Exploring the Fascinating Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

“I think the way people dress today is a form of artistic expression.  Saint Laurent, for instance, has made great art.  Art lies in the way the whole outfit is put together.  Take Jean Paul Gaultier.  What he does is really art.” – Andy Warhol (Mondo Uomo, 1984)

From March 24th through August 19th, 2012, the de Young Museum in San Francisco is hosting “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk”, the first international exhibition devoted to the celebrated French couturier.  Developed and produced in 2011 by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the designer’s own label, this exploration of Jean Paul Gaultier’s creative world was organized in collaboration with the designer himself, providing the exhibition with access to his archives and couture items lent from private collections.

An outfit from Jean Paul Gaultier’s first women’s pret-a-porter Spring/Summer 1977 collection at the 30th annual runway show in 2006.  Photo by Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier.

Gaultier launched his first prêt-a-porter collection in 1976 and founded his own couture house in 1997. Dubbed fashion’s “enfant terrible” by the press from the time of his first runway shows, Jean Paul Gaultier is indisputably one of the most important, controversial and influential fashion designers.  Very early on, his avant-garde fashions reflected a deep understanding of a multicultural society’s issues and preoccupations, exploring with humor and with, established societal and aesthetic codes.

Agnyss Deyn and Jean Paul Gaultier for the Ma Dame perfume campaign.  Photo by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.

The exhibition, which Gaultier considers to be a creation in its own right rather than a retrospective, features over 140 carefully curated pieces, manly from the designer’s couture collections, but also from his prêt-a-porter line.  Created between the early 1970s and 2010, these pieces have, for the most part, never been exhibited for the public. 

Jean Paul Gaultier’s fashion world is illustrated by sketches, stage costumes, film excerpts, runway shows, concerts, videos, dance performances and television programs.  Many of Gaultier’s artistic collaborations are also explored: in film (Pedro Almodovar, Peter Greenaway, Luc Besson, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet) and contemporary dance (Angelin Preljocaj, Regine Chopinot and Maurice Bejart) and popular music (notably Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga and Madonna, whose friendship with Gaultier has led her to graciously lend two iconic corsets from her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour).

Pierre et Gilles, Jean Paul Gaultier, 1990 Designed specially to illustrate the cover of the autobiographical photonovel À Nous Deux la mode Painted photograph, framed by the artists 112 x 92 cm (framed) Private collection, Paris © Pierre et Gilles/Rainer Torrado

Fashion photography is also a main feature of the exhibit with loans from collections of contemporary photographers and renowned contemporary artists (Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, Steven Meisel, Mario Testino, Cindy Sherman, Erwin Wurm, David LaChapelle,Steven Klein, Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott, Pierre et Gilles, Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, Paolo Roversi and Robert Doisneau).

The walk-through of the exhibit showcases “The Fashion world of Jean Paul Gaultier” in six organized thematic galleries:


The Odyssey gallery is an introduction to the couturier’s creative world, with the intermingling of many of his favorite themes: sailors, mermaids and virgins.  This exhibit showcases his adaptation of sailor tops and uniforms with his fascination for religious and mystical motifs.  This section, which reproduces the look of a Gaultier couture salon, notably includes the very first dress he designed, which dates from 1970 and has never been publicly shown.  His creative quirkiness is evident in pieces such as the sailor top made of mink stripes and his intricate work evident in the gold shelled mermaid pieces.   One of the notable mannequins is of Jean Paul Gaultier wearing nautical stripes, speaking about his fashion origins and designs.


The Boudoir gallery celebrates sexual empowerment.  Springing from early impressions in childhood often spent in the company of his grandmother, the designer’s predilection for corsets, waist cinchers and all manner of feminine lingerie has led him to reinterpret those undergarments for modern women’s wardrobes with cone-shaped bras and corset dresses becoming symbols of power and sexual freedom, the most famous being Madonna’s cone shaped bras.  One of the descriptions explain that Gaultier had come up with the lingerie-as-clothing idea after his fashion conscious grandmother almost left the house in a rush wearing her sheer slip under a jacket without pants.  Gaultier was a young boy at the time and thought it was incredibly funny, but he saw how ironically beautiful the outfit was in mixing undergarments and outerwear.  This came to the realization that there is something empowering about revealing what’s typically concealed.


Skin is what Gaultier describes as being the first garment with the human body form as a constant renewed inspiration for the designer.  This is evident in the Skin Deep gallery with designs such as the bodysuit with intricate beadwork that gives the illusion of nudity, leotards of the muscular and cardiovascular systems with rhinestone embellished “blue and red veins”, and skeleton piece leotards with rhinestone-black-felt “bones” applique.  This section of the exhibition is also devoted to the Gaultier take of the male sex stereotypes, with couture designs including his famous skirts for men.


The Urban Jungle gallery displays some of Gaultier’s most exquisite and breath-taking works.  The inspiration of multicultural and ethnically diverse influences is apparent within his haute couture designs.  This ranges from the Arabs of the Barbes neighborhood, boubou-clad Africans, chic rabbis, Chinese flamenco-inspired dancers, Russian icons and Bollywood maharajahs.  His couture is an ode to the aesthetics of the different mix of cultures and people.  This section also shows the designer’s retreat into the animal world through the use of leather, as well as python, crocodile and feathers.  With being in close proximity to the collection pieces, it is easy to see the construction and embellishment detailing that makes each piece a haute couture masterpiece.


The Punk Cancan gallery is inspired by Gaultier’s Spring 2011 collection, mixing the idea of punk (mohawks, tartan, fishnets) with “can-can” (full skirts and ruffles) and couture.  The influences are found in the “Paris by night” of Place Pigalle and the punk-rock attitude of London’s Trafalgar Square.  Iconic Parisian symbols, the beret, the trench coat, the cigarette between the lips and the phallic Eiffel Tower, are mixed with references to Pigalle’s sex shops and London’s tattooed punks.  This new-style woman in latex and leather, fishnets and laces, produce looks that are both outrageous and elegant. 


The Metropolis gallery showcases the influences of the 1970’s new wave and house music and Gaultier’s most futuristic designs, leading to an exploration of advanced technology and science fiction.  Since his first electronic jewelry designs and 1979 high-tech collection, he has continued to be at the cutting edge of fashion by introducing the use of materials not normally seen on the runway (vinyl, Lycra, neoprene, 3-D fabrics and inflatables) and collaborations with artists in the fields of pop and rock music, film and dance.

Throughout the exhibit, visitors will encounter 30 talking, hand-crafted mannequins whose faces are brought to life by projected video images.  These models dressed by Gaultier, soliloquize, observe in silence and sometimes break into song and flirty whistles.  The special technique of projecting video onto a three-dimensional form combines technology and craft, with the actor’s own video image projected onto the sculpted head.  Quebec director Denis Marleau’s theatre company created the mannequins, whose quirky, poetic, joyful and provocative presence capture the spirit of the exhibit.  The mannequins are based on models and performers Eve Salvail, Francisco Randez, Melissa Auf der Maur, Virginie Coosa and Suzie Leblanc, who each contribute something of their own artistic process to the fascinating fashion world of Jean Paul Gaultier.

The exhibit is a must see into the creative and talented world of Jean Paul Gaultier.  With a keen interest in all the world’s cultures and countercultures, Gaultier has picked up on the current trends and proclaimed the right to be different, and in the process conceiving a new kind of fashion in both the way it is made and worn.  Through provocation, transformations and reinterpretations, he not only erases the boundaries between cultures, religions and the sexes, but creates a new androgyny of faith, propriety and modern life.

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” will be at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, from March 24 through August 19, 2012.  Additional details on the exhibit can be found on the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco website.  

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