OK, I’ll say a little more.
Jean Paul Gaultier is the always smiling, goofy, enfant terrible (avec les dents terrible) in the nautical stripes. For a while now, he’s had fun putting both curvy gals and heavily tattooed dudes in corsets and skirts.
You might forget how long Gaultier has been at this until you see room after room of his work. (His first prêt-à-porter collection launched in 1976 and he founded his own couture house in 1997.) The exhibition is huge, with rooms exploring six major themes from androgyny to multiculturalism. It includes 140 haute couture and prêt-à-porter designs as well as sketches, fashion photography and videos that spotlight his collaborations with filmmakers, choreographers and musicians including: Pedro Almodóvar, Catherine Deneuve, Madonna, Helen Mirren, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Martin Margiela, Pierre Cardin, Dita Von Teese, Marion Cotillard, Kylie Minogue and Tom Ford, to name a few.
The exhibition is very successful not just because of his showmanship, or the roster of celebrity collabs, but because among the dozens of mannequins on display, a sprinkling of 30 mannequins appear to be staring right at the viewer, blinking, talking, murmuring and/or singing. Discreetly hung video projectors and speakers give life to their faces. The videos of a dozen celebrities, including Gaultier, are among them. It’s disconcerting, but very, very cool. Even having anticipated the show for months, encountering the first, seamlessly animated, mannequin is disarming. “…Are…you talking to me?” In an age where museums struggle to adapt to shorter attention spans, this exhibit manages to make ordinary mannequins interactive. It’s a fresh way of keeping an innovative designer innovative, both to long-time fans and the newly initiated.
I’ve always liked Gaultier, largely because of his ability to see a subgroup’s traditional garb and elevate it to shiny, fabulous, sacrilegious couture. He and Madonna have been perfect collaborators for this very reason (although in his case, the costume source seems to provide inspiration rather than straight up rip off. Where he riffed on London punk, or Hasidim, she moved to England, picked up a British accent and got her own personal Kabbalah rabbi). Among the vast collection of corsets on display, Madonna loaned two iconic cone bras from her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. Also exhibited, little Jean Paul’s childhood bear, outfitted in his first cone bra.
If you think of Jean Paul Gaultier as just an 80s phenomenon, then I especially recommend this exhibit. The show reflects his designs through 2010, and he’s still going. Even if he had retired twenty years ago, he really IS all that. He’s not just eccentric; he’s an excellent tailor who has made a lot of kooky, avant-garde getups actually look sexy.
A few other personal highlights:
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is on display at San Francisco’s de Young Museum from March 24 to August 19, 2012