an appreciation of the DeYoung's Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk

By Ava Barez

© Pierre and Gilles/Rainer Torrado
Following the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the De Young Museum in San Francisco in 2008, Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011 and “Balenciaga and Spain” also at the De Young Museum in 2011, the buzz worthy “Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” arrived in San Francisco after previous stops at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Montreal Museum of Art. The exhibition, arranged by curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot, features over one hundred Pret-a-Porter and Haute Couture ensembles along with accessories, sketches, photographs, interviews, runway videos and film clips spanning over three decades of Jean Paul Gaultier’s fashion career. Unlike more conventional museum exhibitions, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk highlights Gaultier’s creations in an innovative and lively space. Visitors are welcomed into the space by Gaultier himself, via video, and talking, winking, smiling and singing mannequins; the unconventional space is perfectly fitting for fashion’s “enfant terrible."

© Rainer Torrado/Jean Paul Gaultier
Before we enter the show and gawk, let’s look at Gaultier’s life, which has enough charm and glamour to warrant a biopic. One wonders why it hasn’t happened yet and so let’s take a trip to the Paris suburb of Arcueil where he grew up and first showed an interest in fashion and a talent that was, and this is no exaggeration, unusual. As a child Gaultier spent a great amount of time with his adorning grandmother (should be played by Catherine Deneuve) who among other things allowed him to play in her closet where he was especially captivated by her pink, satin corset. Maybe in our movie the corset could talk to the boy Gaultier and give him a few philosophical tips about the nature of women’s clothing or just women. These closeted moments inspired Gaultier, at the tender age of six, to create his first cone bra out of newspaper for Nana, his Teddy Bear. We need Pedro Almodovar to direct, for only he could catch this first brush with creativity and give it the zip and gravity it needs.

In Paris, these make you think!

Now cut to twelve years later. The young Gaultier ambles through the streets of Paris and looks at the art and philosophy students talking about heady ideas while smoking Gitanes. While everyone is static, young Gaultier is on the move, his sketches tucked under his arms and heading towards the House of Cardin. Yes, that Pierre Cardin, possibly the most famous designer of the 1960’s and 1970’s. With no formal training Gaultier presents his work to the incredibly successful Cardin:

Gaultier: Here are my sketches. I do not care what you think.

Cardin: Let me see them, you precocious, almost rude young man.

(Cardin looks at them carefully, first with amusement, then with respect and finally with awe).

Cardin: Mon dieu, ce sont magnifique!

Okay, it didn’t quite happen that way, but the man’s life is so close to a movie that a little fiction seems more than fair. The point is that Gaultier’s talent was undeniable and Cardin saw that.

© Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier
Of course, every biopic needs a montage so let’s cue her up. In 1976 Gaultier launched his first individual collection! By 1980 he had established himself as a master tailor as well as a provocative and decadent designer! In 1985 he first designed man-skirts! In 1990 he created costumes for Madonna! Among them, the Duchess satin corsets and the infamous cone bra she wore during her Blond Ambition Tour! His runway shows are crazy, more like rock concerts and his models aren’t even models! His Haute Couture collections are formal and refined, but also playful and philosophical! Critics and fans alike realize that he is both a man of the street and a scientist of dreams! Success! Many times over! And now, canonization, a museum exhibition at the De Young, the designer becomes the artist. It’s wonderful and the response has been ecstatic. Every review, fashion blog and tourist on vacation mentions the fun, the glamour and the famous people. We love that about fashion, but now I want you to stop and understand Gaultier in a more intimate way: I want you to look at the clothing from the inside out, at the level of that old-fashioned and despised word, craftsmanship. If we miss the craftsmanship, as people often do, you misunderstand the glamour and the beauty of Gaultier’s designs.

As you walk into the “Skin Deep” gallery there is an eye-catching bodysuit depicting the human muscular system that Gaultier designed for French singer Mylene Farmer’s 2009 tour. The red, nude and blue full bodysuit is beautifully realistic and in true Gaultier form whimsical and sculptural. It’s made of skin-tight lycra and has a red sculpted bustier with an incredibly detailed network of grommets and threaded corseting that is in perfect accord with the curves and form of the female body. In addition, there are intricate blue and red veins, blood vessels really, covering the outfit along with what can only be described as an approximation of musculature. This garment gives a glimpse into the unique inner workings of a woman’s body and honors it in a tender way.

The equally stunning black jewel-encrusted, silk velvet and satin skeletal corset Dita von Teese wore at the close of Gaultier’s Fall 2010 Haute Couture show is difficult to turn away from. I know: I tried and failed more than a few times. The immaculately fitting corset, beautifully detailed in both the front and back, is a perfect example of Gaultier’s skilled tailoring and eye for detail. The corset is very architectural: the front is fitted around the bust and seems to approximate the structural logic of the ribcage. There is a vertical line reaching from the heavily accented shoulders and sculpted neckline, curving down towards ornately jeweled hipbones. The shoulder accents are attached to bones going down the sides of the mannequin’s arms. The back gives viewers a glimpse at the beautifully executed jewel-encrusted spine. Garments like this show Gaultier is skilled at not only showing the beauty of the outside of the body, but also keenly aware of what happens just beneath the skin.

In the “Urban Jungle” gallery Gaultier’s Fall/Winter 2010-2011 Haute Couture “Parisiennes” collection is on display. There is the beautiful, airy feather dress that shows the designer’s ability to create garments that aren’t just edgy, but elegant and refined. The mini dress is fully covered in cascading thin silver feathers, with strong, sculpted shoulder accents. There are metal plaques intricately embroidered down the center front of the dress that also wrap around the neck creating a high collar that makes the head appear to float. This dress, like all of Gaultier’s Haute Couture garments is a glamour that laughs with a woman and not a glamour that confines and laughs at her. The idea of women’s emancipation has never been so lovingly and painstakingly expressed.

Finally, his feather and lace corset-style bustier with a tulle train, white shirt and wool tuxedo pants from Gaultier’s Fall/Winter 1996-1997 “Modern Man” collection is a perfect example of his disregard for traditional gender roles. Though most designers reserve bustiers for their women’s wear collection, Gaultier did the unexpected and designed a zipply detailed bustier for his Men’s Pret-a-Porter collection. The lace bustier, worn over a crisp white button up shirt, is accented with beautiful, soft golden brown feathers at the chest, beads hanging from the curved bottom and a cascading tulle train in the back. With wool tuxedo pants and accessorized with a silk tie, Gaultier takes an otherwise classic men’s silhouette and destroys or re-imagines what we think is a man. Gaultier is probably the most philosophically minded designer we’ve ever had—at least in recent memory.

Here he is again!
©Pierre et Gilles/Rainer Torrado
©Ava Barez & CCA Arts Review

1 comment:

  1. Great review of the De Young's blockbuster Gaultier Show, Ava.
    Your piece was engaging & insightful, a deft assessment of Gaultier's oevre.