Since the late 1980s, Jean Paul Gaultier has enchanted the fashion world’s imagination with his witty and provocative attitude and humour towards fashion and sexuality, earning himself the notorious nickname l’enfant terrible of the fashion world. His visions of women (and men) in exaggerated cone bras and his reinterpretations of traditional corsets, epitomized by the costumes of Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition Would Tour, captured the Zeitgeist of the 1990s, with its changing attitudes towards gender roles, fashion, sexuality, and society in general.
From June 17 until October 2, 2011, the Montréal Musée des Beaux-Arts is showing The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, featuring more than 140 pieces from over 35 years of Gaultier’s fashion collections.
The curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot (34), a former model, joined the museum three years ago after studying art history at the Université de Montréal.
The installation is Montreal’s third time of showcasing fashion in museums, after the 2008 Yves Saint Laurent retrospective (which opened days before the designer’s death) and the 2010 Denis Gagnon exhibition.
Rather than conceptualizing the installation as a retrospective (which often marks the end of a fashion career), or displaying a brand-funded exhibition (like the Dior show at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow), which borders on an advertising campaign, the Montreal museum director Nathalie Bondil ensured that the Gaultier installation was fully funded by the museum, and presented a celebration of Gaultier’s vision and craft.
As Jean Paul Gaultier explained, “the idea is more to show what I want to say through clothes. It is to make clothes that you will love and wear.”
Along with the unprecedented international press attention, cultural events and celebrations that accompanied the opening, and the flood of international visitors this summer, the installation catapulted Montréal’s Musée des Beaux-Arts into the leading ranks of fashion exhibiting institutions (like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and MOMA in New York), all of which are in the process of re-constructing and re-conceptualizing a new era of fashion displayed in museums.
“I wanted to create an exhibition on Jean Paul Gaultier more than any other couturier because of his great humanity,” explained Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of the museum. “Beyond the technical virtuosity resulting from exceptional expertise in the various skills involved in haute couture, an unbridled imagination and ground‐breaking artistic collaborations, he offers an open‐minded vision of society, a crazy, sensitive, funny, sassy world in which everyone can assert his or her own identity, a world without discrimination, a unique ‘fusion couture.’ Beneath Jean Paul Gaultier’s wit and irreverence lie a true generosity of spirit and a very powerful message for society. His humanist aesthetic touches me deeply.”
The innovative feature of the exhibition are mannequins whose faces are brought to life by video. This very special technique of projecting video onto a three‐dimensional mask combines technology and craft, with the actor’s own video image projected onto his or her sculpted head. The technique was developed more than fifteen years ago by Denis Marleau with UBU, his Montreal theatre company. For this project, initiated by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Marleau, Stéphanie Jasmin and their team created the mannequins, whose quirky, poetic or joyful presence captures the spirit of installation art.
Keenly interested in all the world’s cultures and countercultures, Gaultier has picked up on the current trends and proclaimed the right to be different, and in the process conceived a new kind of fashion in both the way it is made and worn. Through twists, transformations, transgressions and reinterpretations, he not only erases the boundaries between cultures but also the sexes, creating a new androgyny or playing with subverting hypersexualized fashion codes.
According to Gaultier, “to conform is to give in.” How can we fight the uniformity of the masses? How can we tweak the sexual, aesthetic, ethnic and religious codes that determine social conventions? For it is difficult to become authentically oneself. It is a long process to accept ourselves as we are—a changing being and not a monolith, a personality that is constructing and realizing itself over time, rather than deteriorating or destroying itself.
“Jeans become better and better looking with age. It’s the same with people,” Gaultier pointed out. “The sign of time passing and expression lines show character. Old people should be full members of our society— we can all benefit from their experience.” This is why this shrewd psychologist’s creations, beyond brands and commerce, act as an antidepressant, a happy pill, a self‐esteem booster. Fashion is for everyone, can be worn by everyone, regardless of age, sex or beauty, and Gaultier’s designs are meaningless unless worn. They cannot be reduced to an image, a caricature or an act of provocation: “You cannot move people with outlandish abstractions that have no meaning—they just become a way of pleasing the designer. Our work is to express urges, needs, yearnings.”
Erasing the boundaries between fashion and art is a project pursued by many designers and curators alike.
Andy Warhol remarked: “I think the way people dress today is a form of artistic expression. Saint Laurent, for instance, has made great art. Art lies in the way the whole outfit is put together. Take Jean Paul Gaultier. What he does is really art.” (Mondo Uomo, 1984).
Fashion photography is also a major focus of attention, thanks to loans of, in many cases, never‐before‐seen prints from contemporary photographers and renowned contemporary artists (Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Erwin Wurm, David LaChapelle, Richard Avedon, Mario Testino, Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott, Pierre et Gilles, Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, Paolo Roversi and Robert Doisneau…).
The many artistic collaborations that have characterized Gaultier’s world are examined: in film (Pedro Almodóvar, Peter Greenaway, Luc Besson, Marc Caro and Jean‐Pierre Jeunet) and contemporary dance (Angelin Preljocaj, Régine Chopinot and Maurice Béjart), not to mention the world of popular music, in France (Yvette Horner and Mylène Farmer…) and on the international scene (Kylie Minogue and especially Madonna, whose friendship with Gaultier has led her to graciously lend two iconic corsets from her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour).
“Some people saw my work as a form of provocation, which in certain respects was true. My designs corresponded to the desires of the time, and I never deliberately tried to shock, even if I was aware that my clothes would create a stir. I’m still astounded by some people’s reaction to things I consider quite normal. If my designs have an effect on the minority that likes to wear them, it’s no longer a question of provocation. And maybe this minority will become a majority. That’s actually what has happened with many of my designs: the first time, people may have been very surprised by them, but then they got used to them and now they’re wearing them. I always liked getting a reaction out of people. It’s the desire of others that feeds my own desire. There’s a very fine line between provocation and originality.” (Jean Paul Gaultier)
“All women have a masculine sensibility, and all men, a feminine one. A masculine woman never really causes a scandal, she is just considered eccentric. An effeminate man, on the other hand, is immediately singled out. Fashion is still full of outdated conventions and clichés that no longer fit the times. Take, for example, the fact that men’s jackets button up on the right, so men can more easily access their wallets to pay for women. Our culture has always valued the masculine side of men more than a certain femininity, a certain sensitivity. That’s why I like reversing the roles, breaking the established conventions that no longer make sense today.” (Jean Paul Gaultier)
Long stem roses are the way to your heart / But he needs to start with your head
Satin sheets are very romantic / What happens when you’re not in bed
You deserve the best in life/ So if the time isn’t right then move on
Second best is never enough/ You’ll do much better baby on your own
Express yourself /(You’ve got to make him)
Express himself / Hey, hey, hey, hey
So if you want it right now, make him show you how
Express what he’s got, oh baby ready or not.
Since it was launched in 1993, Classique has been one of the bestselling fragrances in the world.
“I developed the bottle and packaging at a time when I was very intrigued by the insides of garments. For example, I’d put the lining and topstitching on the outside of suit jackets. For the bottle, I was keen on the concept of the human body, along with which I wanted to incorporate what I remembered of my grandmother’s corsets. For the packaging, I wanted to appropriate an everyday object, something solid and functional like a can, and use it in blatant contradiction to the traditionally luxurious perfume bottle. It was technically very difficult to make a flesh‐colored corset bottle or even to give a tin can the shape of a corset. So, the idea was to cover a body‐shaped bottle with a corset and then package it in a can something that was protective but cold. I wanted it to seem real. Through that somewhat incompatible combination, the body thus became the content.”
“My mother dressed me in sailor‐striped sweaters. They go with everything, never go out of style and probably never will. There were also other influences: my grandmother, Coco Chanel, Jean Genet, Popeye, Tom of Finland, Rainer Fassbinder and his film Querelle, the title character of which was the ultimate sailor, a hypersexualized gay symbol, a fantasy, an icon, a form of virility that could be ambiguous. . . . With their tattoos, sailors are also associated with the bad boy image, which I love, the Casanova on the fringes of society with a mistress or lover in every port! The uniforms are so gorgeous and can be very elegant. I particularly like sailor pants, which I’ve adapted in many of my men’s and women’s collections. When I started in fashion, I had already adopted the sailor-striped sweater as my uniform; that way, I wouldn’t have to drive myself crazy trying to figure out what to wear. I wore it with a kilt, leather pants, my men’s skirt, a tuxedo!”
So, what is it about Jean Paul Gaultier that still captures our imagination and touches us in ways that other designers, clothes, fragrances, images, fantasies fail to do? As with all great art and inspiring creations, the artist, designer, filmmaker, musician, etc. communicates our own subconscious desires and un-lived feelings back to us in their own medium.
Jean Paul Gaultier not only participated, but made accessible and possible the gender inversion and revolution of the early 1990s (as Madonna famously summed it up: “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl”). A whole generation of girls and boys was raised to cause “gender trouble” by playfully, aesthetically, or politically rebelling against restricting social norms. Gaultier provided the aesthetic images and visions, Madonna provided the music and lyrics.
But above all, Gaultier continues to inspire us to live and dream and to “express ourselves” beyond the confines of the possible, established, and acceptable.
Following its presentation in Montreal, the exhibition will embark on an international tour, with presentations at the Dallas Museum of Art (November 13, 2011 ‐ February 12, 2012), the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young (March 24 ‐ August 19, 2012), the Fundación Mapfre – Instituto de Cultura, Madrid (September 26 – November 18, 2012), and the Kunsthal Rotterdam, the Netherlands (February 9 – May 12, 2013).