10 June 2014


“In front of beauty I am _______.” The dash is where Jean Paul Gaultier (b 1952) simulates a merry death by swooning, and almost trips on the Breton-striped rug made in his honour. You are watching the world spin around this man and his superlative charges of enthusiasm, benignity and curiosity. And as Susan Orlean wraps it up in The New Yorker (September 26, 2011): “It is immediately clear when you meet Gaultier that he is that rare thing: a Frenchman with humour.”

He is dressed in a black Abba t-shirt, black trousers, an almost black suit jacket, and heavy black trainers. Monsieur Gaultier exclaims that he is “super-appy” (his vocabulary is proudly void of the h-sound) to be in Stockholm again, prior to the opening of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. The exhibition substantiates the incredible craftsmanship and showmanship of his couture through a deeply perceptive presentation.

In the correct words of Tom Ford, “Gaultier is a master tailor, a powerful creative force. He carries on the tradition and has the immense skill of the great French couturiers of the past, yet is completely modern in his thinking. His couture pieces always astound me with their beauty and originality. What has had an influence on my work is not so much his open-mindedness, but his fearlessness in expressing himself through his clothes.”

“The only way to see haute couture is either if you’re a client or invited to the shows,” says Thierry-Maxime Loriot of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the museum that produced the exhibition together with Maison Jean Paul Gaultier. It was Loriot, as the curator of the exhibition, who selected the 120 complete ensembles from the 8,000 Gaultier creations that were up for review. From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is like a public invitation to a giant haute couture show, the very sexiest of Jean Paul Gaultier.

“Sex is generally processed in one of three shades,” suggested the very gay Quentin Crisp in the book that took him from infamy to fame in 1968, The Naked Civil Servant. “It may be crude, which leads to the numbing repetition of the shortest words for the longest things, or naughty, involving one or both or all parties in dressing up, or it may be poetic.” Monsieur Gaultier, in all this, is sometimes naughty but never crude. And he is always, always, always poetic.

Catherine Deneuve’s words about Gaultier, that he is a designer who “can allow himself many flights of fancy because the basic structure of the garment is always impeccable”, are quite what “The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier” is all about. The first room in the show is designed to let your fancy stray from the very moment you enter the holy blueness. There are three groups of lively mannequins here, masters of attraction and connection – many of them have a voice to support the meaning of the show. In this exhibition, it is the women who do the talking. And they do have the faces that Norma Desmond was asking for in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

“Clothes are about looks, relations, how you present yourself. They are elements that can help you,” says Gaultier. His cheer about life is a kind of smile that stretches out to his arms, they move a lot. “I want to be inspired by those who are different,” he continues. “There is not one type of beauty. Beauty exists everywhere.”

In the 1800s, every Spanish sailor had to sign a contract with the Catholic Church, a legally enforceable promise that they would not have sexual intercourse with a mermaid. Gaultier’s mannequin double to the left is sided by two mannequins who have been given his special treatment: the evening dresses are from the Mermaid collection he did in 2008, where layers of scales and shimmer are entertained by trimmings of nacre, atelier-made algae strings and pointy seashells to mark the breasts, and each hem is a flapper. One of the mermaids is supported on a pair of hybrid crutches that grow coral antlers. Everything is in a state of change, of growth.

There were sixteen female mannequins at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris the year before the outbreak of WWII. Man Ray’s was an Aphrodite with soap bubbles seething out of her hair and big tears coming down her face. The Gaultier group in the middle is a bunch of starry saints and teary madonnas. The ecclesiastical display, based on his Virgins collection from 2007, is a unified mix of mannequins with a personal look from the late Renaissance – holy, human, free from the brutish iconoclasm of “original sin”, crowned with Roman-Catholic-inspired gloriole headgear and graced with the Baroque exuberance of Gaultier’s dresses, the diversity and the lovely abundance of details.

The Breton stripes are the unifying factor for the group on the right, with homosexual stereotypes of sailors versus a strikingly beautiful dress with a feather-skirt finale, white and navy blue all the way down. Gaultier is the undisputed master when it comes to tuning up a wealth of honest femaleness by using puffs and blasts of masculinity in his womenswear. But the other way around is many times an alley of male-only-oriented homoeroticism.

Quentin Crisp once more (from The Naked Civil Servant): “To outsiders the idea that between a man and a woman the sex act can be natural, unnamed, inevitable and lead to total oneness gives normally the radiance of the Holy Grail. Only a lifetime of receiving the confidences of unhappily married middle-aged women brought me to the realisation that in time, even for heterosexuals, sex is reduced to an indoor sport. This was consoling. It is nice to be in the same boat as one’s betters especially if it is sinking.”

Paris and the banlieues were worlds apart in the 1950s as well. Jean Paul Gaultier grew up in a place called Arcueil on the outskirts of Paris with his nice and tolerant family, and an inspirational and eccentric grandmother who he doted on. Marie Garrabe’s holistic take on life made the women in the area come to her for things like massage and counselling, and she allowed the boy to sit in and listen to the women’s stories about their unappealing, sexless marriages, “and she recommended that they jazz up their wardrobes. The idea that fashion was powerful enough to perhaps save a relationship fascinated Gaultier,” explains Susan Orlean in The New Yorker.

Gaultier has talked about the Parisienne as the type of woman he knows best, “but it’s possible that I still haven’t actually met her”. He saw what he saw on the television that his grandmother owned, and he adored the women of Paris as they looked and acted in the films that were made in the decades before he was born.

La femme moderne, as pictured in the mass media between the wars, was literary ‘going places’,” suggest Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer in The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars. “She was shown at the wheel of an automobile, at the helm of a speedboat, in the cockpit of an airplane. She was in control, self-assured, capable, aggressive, adventurous, independent. As a figure in transit and in transition, she travelled unescorted, distancing herself from her national and/or familial points of origin.”

Another source of stimulation for the very young Gaultier was the nostalgia and flamboyant glamour of the Folies Bergère. It was once again his granny’s television that transferred him from the suburbs to the legendary music hall on rue Richer and its cabarets – and the women in corsets and cancan skirts who looked like they had come right out of something festive and gay by Toulouse-Lautrec.

“The Folies Bergère had become a component part of the mythical image repertory of the alluring hedonistic pleasures of urban Modernity, embodying the intriguing ambiguities and superficialities of the pageant modern life,” as John Kear describes it in Parisian Fields. “On stage, the Folies increasingly provided an eclectic spectacle renowned for its exotic acts from four continents. Like the international expositions it was part of the function of the music hall to provide an image of Paris as an internationalist and multidimensional world.”

Gaultier was slapped by the teacher when she found out that he was working on his sketches instead of paying attention to what she was saying, and she made him walk through the classrooms with his illustrations pinned to his back so he would be laughed at. But when the other boys saw his sexy, elegant scribbles of women in brassieres and fishnet stockings he was no longer rejected as the school sissy, the weakling who couldn’t do anything right with a football.

The kid was nine when he made his first fashion sketches; nine years later he was in Pierre Cardin’s employ. “Feigning sickness, he bunked off school to pursue his interest in fashion, looking at newspapers and magazines and drawing obsessively. In his formative years in the 1960s, his interest was in the world of haute couture rather than the new generation of ready-to-wear créateurs, although anything the teenage Gaultier learned was self-taught,” write Brenda Polan and Roger Tredre in The Great Fashion Designers.

When Gaultier was six he chewed on some paper to form two little cones that he attached to his he-teddy Nana where his breasts would be. Station two in the exhibition, “The Boudoir”, stars the tattered teddy bear and the two cone-breasted corsets that he made in 1990 for the protagonist of The Blond Ambition Tour (Gaultier designed all the 358 costumes). He calls her “the biggest macho that I’ve met” – with the kind of mischief that requires the vigorous waving of both his hands to complete the smile.

“The Boudoir” is like a secret parlour full of articles of transference: lingerie, corsets, bodices, bodysuits, and combinations (there is also a special undergarment for the pregnant woman), and the men’s skirt. Gaultier has stated that “equality, diversity, perversity” is his motto. But there is never anything that is nasty with Gaultier. Most of his designs are free from turmoil, and so differently beautiful. (This notion about Gaultier as an “enfant terrible” is just as ignorant and worn-out as the one about Bowie being a “chameleon”.) However, there is a black installation of a woman riding a man which looks more like a masquerade than a dominatrix kind of thing – a woman wanting to stimulate a certain part of her body, a pleasure known to any equestrienne.

The first corset dresses from Gaultier were made in 1983, the same year as he introduced his prêt-à-porter line for men. The exhibition is full of classy fashion photography, like the picture of Cindy Sherman as someone else in punctuated cone lingerie, a woman and her two imploded missiles. Breasts for Gaultier are some utmost tokens of the female – he made a garment where the Breton stripes are going bonkers out of joy and excitement around the breasts – but they are also toys for the mind. His affection for women is even more evident in how he works with the hips. Just see how he shapes the fabrics around the curves where the whole world moves.

“If a man does wear a skirt, you’re very much aware of him as a sexual presence,” said the curator of the 2002 exhibition Men in Skirts at the V&A in London, Andrew Bolton, to The Guardian. Gaultier’s hands are impassive when he talks about “the injustice and stupid things about clothes”. He was not alone with the launch of the men’s skirt in the mid 1980s (and they all failed), but the skirts he made were actually very manly in appearance and yet they didn’t even look like kilts. “It was not a question of being gay, but about being sensible, because there is seduction in men,” he says. “It was the right moment to do it, I felt that the young men were changing.”

“The amalgamation of Gaultier’s brilliance proves that all dress is a form of costume, whether for the screen, for the catwalk, for the street, for life. Sidewalk to Catwalk declares clothing an extension of the self: our sexuality, our opinions; a means to invite power, responses, revolutions, laughter. It’s this ballsy proclamation which makes Gaultier not just memorable, but legendary,” argues the fine young writer Charlotte Simmonds on her blog at the New Statesman.

The corsets and the playsuits in the “Skin Deep” section of the exhibition are a rhapsody of undergarments transposed into outer armour, costumes with an eye-deceiving anatomy lesson for anyone who has ever wondered what’s inside a girl. These are garments with a sinewy architecture, a circulatory system, and a heart-shaped pump. (This thing about reversing an inward structure so it would surface the outside, was also used with great skills by the British artist Rachel Whiteread when she turned some houses inside out with her ghostly concrete casts in the 1990s.)

It is a lush and fantastical world to be in when haute couture is in the command of monsieur Gaultier and his take on Victorian science fiction. He uses the whimsies of the future to bring out a better past. He uses tradition to look into future possibilities.

In the anthology Steaming Into a Victorian Future, Julie Ann Taddeo is of the opinion that steampunk often “highlights some of the very real, social, and sexual inequalities that dominated late-Victorian and Edwardian discourse and politics; in doing so, it offers an alternative world for women that steampunk’s hero, HG Wells, would have applauded. In one of his essays concerning the advancement of women, Wells aligned himself with ‘those who sanely and healthily await the changes taking place in woman’s status and activity at the present day [and] are hoping for honest comradeship with no false sentiment, no mystery, and no repression, mental or physical’.”

“I use and respect tradition, but try to find new elements which will make it younger,” Gaultier told his biographer Colin McDowell in 2000. Gaultier’s first encounter with the traditional world of couture was when he saw Jacques Becker’s Falbalas (Paris Frills, 1945) on his grandmother’s television. He says that it is still his favourite film because it made him want to become a fashion designer. Micheline Presle, one of Gaultier’s earliest screen loves, plays the woman who rejects the self-engrossed designer in the end, which means the end for the couturier who jumps out of a window after seeing her features come to life on one of his mannequins.

Maison Jean Paul Gaultier is at 325 rue Saint-Martin in Paris. The beautiful building in white marble was once a stronghold for a trade union, which might explain the clumsy carving on the façade: “Future of the proletariat.” “Punk Cancan” is the station in the exhibition where Gaultier moves from Patou to punk, and then back again, where he crossbreeds the filth and the fury of England’s awakening with the drama of couture.

“Fashion is like love, but a love that not always lasts and is not always loyal,” says Gaultier. He adored the atmosphere of the atelier and the validity of the craftsmanship at the House of Patou, where he worked in the early 1970s. But the snobbism, the arrogance, the senile racism of this place gave him second thoughts about ever wanting to be associated with haute couture again.

Jon Savage calls punk “the grandstanding ‘fuck you’ to England that seemed to come out of nowhere – but what they set up was so explosive that, in the polarising climate of the time, it soon required definition”. In England’s Dreaming he describes how “Punk brought together suburban stylists, Bowie victims, teenage runaways, hardened 60s radicals, gay men and women, artists, disco dollies, criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes of all persuasions, football hooligans, intellectuals, big beat obsessives, outcasts from every class. It wasn’t just the groups: the power that they had came from their audience.” Punk also brought together the very elements that would define Jean Paul Gaultier as a fashion designer for the world.

In her book Fashion, Desire, and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the Twentieth Century, Rebecca Arnold describes one of those main elements of punk aesthetics as something that “was loaded with pornographic content, yet it was itself openly bored with, and contemptuous of, sex, which was seen as a mechanical act, lacking emotion. These conflicting messages were presented as a means to transgress social codes and expose the false modesty of the mainstream. Sadomasochistic dress was used as a means to an anarchic end, rather than as part of a sexual ritual as it was by true sexual fetishists.”

“Punk Cancan” does not mean babes in bondage though, but Gaultier’s fully mature designs based on his energised ideas about challenge and clashing messages that have followed him since his formative days – uproar through the passion and precision of couture. A group of mannequins in tartan skirts (and kilts) in yellow, black and red are fronting a wall of graffiti. Others wear tutus and tulle (Gaultier made the costumes for sixteen ballets between 1983 and 1993), or his showy camouflage dresses to make love in.

There is a corner in this space devoted to his Swedish connections. And something about Abba (it is clear that Gaultier is crazy about Abba) which seems to have the dignity of Antoine Doinel’s bedroom shrine for Balzac in Les quatre cents coups (1959), the one that catches fire.

The centrepiece installation of twelve mannequins parading a conveyor-belt podium is Gaultier’s declaration of love to the Parisienne and her city. Each of these creations is a showstopper. There are the wild things like the shoes with the Eiffel Tower heels, or the cancan skirt with a feisty bouquet of kicking women’s legs, if you dare to look inside. And there are the pieces that are even louder in a milder way, the remarkable trouser suits and the dresses with their sober colours and sophisticated cuts. (Gaultier was indeed the creative director of womenswear at Hermès 2003–2010.)

He mentions when his first Gaultier collection was presented in 1978: “Honestly, it was a disaster! It was so unprofessional. Panic, total panic! The dresses did not work on the models so I only showed twenty garments. I did not know how to do anything. It is good to have a sense of humour when you see what I did back then.”

By 1974, Gaultier was back in Cardin’s employ – as far from Paris as it is geographically possible – for an assignment in Manila in the Philippines. Once Gaultier had returned to Paris he found the love of his life. The couple founded the company and lived and worked together for fifteen years. Francis Menuge died from aids in 1990.

“Urban Jungle” is a treasure trove of twenty multicultural styles, the world construed through the world of super-haute couture (the first one thousand hours spent on each of these fantasy creations are just the foreplay in the process), against a backdrop of a moving panorama of dear old Stockholm.

Monsieur Gaultier is talking about Cardin with much reverence. Pierre Cardin was the first designer to introduce the concept of prêt-à-porter, and to sell his collections in department stores, and he wasn’t going to suck up to the couture syndicate. But Gaultier, of course, could not stay away from haute couture. About a dozen fashion houses (and a number of guest designers) are members of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture, governed by the Fédération française de la couture. Gaultier is very much still part of it, even though his premiere haute couture collection of 1997 (Couture Man) was only meant to be a one-off diversion into this world of fancy expenditure.

The last station in the exhibition is called “Metropolis”. It features the outfit that television woman Andrea Caracortada – a scarry Robot Maria with headlight breasts – wears in Almodóvar’s Kika (1993), along with some of the nine hundred dresses Gaultier designed for Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), and other collaborations with artists. This is Gaultier when he uses high-tech materials to strip down his designs to bare essential structures, or when he leaves his designs in a vegetative state. This is Gaultier heading towards the old future of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and the near past of early new wave and house music, while rejoicing in the analogue and the handmade.

Susan Orlean was with the almost one hundred thousand people who enjoyed the Gaultier parade on Montreal’s rue Sainte-Catherine, before the exhibition opened for the very first time in June 2011: “The parade was noisy and lively and included two thousand dancers dressed in costumes that ranged from cancan skirts to opulent hip-hop outfits to wedding gowns, all representing Gaultier’s work. Gaultier himself marched at the front of the parade, flanked by a cohort of solemn-looking security guards, three pretty girls dressed as fairies, and some of his longtime models, and he was welcomed like the captain of a team that had won the Stanley Cup.”

To experience The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is like watching Edward Bloom and his yellow daffodils in Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003): “A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.” Gaultier is alive and unforgettable. Anyone with a heart-shaped pump will exit his fashion world seduced, lifted, entertained, moved, appy.

Monsieur Gaultier visited Stockholm and the Centre for Architecture and Design last summer. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is currently at the Barbican in London through August 25, 2014. The exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne (October 17, 2014–February 8, 2015) and to the Grand Palais in Paris (April 1, 2015–August 3, 2015).