Cirque du Soleil, cowboys and sexual freedoms. Not much in the world can encompass such cultural smorgasbord. Yet that is precisely the trajectory of the retrospective exposition by the sometime enfant terrible turned iconic freak– Jean-Paul Gaultier – as Montreal, Dallas, San Francisco, and now New York City welcome “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” exhibition.
The best thing art can do sometimes is highlight something authentic and extraordinary in the gray torrent of reality. Gaultier, without a doubt more an artist, then merely a successful clothes designer, has been laboring at that task all his life. He observes people and events around him, catches social undercurrent trends and builds whole collections around zeitgeist subject, such as his recent tribute to the late singer Amy Winehouse. Multi-gender punks, Parisian cabaret dancers, exotic outcasts from all walks of life are equal parts of Gaultier’s enthusiastic oeuvre presented in different sectors of the touring exhibition:
The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier – begins the exhibition with an exploration of several signature Gaultier motifs – the blue and white striped sailor shirt in all its themes and variations, spectacular mermaids and virgins, and welcomes the visitor with singing mannequins and a special cameo by the designer himself.
The Boudoir – explores Gaultier’s fascination with lingerie and underpinnings culminating in his signature collaboration with Madonna for her Blonde Ambition tour.
Skin Deep – a risqué, provocative gallery featuring garments inspired by themes of bondage and body art.
Punk Cancan – features the dichotomy between the typical upscale French couture client and the street punks of London.
Urban Jungle – a multicultural clash of influences including Hussars, Mongolians, Hassidic Jews, Frida Kahlo and China. This gallery includes highlights of Gaultier’s haute couture detailing with unusual materials and techniques on view.
Metropolis – concludes the exhibition with a presentation of Gaultier’s work for film, performance pieces and his relationships with pop icons such as Kylie Minogue and Tina Turner.
The designer reluctantly accepted the offer from Nathalie Atkinson, the Montreal museum’s director and chief curator, because by exhibiting at an art space he would not just visually present what he has done during 40 years of work in the fashion industry but have the freedom to express his unique lifestyle philosophy. From the very beginning Gaultier made it clear that he does not want any typical mannequins to be used. He has been creating looks for strong personalities, not for faceless objects! With a help of complex engines, cogwheels and Denis Marleau video installations the mannequins are moving, talking, rolling their eyes and laughing, representing many of Jean-Paul’s trademark characteristics with a dose of self-irony. Dr. Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology endorsed the idea: “The live mannequins are really fantastic. It would not work for most of other designers’ shows, but it works perfectly for Jean Paul Gaultier”.
Thanks to the fact that Gaultier’s products always emphasize individuality, vanguard celebrities have been fond of him since 80’s. Madonna was infamously dressed by Gaultier in several of her tours and videos. The reigning Queen of Pop opened her private closets to lend the 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour corsets for display. Costumes for the legendary Angelin Preljocaj ballet “Blanche Neige” were also produced by the Gautier house. Film directors Pedro Almodovar and Luc Besson regularly collaborate with the designer.
Fashion as a tool to embody and project freedom of choice is a timeless message that continues to resonate with new generations of fans. More than 140 outfits along with never before seen documents and mementos drew record crowds so far. Over 175,000 visitors in Canada and 115,000 tickets sold in Texas turned this into a must-see blockbuster. On October 25 the exhibition moved to the Brooklyn Museum where it may finds its most appreciative audience yet, given the city’s legacy of celebrating all things vogue.