One of my favourite fashion quotes of all time comes from a fictional character.
Fashion is the most powerful art there is. It’s movement, design and architecture all in one.
– Blair Waldorf, Gossip Girl
I cannot name one currently working fashion designer and couturier who embodies this statement more than Jean Paul Gaultier.
Yesterday, I temporarily left a cool and grey London behind to enter inside the workings of Monsieur Gaultier’s mind at The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk exhibition. It was a twisted, colourful, luxurious, educational and, needless to say, inspiring visit.
Held at London’s Barbican, the exhibition is not your traditional fashion retrospective, which is usually a fun little saunter through time via a designer’s past collections and collaborations. In fact, this was specifically designed to be an ‘installation’ rather than a ‘tribute’ because, as Gaultier says himself: “I am still alive! Bonne!”
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is a result of a partnership between JPG and curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot. The pair has very successfully infused this exhibition with the signature tongue-in-cheek spirit that we have seen stomp down the runways of Maison Jean Paul Gaultier over the past 40 years, while also refraining from being a mere timeline. You are welcomed to the show by an army of interactive mannequins, blinking/winking/smiling/talking to you, draped in Gaultier’s signature sailor and mermaid siren themes.
Creepy is a potential adjective, until I remembered whose show I was walking through and settled my nerves enough to appreciate the humour. Jean Paul himself even makes an appearance! – in all of his blinking/winking/smiling/talking mannequin glory. Like his designs, it all becomes somewhat endearing and, upon reflection, quite genius.
The fashion industry’s original l’enfant terrible has always given us designs that are fun, personable, painfully detail-orientated and always innovative. Why would this body of work be any different?
The rest of the installation, which spills over two storeys, is divided into rooms dedicated to fashion history-marking events and collaborations. The show space offers more than 165 original Gaultier avant-garde designs, which have featured across international catwalks, films and stages.
Some of the designer’s most notable collections, those showing strong nautical, punk and religious influences, made their expected appearance. Tailored for the British audience, we were also treated to the Amy Winehouse tribute collection and the tartan-heavy So British collection (RTW, Autumn Winter 2007/08).
What caught me by surprise were these two particular ensembles! I think we can all agree that if Cher Horowitz spent her teen years in the noughties, she would very much approve.
Also expected was a nod to Gaultier’s impact on the couture industry. “Movement, design and architecture all in one…” is exactly what you think when you are transfixed by the ‘Horn of Plenty’ dress, where the corset and 3D horn structures are intricately lined with, and encased in pink satin ribbons. As someone who grew up in ballet studios, I spent no less than 15 minutes literally eyeballing this one creation.
Speaking of architecture, who can forget Madonna’s cone bra, à la her Blonde Ambition Tour!
The Gaultier and Madonna pairing was a radical partnership in 1990 that first bridged the catwalk and the music industry. Prior to this, the stage was mainly a costume designer’s sphere. These days, and in many ways with thanks to the ingenuity of these two business orientated creatives, the line is very much blurred. Jean Paul Gaultier did what those of us in the business suits would call diversifying – and he did so a long time before it was regarded cool. Before diffusion ranges were introduced, before accessory lines were prioritised and before designers crossed over to star on-screen themselves.
A section of the exhibition is also dedicated to honour all of JPG’s muses over the years. I personally coined this the “Muse Hall”, it being my favourite part of the exhibition space. The room perimeter is lined with subtle oil-on-paper paintings of Gaultier’s past and current muses, which Loriot had commissioned from Annie Kevans (appropriately a native British and Central Saint Martins graduate). The exhibition, which has previously graced other carefully curated venues such as the Brooklyn Museum (New York, 2013), the de Young Museum (San Francisco, 2012) and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Montreal, 2011), debuts the Muse Hall in London.
In amongst the crazy, beautiful Gaultier tornado, this room was a welcome sanctuary in the middle of the storm. My favourite of all the oil paintings was one of Kate Moss. You rarely see her in such a soft, rose-tinted manner.
Admittedly, I go to a lot of fashion exhibitions. It is a nice little side effect of living in Europe (and perhaps a result of a slight case of FOMO). I don’t, however, always feel the need to rave about them. The last one I felt truly strong about was the Marc Jacobs-Louis Vuitton Retrospective in Paris two years ago.
As you can tell, this one is somewhat advisable!
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk achieved what Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry-Maxime Loriot aimed for. It was a fun trip into some of the fashion house’s best, and what contributes towards how the master couturier gets there. It was kind of a mini Willy Wonka trip; Jean Paul Gaultier and the Couture House.
Mostly, however, the exhibition portrays a man that loves what he does, and as a consequence is brilliance personified. Gaultier has said, “I am very lucky because I am living my passion”. We also consider ourselves very lucky that we are able to experience such artistry!
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk will remain at the Barbican (London) from now until 25 August 2014. It will then tour to The National Galeries of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia: 17 October 2014 – 8 February 2015) before returning back to its homeland at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais (Paris, France: 1 April – 3 August 2015).