Colin’s Column | Jean Paul Gaultier, Fashion Incarnate

As “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” arrives in London, Colin McDowell reflects on the life and work of French fashion’s enfant terrible.

The Virgin with the Serpents (Kylie Minogue) by Pierre et Gilles, featuring Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2007 | Source: Courtesy Gallery Jérome de Noimont, Paris

LONDON, United Kingdom — The high fashion world of Paris has always been ready to accept foreign designers: Creed and Molyneux were both British; Schiaparelli was Italian; Balenciaga, Spanish; Lagerfeld, German. And the list goes on. But Jean Paul Gaultier is the real deal, a Frenchman to his fingertips — and a Parisian at that. Furthermore, he is the only major talent in French fashion who is trained in couture, having learned his trade with both Pierre Cardin and in the ateliers of Jean Patou. For me, he is Paris incarnate.

Gaultier has been a superstar of fashion for the past forty years. And the vast and varied career of this often misunderstood couturier has finally been distilled down into an exhibition mounted in partnership with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (not a fashion institute, you will notice). Already seen across the globe in cities such as Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid, Rotterdam, Melbourne, Stockholm, Paris and New York, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” has just touched down at London’s Barbican Centre.

Few fashion exhibitions tour as widely. And it’s clear why this one has — it’s a winner. There have been many worthwhile, even memorable, exhibitions of fashion in the last twenty years — and they continue to multiply as they are accessible money-spinners increasingly favoured by cash-strapped museum directors — but far too many are like the endless revivals of once-successful musicals on Broadway and in London’s West End.

Such statements illuminate Gaultier shows. Gender, age, body type and ethnicity are regularly revisited in what is nothing less than an ongoing investigation into humanity.

Indeed, over a lifetime of going to see fashion exhibitions, I have seen only two unforgettable fashion exhibitions. The first was in 1976 in America. It was called “Hollywood Costume: Glamour! Glitter! Romance!” and it was conceived by Diana Vreeland. The second is “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier,” conceived by Gaultier himself. And that is why both exhibitions are groundbreaking. They have the passion and the energy of their curators, who happen to be two of the most original figures in fashion, and they have real intellectual content.

The Gaultier catalogue, like the man and his work, is vast and vibrant. At over 400 pages and comfortably over four kilos, it’s not exactly the kind of book to take on a trip, but one to dip into often at home and feel the character of Jean Paul Gaultier: his convictions and contradictions, but above all, his loves, first of which is Paris, where he was born in the suburbs in 1952 — which means in Paris and yet not in Paris. The elegance of the Place Vendôme and the spaciousness of the Champs-Élysées were as remote for the boy from Arcueil as for any first-time tourist.

His family were indulgent and no one more than his beloved grandmother, whose influence has stayed with him all his life. “As a child I was a little king surrounded by more adults than children,” he recalls. And that probably pleased him as, not being like other boys; he admits that school was a lonely place. He dreamed of designing costumes for the Folies Bergère cabaret, but although clearly influenced by the high camp glamour of its barely-there dresses, he went directly into designing clothes for real life, working with Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou. “I didn’t go to fashion school and I am glad,” he declares.

Although so completely French, Gaultier is also a true man of the world, able to call on his own eclectic cultural bank of influences of the sort that Yves Saint Laurent — one of his great heroes — and very few others could. And they are all here in “From Sidewalk to Catwalk” as a testament to the sweeping breadth of his imagination, which has touched many cultures as he used them to create clothes of a variety and beauty produced by no other designer: China, Japan, Romania, the Inuit, maharajas, torreadors, manual workers, Massai, Russia, Greece, the poor, Rabbis — and let’s not forget the straps, thongs and other sexual paraphernalia in leather, latex and rubber of the dimly-lit back rooms and dungeons of extreme homosexuality.

But it’s not only the exotic and the transgressive that interests and inspires him. Cautioning us that he is “not an artist, but an artisan,” Gaultier confesses that “the street has always been my first source of information!” But it is a source of information that, since his first collection in 1976, has always been transformed by his fascination with strong women and his love of shock, whilst also trying to balance the eccentric and the classic! And, as the wide-ranging garments in this show demonstrate, he has always done so with a memorably unique attitude — and nowhere more so than with menswear, in which he was a true pioneer.

Gaultier is on record as having said, “Clothes do not have a gender” and he has done even more than Vivienne Westwood to break down the barriers between the sexes. As he told me once, “Men must learn to deal with their fragility” and “the line between masculinity and femininity can be a very troubled one,” before adding, “putting a skirt on a man is not a travesty but putting a bra on him is.”

Such statements illuminate Gaultier shows. Gender, age, body type and ethnicity are regularly revisited in what is nothing less than an ongoing investigation into humanity. His models are never blandly pretty and often the effect he aims for is certainly not mainstream. The women he admires stand well outside bourgeois ideals of female propriety, from Juliette Greco and Frieda Kahlo to Dita von Teese and Madonna. The beauties he chooses, such as the majestically statuesque Erin O’Connor, the uniquely jolie laide Rossy de Parma and beautiful (but not standard size when he first used her) Sophie Dahl are all clear indicators that for him, it is originality which creates the provocation that makes us question our assumptions — and his.

For a man who adores bad taste, Jean Paul Gaultier can create clothes of a finesse equal to any couturier of the past. But he can also evoke the raunchy and reveal the world of raw sex that he so triumphantly did with Madonna, creating the costumes for her Blond Ambition tour in 1990. More recently he has enjoyed the camp fun of Dita von Teese strolling down the runway with all the aplomb of the glamorous ladies of the night who used to hang around Pigalle in the 1940s and 1950s. Add Grace Jones, Regine Chopinot, and Farida Khelfa, as well as male influences like Pedro Almodovar, Peter Greenaway, Jean Genet and Pierre et Gilles, and you get a picture of the creator’s mind.

“The Fashion World Of Jean Paul Gaultier” is an event, a true occasion that London will not easily have the pleasure of seeing again. From the unique display mannequins by the Canadian company Jolicoeurs (which include one of Gaultier himself welcoming us to the show) to the animated catwalk, the photographs and portraits, this is pure theatre, a show that has rightly broken attendance records wherever it has been.

And the exhibition sits very well in London, the city next to Paris in Gautier’s heart, the place that helped him develop his love of street and club culture when Paris had little of either. “If there is one place other than Paris that I should like to live, it would be London,” says Gaultier. This exhibition shows us why.