Originally published in February 2014. This post has since been updated with edits and videos, but with respect to the original date, and thus does not acknowledge the subject’s history and artwork past February 2014, minus a 2015 link from Another Magazine and a 2018 M2M Minidocumentary.
Jean-Paul Gaultier’s fashion designs aren’t just glamorous (when they were designed to be). They are often outlandish and political. The latter in the lane of statement-making pieces that symbolize choice and freedom of expression and community.
The brilliant French designer came to pop culture prominence in the 1990s due to his salacious collaborations with Madonna, as Gaultier continued to deliver tongue-in-cheek and playful collections every Paris Fashion Week throughout the 1990s and well into the 2010s, which we’re in now.
He is one of the original enfant terribles, as the late Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh, and Nichola Formichetti have also joined this infamous club of some of the most daring and innovative of fashion designers. I would say this club also features Thierry Mugler, Gianni Versace, and Vivienne Westwood.
Similarly curated to the beautiful McQueen tribute that was “Savage Beauty,” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, “Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” is a retrospective of his 20+ years in the game and is hosted at The Brooklyn Museum.
Lead by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ curator Thierry-Maxine Loriot, many of Gaultier’s most famous pieces are there, with thematic rooms labeled as Boudoir to the Urban Jungle.
There are video clips of his runway shows that feature the famous faces and bodies of the no less than $10,000 a job cabal, (sigh, the Supermodel era!), tidbits about his artist-muse relationships with talent as obvious as Kylie Minogue and Tina Turner, and as unsuspecting as the band Nirvana.
With that said, remember Madonna’s cone bra corset from her legendary Blonde Ambition Tour in 1990? Check. It’s here.
How about the black harnessed top that completely bared her breasts, at the end a Gaultier AmFAR benefit show in September 1992? Oh yeah, it’s here.
The icon would again close a Gaultier show in spring 1995.
Recall seeing Erykah Badu in a weaved chestnut brown corset–with her baby bump in tow? It’s quite adorable in person. And Beyonce’s impossibly gorgeous “Embellishments” dress from the Calligraphy collection, is even more spellbinding in person. With its materials of veiled fringe, lace chain mail, embroidered pearls, and marcasite, futuristic ideals have never looked so bright!
Room after room will leave you in awe of a designer that has honestly been treated as little underrated in the last few years.
Gaultier is a true artiste. While his designs, color schemes, and material options are often outre, a lot of what is in his exhibit is actually quite 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.
There is so much beauty in his work, that even if you do attend this exhibit, not as a long-standing fan, it would be difficult to not recognize how this particular designer has used inspiration from other cultures not as appropriation but in the name of embrace and homage.
Gaultier’s peers, in and out of the enfant terribles club, are sometimes ridiculed for their insensitive approach to “stealing” items or motifs such as the recycling of a geisha costume.
If in Gaultier’s hands, a geisha outfit would be far from disrespectful. He doesn’t take what he saw and re-brand it as his. He studied what touched him most, and instead makes a place for these new textures, shades, and cultural and regional accessories in his utopia of diversified glam, multiculturalism, and liberty. Like that all-white Native American-tinged wedding gown with a trailing headdress? It was fashionable, otherworldly, and with the headdress, supremely feminist as the Native American and American Indian woman typically did not wear the formidable accessory.
And before today’s fashion landscape in which one wants to throw a party whenever a model of color books a high profile fashion gig, Gaultier has not only placed models of colors on his runways, before it was trendy, he has cast models and persons of different shapes and sizes, like model Crystal Renn and The Gossip’s Beth Ditto.
Gaultier has challenged what is expected of us as women, men, and the status quo. And has done so with such admirable humor and chance, it’s easy to forget the seriousness of the message underneath the cloth, which is that sometimes society raises us with the want to assimilate than to celebrate what makes us different.
“Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” was what The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s showcase of “Punk: Chaos to Couture” wish it was. The 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. And cones.
FUN FACT! Marion Cotillard and Nicole Kidman both wore Jean Paul Gaultier when they won their 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