Review: “The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier” Comes to London
“The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: from Catwalk to the Streets” opened this weekend at London’s Barbican Centre.
Since the beginning of his provocative career, Jean-Paul Gaultier has become famous (or infamous) for a lot of varying endeavors. For many Americans, he’s often associated as the man behind Madonna’s iconic cone-bra worn during 1990’s Blonde Ambition Tour. For many Brits, it was his infamous appearance on BBC 4’s EuroTrash that cemented his legend status (or his subsequent appearance as Princess Diana in drag). However, Gaultier’s footprint on fashion and culture cut a much wider cloth, and the after an extensive world tour of its own, The Barbican Centre now plays host to the Gaultier retrospective, “The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From Catwalk to the Streets.”
The most stunning aspect of the exhibition, beyond presenting an authentic, deserving presentation that exudes Gaultier’s lighthearted, irreverent attitude, was how it coyly validated the depth of his renegade brilliance. To many audiences outside of the consciousness of the fashion fanatics, he was always in danger of becoming cliché. But this exhibit not only validates his status as an avant-garde artiste, but a bombastic legend in the craft of couture. From presenting his early designs to resurrecting costumes from the Luc Besson’s cult classic “The Fifth Element,” it’s evident Gaultier’s impact has safely been cemented well beyond his native Paris.
Spanning a career that well surpasses 50 years, the “The Fashion World” is a stunning in its presentation of Gaultier’s footprint on both culture and fashion, particularly his childhood in the suburbs of a post-war France. This even includes his first teddy bear, and the subsequent cone bra he made for it at the age of 6. Equally rich are the inclusion of all of the contributions Gaultier made to French society, and his priority to select French actresses, photographers and models; even if at the time it was not industry standard or en vogue with current fashion trends. This tendency has continued to be a staple of Gaultier’s work, even most recently sending plus-size models down the runway during Paris Fashion Week in 2011.
More “living” mannequins modeling Gaultier’s signature nautical-themed sailor stripes, a reoccuring theme inspired in the French icon’s early youth.
Yet, this is what the exhibition achieves so effectively is the notion that, while Gaultier was a gender-bending provocateur who used his gift to challenge many conventions, it was always done with a motif. It was often done with a lighthearted, silly approach rather than to shock or cause controversy (as many often did wearing his designs), but there was always a method to his madness. From an early obsession with the French navy and sailors to 60s variety shows and his obsession with television, his designs were a product of a retentive attention to simplicity and detail.
Catching the exhibition in London provides added relevance given a large section of the presentation touches on Gaultier’s travels and influences in Britain’s capital. This includes expanding on his relationship with British fashion icon Dame Vivienne Westwood, and expanding on the corresponding punk aesthetic that was central to many of his designs. His time in London no doubt exaggerated these new wave tendencies, and its fitting to see all of these garments in one place to elaborate on a theme that defined his career, but was never synonymous with classic Parisian fashions.
Kate Moss in 1990s Jean-Paul Gaultier in Vogue, photographed by Steven Klein.
In case you were wondering, yes, Madonna’s infamous cone bra is on display, as are dozen of other overlooked facets of Gaultier’s career; all worth feasting the eyes on and praising. This includes his early collections and designs following his departure from mentor Pierre Cardin, set costumes from the Paris Ballet, and a stunning array of fashion photography, featuring fashion greats Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and Linda Evangelista rocking his signature duds. Factor in artworks inspired by his life and collaborations with his contemporaries Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Stephane Sednaoui, “The Fashion World” thoroughly stunning, kinky retrospective and a must-see for any art or fashion fanatic.
“The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier” shows at the Barbican Centre until 25 August, and tickets are available for £14.50, with discounts for students and seniors.