Jean Paul Gaultier, photo Patrick McMullan

The Jean Paul Gaultier Exhibit Is a Lesson in Individuality

Update 3/31/2015: After opening in Montreal, and following stops in Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Brooklyn, London, and Melbourne, the exhibit The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk has finally entered the homestretch. The retrospective has arrived at the Grand Palais in Paris — its tenth and last stop — more robust than in any previous incarnation.

Considering he's been a reigning figure in fashion for 35 years, it's pretty shocking to think there had never been a major exhibition of Jean Paul Gaultier's work until two years ago. (Not counting Bravehearts: Men in Skirts at the Costume Institute in 2003). In 2011, after years of research, first-time curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot launched The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. An instant hit, the don't-call-it-a-retrospective has traveled the world over and now calls the Brooklyn Museum home.

The show, which opened last week with a muse-studded dinner, goes a long way in capturing the autodidactic couturier's dual playfulness and profundity. Perhaps no other contemporary designer has upended traditional dress as cleverly, as skillfully, as humorously as Gaultier. His contributions to fashion, particularly during the 80s and 90s, have been nothing short of revolutionary. So while the exhibition doesn't attempt to place Gaultier in a hierarchical constellation with other star designers, it does shed light on the singular impact he's had. His radical riffs on gender codes, his embrace of misfits, his elevation of street style into the realm of haute couture, and his close friendships with strong women ranging from Madonna to Beth Ditto only begin to tell his story.

A key feature of the exhibition are the mannequins, many of which have plaster-cast heads with moving faces projected onto them. When they look squarely at you, as they do on occasion, it's very eerie, and gives the sense that these clothes have lived in the real world and have real stories to tell. Fortunately, Thierry-Maxime Loriot — a former model for the likes of Giorgio Armani and Lanvin (but not Gaultier) — was on hand to walk us through it...

On those eerie mannequins...
"It was important to Mr. Gaultier to make the show alive. There's a movie by Jacques Becker from the 1940s. It's about a Paris fashion designer who falls in love with a fashion model and so he makes a mannequin made of her. At the end of the movie he puts a wedding dress on the mannequin and she comes alive. So Jean Paul wanted to have live mannequins. Also, in 2007 he saw a play at the Montreal Theater Company. There were no actors, only projections of faces with clothes. So we approached the theater company to develop these faces. Luckily I was the prototype for it, so what we had to do was cast the heads of his muses. We all went through the same process of having our heads cast in plaster. It’s horrible because you cannot breathe. After that they project a film in 3D onto the mannequin version of your face so all the features fit perfectly. We have 32 in total.

On his grandmother and his teddy bear...
When he was little, his maternal grandmother was always putting him in sailor shirts. He liked it because he was a big fan of Popeye. Plus Pablo Picasso was wearing one all the time, and even Coco Chanel. Gaultier likes to work these classic elements and Gaultierize them. Here’s a picture of him with his grandmother. As a child he was very shy. He didn’t have many friends because he liked fashion and feathers more and he was spending a lot of time with his grandmother. She had a TV at a time when only rich families had one. So he was seeing all these movies and TV shows about Moulin Rouge and showgirls, and he was fascinated by it. He asked his parents to buy him a Barbie doll. You can guess that in the 1950s little boys didn’t have Barbie dolls, so they bought him this teddy bear, Nana. That became his first model. When he showed me this, I said we have to include it in the show. He said no way, it looks like a monster. But it’s really part of his history. Everything he was seeing on TV, from the wedding of Queen Fabiola of Belgium and the first open heart surgery by Dr. Barnard, he was executing on the teddy bear. He also made his first cone bra, using little paper cups, for Nana. And you can see he put makeup on and burned the hair with a curler. His grandmother also taught him how to put a corset on. She’d drink a large glass of vinegar to contract her stomach so they could pull the laces tight. He was fascinated.

On his New York reception...
He brought back corsetry after women’s liberation, when women were burning their bras. He brought back corset dresses and corset jumpsuits, like he did in 1983 with this Cindy Sherman picture. It was meant to be an advertising campaign for a store in New York called Dianne B. It was the first store in New York to sell Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Gaultier. She asked Cindy to do the advertising campaign and paid her $50. When the ad campaign came out and people at Vogue magazine saw this picture, they were scandalized by it. They said she didn’t look like a model, the top was inside out, and her makeup looks like she has a sunburn around her sunglasses. In fact the only one who wanted to run it was Andy Warhol for Interview magazine. So that’s why you see portraits of Jean Paul by Andy Warhol at the entrance.

On Madonna...
We cannot forget about Madonna, who played a very important role in the career of Mr. Gaultier and vice versa. I had the luck to be invited by Madonna to discuss their collaborations, and to show her things even she had not seen, like these Polaroids from the fittings for the Blonde Ambition tour. So you see in the first part she’s a brunette because it’s the first fitting in 1989, and the final fitting was March 1990, just before the premiere in Tokyo. Madonna told me she wanted to work with Gaultier because of his tongue-in-cheek humor, how he doesn’t take himself seriously but he always does beautiful tailoring, and he mixes masculine and feminine. She’s a very strong, powerful woman and she wanted this to be reflected in her work. She used the male as an object just like Gaultier did, so they had the same way of thinking and creating. And here are the sketches for the same tour. You see how she’s wearing a corset with a cone bra on top of a men’s suit, and even how she put the cone bras from 1984, that she bought from the archives, to have her dancers wear. The collaboration was really the starting point of the history between pop music and fashion. It changed how runway fashion designers and pop stars would work together. Now everyone is collaborating.

More on corsetry...
In this gallery you see different types of corsets over the years, from ready-to-wear to couture and his time at Hermès. This one was worn by Beyoncé for a concert and here are the real Blonde Ambition outfits that Madonna wore. Sometimes you see them at the Hard Rock Café, but those are copies. You can tell these are real by the fabric. The gold corset was made from vintage gold fabric from the 1930s that Jean Paul found in a store in Paris. It’s not a very soft fabric and it was quite difficult for Madonna to do the choreography.

On Kurt Cobain and the grunge myth...
One collection I want to emphasize is the Chic Rabbis collection, which you can see here. He got the idea in New York City when he was walking on Fifth Avenue and saw all of these chic rabbis coming out of the public library. He thought they were very elegant with their long satin coats. He wanted to recreate the same emotion. He created a big scandal because this was exactly at the time of the grunge era. But surprisingly, one who was wearing a lot of Gaultier at the time was Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. When you saw him he was always wearing shirts tied around his waist and sweaters with holes. Everybody thought they were vintage clothes from Seattle, but in fact he was always dressed in Gaultier. Few people know that Kurt Cobain was a big fan of Gaultier.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, Brooklyn Museum of Art, October 25, 2013 - February 23, 2014

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Oct 27, 2013 21:18:00

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