If there’s one thing Jean Paul Gaultier hates, it’s convention. That’s why the famously dubbed ‘l'enfant terrible’ is a great designer. For 35 years and 150 collections, Gaultier has delighted, shocked, and inspired the world with his imaginative and eccentric creations.
Finally, this summer, the French designer is getting the recognition he deserves. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has honored Gaultier with his first international exhibit, opening today.
Earlier this week I journeyed up to the Canadian city that Gaultier remembers as one of the first to embrace his work ("the French are always snobbish," he joked), for pre-opening festivities and a sneak peek at the exhibit.
The thoughtfully curated, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” is not to be missed.
"First I didn't want to make an exhibition because for me it was a funeral," said Gaultier at a press conference Tuesday. So in agreeing to do the exhibit, the designer had certain requests.
He didn't want the installation to be an inert, linear display of his work. "The idea was to show what I wanted to say through the clothes," said Gaultier.
“A fashion exhibit can be very macabre, very dead," said Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator of the MMFA." "He said, 'It should be alive. It’s life.’”
Alive, it is--both figuratively and literally. To begin my ascent into Gaultier's "world," I climbed up a grand blue-carpeted staircase and was greeted by mannequins equipped with animated faces created by a projection system. One is a likeness of the designer himself, who, clad in a signature Breton striped shirt, began to speak in French—lips moving, eyes blinking, and all. The faces and eerie voices of Gaultier’s favorite Canadian celebrities like singer Melissa Auf der Maur, make appearances throughout the exhibit. While unnerving at first, I was quickly engulfed into the dream-like reality of Monsieur Gaultier.
The exhibit features 140 pieces, photos, and sketches throughout six galleries, all with different themes. The first, The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier, serves as an introduction to his work. It highlights three common subjects seen in his collections—sailors, mermaids, and virgins.
Since the majority of the garments on display are couture, the museum included the number of hours it took to construct select pieces in their descriptions. His many intricate gowns boast upwards of 100 hours of labor.
From the foyer-like setting of the Odyssey, I moved into The Boudoir, an intimate salon filled with some of Gaultier’s most iconic pieces--think Madonna and cone bras. Gaultier was raised by strong women, and it shows in his use of lingerie, corsets, and cages. By inverting the oppressive connotations of these objects, his designs become symbols of sexual freedom and female empowerment. These were the types of costumes Gaultier designed for Madonna’s tours, most notably her first--Blond Ambition.
Skin Deep focuses on Gaultier’s fascination with the body. Among the numerous pieces created around this theme, there is a denim dress printed with the human anatomy and a skeletal black glittering bodice.
One thing that sets Gaultier apart, and is apparent in this part of the exhibition, is his perception of beauty.
"It's not only the beauty of the person, but the beauty of the soul and the culture," says Gaultier. "I see things that I find beautiful and take them in my mind with me and sew it back into the clothes."
He is notorious for using plus size women such as Beth Ditto, Velvet D’Amour, and Crystal Renn (in her plumper days), older women like French actress Farida Khelfa, and unconventional beauties like androgynous male model Andrej Pejic, in his runway shows. He once put out a classified ad that read, “Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models—the conventionally pretty need not apply.”
“What he wants to say is really that his fashion is made for everybody,” said Bondil. “Everybody can wear his fashion, whatever is his sexual identity, whatever is his age, etc.”
Ethnicity is also a subject that Gaultier has never shied away from. The Urban Jungle portion of the exhibit displays pieces inspired by Arab, African, Chinese, Indian, and Russian culture. He credits his parents for his open-mindedness. The designer recalls watching the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as a child. When the movie ended, his parents assured him that they would accept anyone he brought home, regardless of race or gender.
Of course, like a good Frenchman, Gaultier garners a lot of inspiration from the streets close to home. In Punk Cancan, the garments on display on a moving catwalk give nods to that chic Parisian style and the rebel punks of London’s Trafalgar Square.
Finally, the last theme of the exhibit is Metropolis, where Gaultier’s futuristic looks are housed. Curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot also added a multi-media aspect to the salon to spotlight the designer’s many forays into pop-culture.
In addition to designing costumes for Madonna and Kylie Minogue, Gaultier has designed costumes for films (The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover starring Helen Mirren, for example), and ballets. In the '90s he hosted the British series Eurotrash and the MTV Europe Music Awards. He even recorded a house single called “Aow Tou Dou Zat (How to Do That).”
Pop-culture has always been an important influence for Gaultier—instead of attending fashion school he used television and magazines as learning tools.
As I made my way into the gift shop filled with a sea of Breton striped goods, I felt overwhelmed, but utterly blown away by Gaultier’s genius and craft—much like I felt exiting Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Met. Like McQueen, Gaultier is not just a fashion designer. As Bondil says, his work “goes beyond fashion.” He is a true artist.
The exhibit opens today, June 17and runs until October 2, 2011. The installment will then travel to Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid, and Netherlands. For a full list of dates, head to mmfa.qc.ca.
Click through for highlights from the exhibit.