Jean Paul Gaultier comes with a lot of pop culture baggage. There are the conical bras he designed for Madonna in the late 80s and early 90s, the numerous Eurotrash appearances and his provocative yet playful fragrance adverts. In fact, if there’s one word that could be used to sum up Gaultier, it’s that: playful. Lots of fashion designers claim not too take themselves too seriously, but he really doesn’t, moving from camp-TV to haute couture effortlessly.
A travelling exhibition, currently at the Barbican, puts the designer’s four-decade career in context. The designer, who still attracts the enfant terrible moniker despite turning 62 this year, launched his own line in 1976, added menswear in 1983 and branched into couture in 1997. He’s fashion royalty; a household name who, in interviews, has managed to retain to boyish charm and enthusiasm for fashion. Apparently he was initially against the idea of a retrospective (“for me [an exhibition] was like to be dead”) but this is less a look back, more a reminder of his continued creative output and how his early work continues to shape the contemporary fashion landscape.
Cleverly and theatrically curated – flourishes include talking and winking mannequins and a revolving catwalk – this exhibition is an ode to Gaultier’s originality. Each of the eight sections (presented thematically, rather than chronologically) explores a facet of the designer’s aesthetic personality, although it’s immediately obvious that this is simply an extension of him. The opening room is dominated by Breton stripes, a recurrent design motif. Under Gaultier, stripes are elevated from the everyday, incorporated into elaborate couture garments or juxtaposed with religious iconography.
In an accompanying quote, Gaultier explains his love of this everyday pattern: “My mother dressed me in sailor-striped sweaters. They go with anything, never go out of style, and probably never will. There were also other influences: my grandmother, Coco Chanel, Jean Genet, Popeye, Tom of Finland, Reiner Wernere Fassbinder and his film Querelle…”
This seeming innocuous inspiration mix sums up the designer. Pulling from high and low culture, his is an anything-goes mentality; a world where tin can lids can be turned into jewellery and denim is elevated to couture. This mix and match ideology extends to the clientele, who are no doubt attracted by his eclectic muses. Never one to conform to industry expectation from the earliest days of his career, Gaultier held open casting calls to attract unconventional models, deliberately seeking body shapes and skin types that fell outside the mainstream.
Although controversial, there’s a sense that this wasn’t just a publicity stunt: Gaultier genuinely champions inclusivity and celebrates diversity. Of course, this reputation did attract attention, including Madonna, who asked the designer to create those now-legendary cone bras. But that’s not all – already an advocate of androgyny, he dressed her loose-fit, masculine tailoring, the antithesis of body-con 80s attire.
But before there was Madonna, there was Nana Bear, Gaultier’s childhood teddy bear for whom he designed his first corset. The bear, perched atop a vintage travelling case, sits alongside some of the designer’s most elaborate corsetry, including a salmon pink version created entirely from satin ribbons that extend into a floor sweeping skirt and train and a rhinestone encrusted corset and girdle that’s paired with a parasol. Teddy looks on nonplussed, unaware of the controversy that was brewing in the young designer. From men in skirts to underwear as outerwear, there’s a sense of tired cliché around many of Gaultier’s ideas, but that’s because they’ve been picked up and regurgitated by the fashion masses, looking for an easy publicity stunt. With Gaultier it was never about making the front page but about expressing creativity through fabric and form, challenging convention my reapropriating street style into fashion collections. Of course, the fact that theses designs did make the front page is the reason we’re celebrating his work, but as the designer would say: ‘C’est la vie!’
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier from the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is at the Barbican until 25 August 2014. If you can’t get to the exhibition there’s an accompanying app that features interviews and video and audio soundbites.