The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts organized an impressive exhibition that pays tribute to one of the last ‘monstres sacrés’ of contemporary fashion, French Couturier Jean Paul Gaultier. ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’ which showcases as many as 130 accessorized ensembles for men and women, is currently hosted at the Dallas Museum of Art (November 13th –February 12th, 2012) before stopping by San Francisco, Madrid and Rotterdam.
Throughout his 35-year career to date, this quietly ironic observer has long been credited for finding beauty in the shady corners of Parisian nightlife, the fierce looks of Londonian punks, the suburban melting pot, or the peculiarities of underground misfits and sexual minorities.
Despite his anti-establishment disposition and being a true autodidact (even though he had two mentors, modernist Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou), Gaultier never hid his admiration for the great French Couture tradition and his love of rare crafts, luxurious materials, impeccable cuts and perfect finishings. In 2002, he fulfilled his dream of a lifetime by creating his very own Haute Couture collection… or ‘classicism revisited ’.
Recognizable in the 80’s for his peroxide blond hair, trademark sailor shirt, Scottish kilt, Doc Martens and pidgin English, and with his very own sense of disguise, Jean Paul Gaultier’s comics persona was ‘staged’ in his advertising campaigns while his spirit of fun, youth, diversity and pop culture were promoted worldwide.
Once described as being: ‘More French than French’, Jean Paul Gaultier’s muse is definitely Paris: The City of Lights of his fantasy world where one meets ‘Existentialists’, ‘Dadaists’, demi-monde artists, cocottes, bourgeoises, cabaret folk, Toulouse-Lautrec Cancan dancers, accordionists, Latin lovers and concierges, while dresses are named after Parisian neighborhoods: ‘Place Pigalle’, ‘Jardin de Montmartre’, ‘Rue Fontaine’ or ‘Barbès’. His Parisienne usually has a long, lean silhouette, wears berets, polka-dotted scarves, turbans, black trench coats, stilettos, red lipstick and nails, with a cigarette holder in hand and a sensual, slightly provocative but ever elegant allure. Gaultier humorously reworks clichés of pre and post war French cinema.
Sexuality has always been a central theme in Gaultier’s work, as he likes to question the androgynous side in women and the feminine one in men and notoriously uses models with unconventional physical types to reflect the infinite complexity and diversity of human nature, the variety of tastes and possibilities. His emblematic cone-shaped corset and girdle, lingerie worn as outer clothing, gay culture symbols, bondage and fetishistic references as well as the skirt and cosmetics line for men all challenge gender boundaries.
Diversity can also be found in the street, where Gaultier observes the cultural and racial mingling of urban tribes: leather and lace biker jackets, tattoos, piercings, ripped jeans, latex, boxing-glove red accessories, utility work clothes and protection gear with lingerie, military khaki outfits, sports shoes and shorts, beaded necklaces, large earrings, and his well-known tin-can bracelets are all involved in a punk parody of kitsch collage and recycling.
Ever present in Gaultier’s collections are exotic elements, tales of journeys to far-away places. Inspired by Asia, Russia, Africa, and more recently the Caribbean islands and Latin America, Gaultier seems to flip through the pages of a picture book with a child’s curiosity for the wonders of the world. More exotic than religious were also his ‘Chic Rabbis’ collection (1993-94) inspired by the traditional costume of Hassidic Jews and his ‘Virgins’ collection (2007) reminiscent of popular Catholic imagery.
All in all, Gaultier’s most remarkable quality is undoubtedly the ‘syncretism’ of his work: layers of condensed meaning, historical, cultural, social, real or imaginary references and connotations that often coexist in a single item of clothing.