedding gown from his Spring/Summer 2005 Haute Couture Collection
Je T’aime Afrique: A Jean Paul Gaultier

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 Backstage, Odile Gilbert and Eugenia Silva Cages collection Haute couture fall/winter 2008–2009

Source: © Greg Kessler

Jean Paul GaultierBackstage, Odile Gilbert and Eugenia Silva Cages collectionHaute couture fall/winter 2008–2009

‘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’.

Ad campaign for the Elegance Contest and Casanova at the Gym collections, Women's and Men's prêt-à-porter spring/summer 1992; art direction and photography: Jean Paul Gaultier
Ad campaign for the Elegance Contest and Casanova at the Gym collections, Women’s and Men’s prêt-à-porter spring/summer 1992; art direction and photography: Jean Paul Gaultier

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.

Ad campaign for the Chic Rabbis collection, Women's prêt-à-porter autumn / winter 1993- 1994; art direction and photography: Jean Paul Gaultier
Ad campaign for the Chic Rabbis collection, Women’s prêt-à-porter autumn / winter 1993- 1994; art direction and photography: Jean Paul Gaultier

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.

Jean Paul Gaultier The Raw and the Refined collection Men’s pre^t-a`-porter spring/summer 1994 30th anniversary retrospective runway show, October 2006

Source: © Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier

Jean Paul GaultierThe Raw and the Refined collectionMen’s pre^t-a`-porter spring/summer 199430th anniversary retrospective runway show, October 2006

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

Jean Paul Gaultier

Source: © Rainer Torrado

Jean Paul Gaultier

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