New Jean Paul Gaultier Exhibit Explores the 'Pop Couturier''s Iconic Muses and Diverse Designs

“Our role as designers is to feel what is happening in society at the moment and interpret it through fashion," explains Jean Paul Gaultier, who’s i
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“Our role as designers is to feel what is happening in society at the moment and interpret it through fashion," explains Jean Paul Gaultier, who’s i
Photo: Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Barbès” women’s ready-to-wear fall-winter collection of 1984–85. © Paolo Roversi

Photo: Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Barbès” women’s ready-to-wear fall-winter collection of 1984–85. © Paolo Roversi

“Our role as designers is to feel what is happening in society at the moment and interpret it through fashion," explains Jean Paul Gaultier, who’s in New York for the opening of his exhibition, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Couture, opening at the Brooklyn Museum next week (watch the preview video by Stephane Sednaoui here).

“I have always wanted to show that there is not one beauty but different kinds of beauty. We can find beauty where we least expect it,” he adds.

Brooklyn—the borough where gritty and avant-garde mingle in a joyfully creative mood and a celebration of diversity and countercultures—is the perfect spot for the touring exhibition’s East Coast stop (It has traveled to Madrid, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Dallas and is next going to the Barbican in London). After all, it was Gaultier himself who launched the tattoo and piercing trend that has now become mainstream; he was inspired by the styles of the Hasids after visiting New York for his Rabins Chics collection in 1993-1994 and has created wild mixes of traditional costumes from around the world.

Gaultier was always a rebel visionary and the exhibition, curated by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Thierry Maxime Loriot (a former Gaultier model), mirrors his incisive and playful oeuvre with a cutting edge scenography. Visitors are greeted by a mannequin of Gaultier in his signature marinière, whose animated face is uncannily expressive – an interactive feature created by the Ubu Collective. Throughout the exhibition mannequins chatter, whisper and laugh, representing Gaultier muses such as Melissa Auf der Maur, the bassist for Smashing Pumpkins, and Ève Salvail, the androgynous Amazon with the shaved head. Mannequins revolve, revealing outfits from all angles; some move on a mechanic catwalk, as if floating in their beautifully ornate dresses. The dramatic effect is complete with Odile Gilbert’s sculptural headdresses and wigs – elaborate crowns adorning the mannequins’ heads or spectacular Mohawks such as the one still sported by Gaultier’s friend and muse, Tanel Betrossiantz.

Throughout his life Gaultier has worked with other visionaries; the exhibition documents his collaborations with choreographers (Regine Chopinot), filmmakers (Luc Besson, Peter Greenaway, Pedro Amodovar), photographers (Richard Avedon, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol) -- and of course Madonna, whose exaggerated conical corsets transformed her into an eternal sex symbol. The exhibition will also feature, for the first time, stage costumes worn by Beyoncé.

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“Gaultier was the first pop couturier,” explains Loriot. “He was the first widely recognizable designer, thanks to his work with other artists.”

Born in a Paris suburb in 1952, Gaultier trained with Jean Patou and Pierre Cardin before launching his own brand, where he brought the energy of the streets and subcultures from around the world to the then-narrow language of fashion. He dressed men in kilt skirts and dresses, transformed sailors into libidinal fantasies, mashed together ethnic prints and tulle, lace and leather.

Deeply inspired by diversity, he was the first designer to work with a North African model, Farida Khelfa, and with atypical beauties such as Beth Ditto, Amy Winehouse, and Boy George, celebrating fierce eccentricity and boundless expression.

“He truly saw the beauty in individuality,” explains Loriot. “Gaultier will go down in history as a designer who revolutionized fashion on a social level because his ideal of beauty was difference; he has such a generous worldview and has truly changed society codes with the invention of skirts for men, lingerie as fashion and streetwear as couture.”

The exhibition explores these different inspirations with seven sections dedicated to his most important themes. ‘The Odyssey" is a universe of sailors and mermaids, including Gaultier’s before-unseen first ever design in 1971. "The Boudoir" looks at his fascination for lingerie and his groundbreaking conical bras. "Muses" is dedicated to the designer’s multiple and free ideals of beauty, embracing people of all cultures and identities. "Punk Cancan" shows the designer’s obsession with Parisian classics and punk uniforms. "Skin Deep" shows the way he explores the idea of fashion as second skin, either with trompe l’oeil or sheer tattoo bodysuits. "Metropolis" focuses on his work with high-tech fabrics such as neoprene, electronic jewelry, vinyl and Lycra, and his collaborations with other artists. And finally "Urban Jungle" illustrates his passion for mixing multiethnic references.

Throughout these themes the power and depth of Gaultier’s vision are confirmed, as well as his lasting influence in the history of fashion, making a mark on designers from Martin Margiela to Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford.

But most importantly, the exhibition shows that fashion is not an artificial universe isolated from everyday life but a true mirror of life, reflecting on sexuality, identity, class, culture and politics. Fashion changes the way we view our bodies and define our place in the world.

“Gaultier really offers a vision of an ideal society where everyone lives happily,” muses Loriot. “It’s such a powerful vision.”

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk runs from October 25, 2013 through February 23, 2014 at the Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing and Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery, 5th Floor, Brooklyn Museum,200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York.

And watch Jean Paul Gaultier (with an assist from a patent-leather-clad Karlie Kloss) tell you all about it, right here: