The artistry of Jean Paul Gaultier’s fashion designs aren’t just glamorous, they are outlandishly ornate. Though the brilliant French designer came to prominence in the early ’90s due to his salacious collaborations with Madonna during her Blonde Ambition, the Girlie Show, and Bedtime Stories eras, his success continued while other enfant terribles succeeded him in years to come including the late Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh, and the occasional creation from Nichola Formichetti.
Curated similarly to the beautiful tribute to McQueen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Savage Beauty”, “Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” is a haute couture retrospective of his career 20+ years in the making at the more debonair Brooklyn Museum. Lead by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ curator Thierry-Maxine Loriot, many of his most famous pieces are there, with thematic rooms from Boudoir to the Urban Jungle, and full of tidbits about his venture as a television host on Eurotrash, video clips of his runway shows featuring a few famous faces and bodies of the no less than $10,000 a job Supermodel days, and relationships with artists as obvious as Kylie Minogue and Tina Turner, and unsuspecting such as the band Nirvana. And yes, some of those dresses and ensembles you remembered from the Gaultier archives are here. Madonna’s cone bra corset from 1990? Check. How about the black harnessed top that Madonna wore completely topless at the end of his show in 1992? Oh yeah, it’s here. Recall seeing Erykah Badu in a weaved chestnut brown corset–with a baby bump? Quite adorable in person. And definitely, Beyonce’s impossibly gorgeous “Embellishments” dress from the Calligraphy collection. Even more spellbounding in person, with its materials of veiled fringe, lace chain mail, embroidered pearls and marcasite,the futuristic ideals never looked so bright.
Room after room will leave you in awe of a designer that honestly may have been treated in underrated terms in the last few years. Gaultier is a true artiste in while his designs, color schemes, and material options are often outre, a lot of what is in his exhibit honestly seems actually wearable. Given the time and place, almost 90% of everything on view could be worn in real life, whether it’s the long denim trench coat adorned with black studded stars, or the safari-influenced plunging jumpsuit, you may begin to feel denied of not having at least a JPG bag in your wardrobe once you hit the gift shop.
There was so much beauty to view in his work that even if not attending the exhibit as a long-standing fan, it would be hard to not recognize how this particular designer has used inspiration from other cultures not as appropriation but in the name of embrace and homage. While his fellow peers are regularly ridiculed for their insensitive approach to “stealing” items or motifs such as headdresses or some recycling of a geisha costume, in Gaultier’s hands, it’s so far from being disrespectful, he doesn’t just take what he saw and re-brand it as his. He studied what had touched him, and made a place for these new textures, shades, cultural and regional accessories in his utopia of diversified glam and multiculturalism. Like that all-white Native American influenced wedding down with a trailing headdress? It was feminist, it was dauntingly fashionable, and it was otherworldly. And before today’s fashion landscape in which one wants to throw a party whenever a model of color actually books a high profile fashion gig, Gaultier had not just placedvmodels of colors on his runways, but also models and persons of different shapes and sizes (most famously the model Crystal Renn and The Gossip’s Beth Ditto), and with tattoos, and mohawks. Gaultier challenged what was expected of us as men, women, and the status quo. He did so with such admirable humor and chance, you almost forgot the more serious message underneath it all which is sometimes the society that raises us wants us to assimilate than celebrate what makes us different.
“Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” was what the Met’s showcase of “Punk: Chaos to Couture” wish it was earlier this year. Brooklyn Museum’s well-thought out event to one of fashion’s most fun innovators was a wonderful whirlwind of talent, inspiration, and an ode to dreaming in color.
FUN FACT! Both Marion Coitillard and Nicole Kidman wore Jean Paul Gaultier when they won the Academy Award for Best Actress
The Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum until February 23, 2014