Jean Paul Gaultier: Rock-Star Haute Couture

  • by Chris Sosa, BAR Contributor
  • Monday April 9, 2012
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"Equality, diversity and perversity," the cri de coeur of enfant terrible fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, is (to paraphrase Woody Allen), "a campaign slogan a French politician could run on." It's also how Gaultier, who's an openly gay, self-styled populist in a media- and money-saturated field, views himself. These personal themes, among other things, are expressed in outrageous, gender-bending, hyper-sexualized transgressive form in The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, an extravaganza costuming exhibition now at the de Young.

The development of the French avant-garde icon from his lonely, misfit childhood in the Paris suburbs, through 35 years of collections, is mounted in a multi-media showcase that, in some respects, echoes the wild spectacle of his runway shows. It includes over 140 ensembles organized along thematic rather than chronological lines, stage costumes, a moving catwalk complete with spotlights and music, and artistic sketches from his collaborations with risk-taking film directors Peter Greenaway, Luc Besson and Pedro Almodovar.

There's also an impressive array of striking fashion photographs such as Steven Klein's "Madonna Rides Again," a black & white shot of the singer in an equestrian dominatrix get-up. Seated in a stable facing a horse's stall, a crop in hand, she wears fishnet stockings and boots. A saddle and stirrups are built into the waistline at the back, and a long tulle skirt trails underneath. You'll just have to see this one. (A notice warns visitors entering the show that sexual themes lie ahead.)

In an innovative, downright creepy touch that may startle some, the show features 30 mannequins who speak and have animated faces, and a Gaultier avatar who greets visitors as they enter the galleries. These virtual players introduce a voyeuristic, unsettling quality to the standard museum experience; the watchers are being watched.

If you're familiar with Gaultier's haute couture only through images from glossy fashion magazines or the behemoth exhibition catalogue, some of his ensembles look cheesier in person - that's cheesy as in overdone and tacky, not inexpensive - than they appear on the page. Take a jaw-dropping, too-spectacular-for-words, beaded wedding dress. With its white-feathered "Indian Chief" headdress reaching to the ground, silvery epaulets on one shoulder, chains slung across a strapless bodice wrapped in pale tulle, and a jeweled mask from which hang strings of assorted pearls, plus a skirt with folds of bejeweled gathered fabric, the splendid creation embodies the brilliance with which Gaultier balances and integrates what would be incongruous elements in lesser hands. In the staged, imaginary world of a photograph, it's breathtaking, but on the mannequin, its magnificent artifice and artistry seem merely artificial.

His designs benefit from glamorous lighting and theatrical photography because at heart, Gaultier is about performance and fantasy in an ideal, egalitarian, multi-sexual world - not comfort, practicality or good taste. If you want to fade into the background he's not the guy for you; but if you yearn to up-end bourgeois convention and traditional notions of gender, climb on board.

Just try wearing the red glass-bead "Galleon" headband with a sailing vessel perched atop your head without causing a stir. This may be why rock stars like Tina Turner, Madonna and Kylie Minogue - who once wore the silver lame, diamond-faceted, Barbarella corset bodysuit on view here - have gravitated toward him. (He reportedly declined to dress Mick Jagger, explaining: "He's no longer the person he was.")

On these shores, Gaultier reached ignition and lift-off when he outfitted Madonna in the notorious cone-bra corset whose pointed cups she aimed at an unsuspecting, god-fearing nation during her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour. (She lent two corsets to the show.) His velvety body-corset bra dress has cups that protrude some eight inches into the atmosphere; one can only hope they're not locked and loaded.

Rooted in fun and dress-up, which is what fashion ought to be, Gaultier has been inspired by pop and street culture, the movies and the Folies Bergere, blending vulgarity and glamour, bondage and high fashion in designs such as a straw and horsehair hat-gown complemented by lace bloomers and elbow-length gloves, an outfit that could have stepped off the stage of that infamous French revue. He does the fashion equivalent of mixing metaphors with a flowing tulle ballet skirt worn with converse sneakers, a studded satin bustier and distressed motorcycle jacket; a cropped jacket whose vermillion and fawn-colored, bird-feather sleeves resemble wings; and a chanting mermaid in a gilded bodysuit who leans on crutches encrusted with coral shells. Eye a taffeta evening gown and discover the leopard "print" is achieved with tiny beaded embroidery.

One will emerge from this overwhelming show - it can feel like one of those hip boutiques where your senses are assaulted - with gratitude for Gaultier's nurturing grandmother, not only for encouraging her less-than-athletically-inclined grandson in his drawing and predilection for clothing, but also for her closet, where he unearthed the body-cinching corsets that set him on his career path and that he would make his own. But his versions, made of satin, gold lame and diamonds, metal, crocodile, taffeta and even one with a baby bump, are flashier and more risque than anything grandma used to wear. At age eight, Gaultier, precocious lad that he was, styled a prototype of conical breasts he fashioned out of newsprint for Nana, his teddy bear, and a matching skirt out of a lace doily, too. Nana and the corsets that inevitably followed can be found in the "Boudoir" section; some are in a large quilted pink box with windows, a display case reminiscent of a peep show.

Declaring "clothing has no gender," he reached back to the sarong of the samurai, uniforms of the military cavalry, the kilt and the long aprons worn by Parisian waiters in brasseries for his men's skirt, which he asserted had "nothing to do with drag." It sent shock waves through the industry, sold out during its first run in 1985, and was reportedly more popular with straight men than with gay customers. A feathered men's bustier with beads and lace bustle skirt, as well as a backless jersey jumpsuit and pants with tiered bell-bottoms, are modeled by male mannequins, but there should be a "Brave Men Wanted" sign posted nearby.

Trumpeting "vivre la difference," Gaultier doesn't consider himself an artist as much as a designer of the people, at least the people who can afford couture. According to the curators, one of the justifications (and it's a lame one) for having the show in an art museum is to give the less affluent a chance to see up-close the technical virtuosity only the rich can afford. Sheer enjoyment and attracting thousands of visitors who might not otherwise set foot in the de Young seem like reason enough, though the costuming exhibitions remain a flash point for critics.

An outcast kid who never went to fashion school, Gaultier been called a postmodern poet, a shrewd psychologist and "a utopian agitator in a media entertainer's clothing," and his creations compared to a happy pill and a self-esteem booster. To his credit, he doesn't seem to take himself quite as seriously as those who rhapsodize about him. "I look at everything," he says. "I have no theories."

Through Aug. 19 at the de Young Museum.