Review: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

Visitors at the Barbican's Jean Paul Gaultier exhibitionAs I told you back in June, I went to the Barbican to see The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk but was waiting until I’d been a second time before attempting to write a review. It’s a jam packed blockbuster of an exhibition which encourages visitors to snap photos as they go round, so you may already have seen plenty of image heavy reviews online already. As this exhibition has visited 7 cities before its stop in London, it’s interesting to see how the displays have changed depending on the space and its location. I headed there for my second visit on 19th July and probably snapped just as many photos as I did the first time around! The exhibition begins with three striking photographs – an advertising image for Le Male fragrance, a photographic portrait of Jean Paul Gaultier by Pierre et Gilles, and an image of a model in garments from his S/S’13 collection – but most people don’t notice this, or the introductory background text, at all. Instead, visitors are drawn into a blue room that highlights some common motifs in Gaultier’s work using a sea of talking mannequins.

Gaultier welcomes you to the exhibition with his face projected onto a mannequinOften one of the most talked about part of the exhibition – as they are quirky, peculiar and somewhat distracting! – these mannequins have projected faces which blink, pout, speak and sing to the people watching them. There is even one of Gaultier himself, dressed in long kilt-like tartan culottes and a breton striped top, welcoming visitors to the exhibition in English and French. If you got close enough, he says: “Come, look at every detail. It’s done for you!” A word of warning though… if you do look at every detail, make sure you have plenty of time set aside for this exhibition as you will become engrossed.

The three timeless themes in this room were the iconic sailor uniform, the madonna and mermaids, with garments from four decades of his work as a designer alongside some large Miles Aldridge studio photographs of some of the collections on display. In addition to the projected faces, it is worth noting that there are three non-white mannequins in this room – 1 male and 2 female – and one with crutches, which introduce visitors to the diverse world of Gaultier. It’s a shame this diversity isn’t more common in fashion, as well as in fashion exhibitions. The object text beside each piece tells you where you can find out more relevant information on the app, lets you know what collection a garment was from and, for haute couture, how many hours it took to create the piece. As I was reading that the mermaid style crepe gown with gilded scales in this first room took 180 hours to produce, the mannequin started to sing to me. In some ways, this room really feels like the authentic creative essence of Jean Paul Gaultier distilled into something beautiful, skilful, thought provoking and irreverent.

London has clearly been a big inspiration for Gaultier!The second room puts the vibrant diversity of London and the elegant glamour of La Parisienne centre stage. The influence of the most stylish women of Paris can be seen on a moving catwalk that visitors can sit on velvet chairs to watch. The mechanics that moved the mannequins up and down the catwalk are slightly clunky and noisy (perhaps because the exhibition has been to several cities before reaching The Barbican), but this doesn’t detract from the astonishing garments on display which reference the Eiffel Tower, Can Can dancers and smoking, both in the embellishment and accessories. Behind the catwalk there is Simpsons style artwork by Julius Preite of Gaultier with Linda Evangelista and Marge Simpson wearing his So British AW07/8 collection, and photographs by Xevi Muntane of Tilda Swinton in a dress from the Couture S/S’12 collection entitled Tribute to Amy Winehouse. I missed these the first time I visited, so it proves that it’s worth checking out every corner.

Masculine and feminine elements combined, by Jean Paul GaultierThe collection names continued to amuse me throughout the section displaying influences he’s come across in London – especially Rosbifs in Space (AW14/15) and She’s got the look… alike (SS13) – highlighting Gaultier’s playful sense of humour. There was slashed and reworked vintage denim, punk influences, tattoo art and camouflage, all interpreted with sequins, beading, tulle and a mixture of masculine and feminine elements. This is something that Gaultier is famous for in both his ready-to-wear and couture collections, and you can tell that he just doesn’t see the point of limiting certain clothing types to one gender. An ensemble from his very first collection features a tulle skirt with a denim waistband and button fly, teamed with a leather studded bustier, biker jacket and accessorised with pointe shoes (see above). This doesn’t look out of place next to a camouflage tulle gown from 2000 (part of the spring/summer Couture collection, and taking 312 hours to produce), or a dress made of silk ties from S/S’02. There were more projected faces in this room – dominated by a row of tartan outfits in front of a huge graffiti wall – and the skin colours of the mannequins were as varied as before, but it all seems normal by this point as visitors are now deep in Gaultier’s world.

Costumes designed for Madonna by Jean Paul GaultierNext is a row of three smaller spaces dedicated to Jean Paul Gaultier’s many muses. The rooms are linked by a corridor lined with specially commissioned Annie Kevans paintings of 26 of these muses – models, musicians, actors, performers – showing that he sees beauty in difference and individuality. These rooms display video footage of each muse above the most iconic garments on mannequins and limbless dress forms (like the blank canvas of a tailor’s dummy). Photographs on the walls, candid and from shoots, add to the experience. I was struck by the energy of his shows in the 1980s, before being mesmerised by footage of Dita Von Teese on the catwalk for Gaultier’s AW’10/11 Couture collection Parisiennes in the ‘Moins que zéro’ ensemble, stripping off a swirl-draped black silk jersey dress to reveal a jet-embroidered satin and silk ‘skeleton’ corset. I watched this three times with two other female exhibition visitors before we dragged ourselves away, only to find the video footage of Madonna in the next room to be just as captivating. Its easy to see why Gaultier was so inspired by his muses!

Frock coat from S/S'94 (ready-to-wear) and pleated taffeta bodysuit from S/S'10 (Couture)Upstairs we begin with The Boudoir, which is a cozy space displaying some of the many Gaultier garments (and his fragrance bottles) that were inspired by corsets and corsetry. Padded pink satin walls frame black spaces with rotating dress forms that allow you to see all angles of these extremely detailed pieces. My favourites were a frock coat which appeared to be made out of vintage lingerie (from the Tattoos S/S’94 ready-to-wear collection), the ‘Horn of Plenty’ satin ribbon corset-style gown (from the Black Swan AW11/12 couture collection), and a photograph by David LaChapelle from his Hollywood Confidential shoot of a model in a Gaultier cage dress (S/S’89) which completely overshadows the dress itself! The room also features luggage designed by Gaultier, plus his famous teddy bear, Nana. The next room, called The Metropolis, paid homage to his stage and screen costumes with an engrossing video wall showcasing his work on films like The Fifth Element and Kika, plus an assortment of music videos and tour footage. After this, the garments themselves in this room were something of a let down, but that may have just been because my energy levels were dropping after spending so much time there. I’m not sure how I could have moved around the space any quicker though.

The Eurotrash roomThe room devoted to Eurotrash and Spitting Image was slightly disappointing as there was no footage of the former and only one clip of the latter on the big screen. However, it did give an insight into how Gaultier became a well known personality in Britain. This is a good place to take a short break, so I sat on one of the comfy wheeled chairs from the Eurotrash set and rested for a few minutes before moving into the next room, called Skin Deep. This was a small space dedicated to garments influenced by Gaultier’s obsession with the human body, and a highlight was the skeleton corset that Dita Von Teese wore in the video footage displayed downstairs. The wall text discusses Gaultier’s fluid approach to gender in his work, but that is perhaps not illustrated terribly well by the clothing on display here. The other most notable feature is that the plus sized mannequin, displaying a dress first worn by Crystal Renn, is somewhat more successful than the one representing Beth Ditto in the Muses room.

Beaded taffeta gown from the AW'97/98 Couture collectionAfter discovering a peep-show-esque display of BDSM influenced clothing, a vast array of interesting photography and a handful of delightful Stephen Jones hats, visitors find themselves at the final part of the exhibition – Gaultier’s Urban Jungle. This space was extremely unsettling for me, but this was perhaps more because of the setting than most of the designs themselves. Displaying all of Jean Paul Gaultier’s work that references non-western cultures in the same room, with the title ‘Urban Jungle’, only serves to highlight what could be viewed as cultural appropriation. After I’d reminded myself that Gaultier plays with stereotypes and is inspired by Paris and London in the same way, it was a little easier to appreciate the beauty of the parrot feathered jumpsuit worn by Dana International at Eurovision in 1998, and the stunning ‘leopard skin’ beaded taffeta evening gown from the Russia AW’97/98 debut Couture collection (pictured above, which took a massive 1060 hours of work to complete). Although the text indicates that Gaultier understood that his Chic Rabbis collection would be controversial, the garments selected for the exhibition from The Great Journey (AW’94/95), Tuareg Marquis (Couture S/S’98), Voyage (AW’10/11) and Tribute to Ukraine and Russia (Couture AW’05/06) also appeared to be quite shockingly insensitive in this context. I found the ‘La Mariée’ wedding gown from the Hussars collection (Couture AW’02/03) particularly unsettling, but other gallery visitors seemed oblivious to the controversial nature of the designs in this room.

Gaultier's "Urban Jungle"However, this did not detract from my overall enjoyment of what is a truly amazing exhibition. There is something for long time fans of Gaultier’s work, fashion obsessives, students of popular culture, and anyone with an interest in all things fabulous. Not only are the garments exquisitely designed/made and a joy to behold, but the exhibition also gives visitors a window into the mind of the man who created them. Including photographs, videos, sketches, and artworks from collaborators served to greatly enhance the experience and ensured that there is always something new to see on repeat visits. Amongst my new discoveries this time round, I discovered that Gaultier designed the clothing Madonna wears in the videos for Frozen and Nothing Really Matters (two of my favourites!). The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is at The Barbican Art Galley until 25th August 2014. If you have even the slightest interest in fashion or any of Gaultier’s muses, you should definitely check it out, and do make sure that you download the app for a preview of what you will see, and interviews with the man himself.

DISCLOSURE: After tweeting about my review of the ‘in conversation’ event, The Barbican gave me a free ticket to return to the exhibition.

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