In conversation with Jean Paul Gaultier

Jean Paul Gaultier in conversation at The Barbican in April 2014Last month I went to see Jean Paul Gaultier in conversation with legendary fashion editor Suzy Menkes. As they walked onto the stage at the huge Barbican Hall, the entire auditorium erupted into applause and ecstatic cheers as if an international rock star had just walked on stage at Wembley Stadium. I think you could safely say that this was the fashion equivalent of that! Not only is Gaultier an amazingly creative and inspirational designer, but he is also an extremely friendly and irreverent man, and his fans truly appreciate that he is one of a kind. The weird thing is that I didn’t really consider myself to my a Gaultier devotee until Barbican Centre announced that the travelling exhibition The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk would be visiting London. Straight away, I realised that I had to visit. A major retrospective of a fashion designer whose work I can really relate to – what’s not to love? But then I took a moment to consider why I really wanted to go.

Reason 1: When I was younger I was massively influenced by Madonna. I was 15 years old when she unleashed the Blond Ambition tour on the world and I don’t think that a concert I never saw live has ever been as important to me. Reason 2: As a teenager, I adored watching Eurotrash. In a time before the internet, the importance of this utterly ridiculous television show cannot be underestimated. Reason 3: I could watch The Fifth Element over and over. It is brilliantly daft sci fi and an immense visual treat. Conclusion: Gaultier is a man whose work had seeped into my life without me even realising. So, with all this whirring around in my head, I sat down to hear him talk in exactly the fast, energetic and heavily accented way that I knew he would.

A selection of my many highlights from the Gaultier exhibitionHe told us of his love for London – the rock/pop influence on fashion, the tribes, and the self-expression through fashion – right from the time he went to see The Rocky Horror Show here in 1974. He described how the diversity and open mindedness that he experienced in London (plus the influence of his parents), was an inspiration for the diversity he displayed in his catwalk shows from the start. Gaultier likes his models to be “the inverse of clones”, and explained how he loves character, difference and personality.

Next he spoke of his teddy bear – Nana, who features in the exhibition – as his first muse. As a young boy he wanted a doll but was given a teddy instead, so Gaultier proceeded to create outfits for the bear. As many of the audience already knew, he was also inspired by his grandmother’s corsets. He spoke fondly of her, saying that she taught him that “clothes can be a conversation” and are not just something to keep you warm. Menkes then asked about the influence of sexuality on his life and work. Gaultier said that he noticed early on that women were objectified, but men were not. He wondered why. He also noticed a reaction to the second wave “bra burning” feminists in younger women who wanted to embrace their sexuality to please themselves, rather than to please men. He thinks that we all have aspects of femininity and masculinity and explained how he enjoyed mixing the two in his first womenswear collection.

More of my highlights from the Gaultier exhibitionIn his first collection for men, Gaultier “showed the man as a sexual object” which was unheard of back then. He mentioned that the phrase “jolie femme” (pretty woman) had no masculine equivalent and that he had wanted to create the “pretty man” using make-up, lace and other supposedly feminine things that were often used by rock stars. Menkes then spoke of his coming out as a big event that changed society, as well as fashion, but Gaultier answered from a more personal perspective. He said that his grandmother spoke to him about gay men when he was 14, saying that they were “sick” (she was a nurse and believed that they needed to be “cured”) and so “you need to be nice to them.” As the audience were reeling from this extremely outdated view of homosexuality, Gaultier quipped “of course I was nice to them!” and the room erupted into laughter.

Menkes went on to ask about many different aspects of his career and influence. When asked why he wasn’t wearing a skirt, he said that he didn’t think he had the legs for a kilt any more and was worried that he’d trip on the stairs if he wore a long skirt! On the Material Girl: He said “I am, in some way, in love with Madonna” and explained that he liked the way that she has always been in charge of her own image. When he first saw her – performing Holiday on Top of the Pops – he assumed she was British because of her sense of style. He also spoke in great length about his love of and involvement with film and cinema, explaining that “one movie takes the same energy as 10 or 15 fashion collections” which I guess is why he hasn’t done more. On setting up his couture house, Gauliter said “if you have passion and you want to do something, you will find a way. You can find money, but not enthusiasm.”

Outfit highlights from my third Gaultier outingAfter a Q&A – where someone (thankfully) asked him about Eurotrash! – we all left the auditorium to the sounds of Madonna’s Holiday. Once again, it felt like we’d been at a concert as the entire audience was buzzing from Gaultier’s infectious energy. A few weeks later, I returned to the Barbican to see the exhibition that the talk had been a supporting event for. Although I expected and enjoyed many of the themes – for example; Breton stripes, London, catholic icons, mermaids, the corset – I was particularly drawn to the way that he has always been challenging traditional stereotypes of beauty, via his designs and his muses. There was so much to take in that I still don’t quite know where to start, and so I shall write a full exhibition review after I have been to visit the exhibition again. It definitely requires multiple viewings! I will, however, mention that I discovered even more ways that Gaultier has subliminally influenced me… not least the fact that he designed the impressively shiny suit that Dave Gahan wears in the video for Depeche Mode’s It’s No Good.

I completed my Gaultier ‘hat trick’ with an evening of research presentations from staff at London College of Fashion. If you want to know more about it, you’ll have to check out my Storify of the event, and/or the summaries on the LCF blog and Pigeons & Peacocks‘ site, as I’m saving up all my blogging energy for when I return to the exhibition later this summer. Yes, it really is that good.

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