Turned the breton striped shirt socially acceptable: Jean Paul Gaultier, photographed by Jean-Paul Goude, 2012. Photo © Jean-Paul Goude
Hello, welcome, I am Jean Paul Gaultier
Von Annette Tietenberg
In September 2014 Jean Paul Gaultier announced the end of the era of his prêt-à-porter collections. He said that he wanted henceforth to focus solely on haute-couture and a few selected projects. Was it pure chance that he took the decision precisely at that very moment when his retrospective was touring the world and causing such a stir? The exhibition Jean Paul Gaultier. From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk was initiated and realized in 2011 by Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. And in subsequent years it was also on display in the Dallas Museum of Art, the Young Museum San Francisco, the Fundación Mapfre in Madrid, Kunsthal Rotterdam, Architecture & Design Center Stockholm, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Barbican Art Gallery London, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and at the Grand Palais in Paris – attracting no less than 1.5 million viewers before reaching its final destination: the Hypo-Kulturstiftung’s art gallery in Munich. And the countdown’s on. A notice in a display window reads: “Only a few days left”.
You can ogle no less than 140 creations Jean Paul Gaultier created between 1971 and 2015, including haute-couture garments and prêt-à-porter ensembles, the famous men’s skirt, the Breton striped shirts, not to mention the armor-like conical bustier Madonna wore on her Blond Ambition tour in 1990, the stage outfits for Kylie Minogue, Beyoncé and Beth Ditto, and the white-scaled mermaid dress that ensured Marion Cotillard made such a shimmering splash at the Oscars in 2008. They are all presented by curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot and exhibition designer Sandra Gagné in such a way that the context of fashion can be easily grasped by all the senses in a very enjoyable way: In the Gaultier cosmos, high fashion and subculture, Punk and Pop, film and music, artisanship and body cult combine and fruitfully egg each other on to greater things.
Logically, the now 63 year-old Jean Paul Gaultier is celebrated as a man who treads a strong avant-garde line between the disciplines. Forever a multiculturalist, he relies on patterns, costumes and manufacturing techniques from Europe, America, Africa, Arabia and Asia. As a transgender expert he works with the likes of Teri Toye, Zaldo Goco, Conchita Wurst and Andrej Pejic. His outfits are an ironic take on traditional roles and gender attributes and, with a clear nod to Surrealism, combine what was traditionally not to be combined, the sewing machine and the umbrella on the dissecting table, which has here mutated into a cat walk.
Gaultier reveals the abilities of a true alchemist when blending natural fabrics and synthetic materials: ostrich feathers, finest silks with Inca patterns, mink, fox, human hair, shark and python skin, leather, beads, crystals, shells and braided straw seem quite effortlessly to enter into a symbiosis with vinyl, plastic sequins, and tin. As a symbol of esteem, the labels state how many hours of skillful, patient and highly-qualified handicrafts in sewing rooms across the entire world went into realizing Gaultier’s dream.
Gaultier’s true craft is the art of upgrading and revisiting. For example, he purchased the fabrics he used in 1976 for his very first prêt-à-porter collection from department stores such as Marché Saint-Pierre and Samaritaine. The result: a portable “assisted ready-made” now on show in Munich: Alongside jackets made of wallpaper and table sets – and faithful to the exhibition’s motto of From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk – he presented an assembled Punk combination à la Parisienne, a Punk cancan cross between a ballerina’s tutu and biker’s jacket. To this day he possesses the ability to astonish us with changes of materials as is evident in Munich not least in the guise of a kaftan. This seemingly traditional Chassidim garb is made of black gleaming plastic.
The fashion designer would appear to have dedicated just as much care to the exhibition displays as he does to his choice of expressive materials and his creation of sensational fashion shows. Because Gaultier fears nothing more than running on the spot. He thus initially had great reservations as regards a retrospective. “For me an exhibition sounded a bit like death,” he recalls. “When you die, they put you in a museum.” And the exhibition display, which he then developed in collaboration with Théatre UBU in Montréal, is therefore a highly professional staging of ‘vibrancy’. Film clips present costumes that Gaultier created for productions by directors Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodóvar and Luc Besson, among others. Madonna is present by way of concert clips, videos and Polaroids, and Cindy Sherman uses her own body to show how Gaultier’s ideas can enable just about any conceivable change of identity in role plays.
On top of which, all those who have not had an opportunity to attend one of the couturier’s defilés in Paris, can see ‘lively’ rustling textiles in motion in the exhibition, when dolls or models glide across the catwalk. And there’s more. The model dolls are actually animated. An ingenious projection technology gives them moving faces that address viewers in different languages. Their mouths move, they smile, they sing, they look at you and wink or blink. And they even include an alter ego of Gaultier himself. The doll in question has a blue-and-white striped sailor’s shirt and the corresponding knotted scarf greets you in the very first room with the words: Hello, welcome, I am Jean Paul Gaultier.
In the viewers’ imaginations, all these exhibits truly begin to come to life when they are infused with the myth of the artist. Gaultier gleaned this from art. And thus he himself remains the imaginary epicenter of the retrospective. In judicious dosages he familiarizes visitors with the different stages in his life, his acquaintances and the sources of his inspiration. We learn that his preference for bustiers and corsets comes from the fact that as a child he came across these fascinating, yet frightening utensils in his grandmother’s wardrobe with its flowery pattern. It was Jacques Becker’s 1944 movie Falbalas, which he wanted to watch over and over again as a kid, that gave him the idea of making fashion. And we also know who his first model was, whom he outfitted with a bra: It was his lady teddy bear, Nana, whose worn fur shows how beloved she was, even if she now sits in a display case.
The exhibition can then be considered the ‘living’ proof of how ingeniously, how masterfully fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier piques our emotions and kindles our desires. He is as skillful juggling with the different materials as he is toying with our feelings in the exhibition. Almost effortlessly, he spurs latent and manifest images in our minds, tells fragmentary stories that cry out to be supplemented and completed, planting the one or other catchy and pleasant melody in our ears to get us on his side and then leaves us with a sheer unquenchable thirst for the intangible in our own prosaic lives. Until we visit the next show.
If fashion designers who are used to creating illusions just in time through sequential processes continue to carve their way through our art museums, because in the fashion world the pressure has simply become too great – then it looks like rough times ahead for the artists and curators who insist that art exhibitions are a medium for cognition. All too tempting the fashion-maker’s offers to at least temporarily transform the visitors into prominent celebrities in the exhibitions. Madonna discerned this potential back in 1990 when she commented on Jean Paul Gaultier: “We are united in our love of show, and every item of clothing Gaultier creates strengthens my personality.”
„Dévoreuse“ cage corset with crinolines, whalebone and gold leather laces, oft he „Confessions of a Child of the Century“ collection, Haute couture fall/winter 2012–2013, published in „7 Hollywood“ magazine, 2013. Photo © Alix Malka
Kylie Minogue in the model „Immaculata“, from the „Virgins collection“, Haute couture spring/summer 2007. Photo © Darenote Ltd. / Kylie Minogue
The Japanese photographer Izima Kaoru caught one piece from „The Return of Prints“ collection, women’s prêt-à-porter spring/summer 1984. Hat by Stephen Jones for Jean Paul Gaultier. Photo © Hanatsubaki Magazine / Shiseido Co. Ltd.
Leopard as an evening gown: from the Russia collection, Haute couture, fall/winter 1997-1998. Photo © Rainer Torrado / Jean Paul Gaultier
Corset that was weared by Kylie Minogue on her Kylie X Tour, 2009. Photo © Emil Larsson