Last week I had the honor of attending the press preview event for The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From The Sidewalk to the Catwalk where the fun, fabulous and charming Mr. Gaultier spoke about his career in fashion, his early influences and his many inspirations for design. The exhibit displays over three decades of the French designer's haute-couture and prêt-a-porter ensembles from the 1970s to present day.
Trust me, you will be blown away by this exhibit -- not only by the amazingly intricate clothing, provocative costumes and gorgeous gowns; but also by the talking mannequins, rotating displays and dynamic multimedia components of this world premiere extravaganza. Also on display are the designer's elaborate costume collaborations with musician Madonna and filmmakers Luc Besson and Pedro Almodovar, among others.
Sometimes cited as the most important living designer of our time, Gaultier is one of the few fashion designers who can be defined as a true artist. Speaking humbly about his thoughts on fashion as art, he explained, "I don't think that I am an artist. I think a designer is to be in connection with what's happening, and the movement of society...also the desire of people and what they need in some way. We also have to be that clever and sensitive to propose to them what they want...but I like some artistic expression."
Born in the 1950s and referring to his grandmother as his biggest inspiration, Gaultier at first became inspired by the corsets that she would wear and the movies on television that she would let him watch, such as the French film Falbalas about a couture designer. He was so inspired by this movie that he wanted to become a couturier at a very young age. In fact, the first cone bra he designed was for his teddy bear "Nana" (on display at the exhibit). As a child, he was a bit of an outcast at school, but by the age of nine, he began sketching clothes and to his surprise, "It was like a passport." Through his sketches, he was no longer rejected. "Now at least people could open their doors and speak to me." At the age of 18, he went to work for Pierre Cardin, and by 1976, he had started his own prêt-a-porter collection.
This first major exhibit devoted to Gaultier features videos, photographs, illustrations and over 130 ensembles, using innovative multimedia to capture the presence of his bold, playful and daring spirit. Gaultier embodies the open-mindedness and multiculturalism of the city of San Francisco. Displaying an acceptance and tolerance for humanity in his work, Gaultier finds inspiration from street looks and the styles of many ethnic cultures. As he said in his talk, "There is no one type of beauty. Beauty exists everywhere."
This open-mindedness can also be seen in his sexualized and transgendered looks from the 1980s, and also in his feminine detailing and introduction of skirts and corsets for men in the 1990s. In his costume collaboration with Madonna for The Blonde Ambition Tour in 1990, masculine and feminine roles are further explored by showing a strong woman in a typically powerful "masculine" role wearing a cone bra and a laced corset. "I'm not one who believes a woman should be beautiful but not speak, but perhaps it is some men who should not speak," Gaultier said. "I love the personality of girls...and interesting character. I want to be inspired by those who are different."
"The clothes are supposed to speak," Gaultier said. Once inside the exhibit, you will see that not only do the mannequins speak, sing and wink at you (literally); the clothes do indeed speak to you as well. They beg you to question what is beautiful, evoking issues of sexuality, ethnicity and social class and testing the boundaries of what is acceptable in fashion.
Filled with his exquisite clothing, costumes, film, music collaborations and even perfume, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier (at its final North American venue before it continues on its international tour) displays the designer's full body of work not so much as a retrospective -- as Gaultier said, "It's a bit early. I'm not that old yet!" -- but by the different themes that are important to him.
"The Odyssey" begins the exhibition by exploring his signature looks such as the sailor stripes, virgins and mermaids. "The Boudoir" explores his early years and corset fetish. "Skin Deep" is about human flesh, sexuality and gender roles. "Urban Jungle" shows his great tailoring and inspires ethnic diversity. "Punk Can Can" reflects on rebellious street culture and "Metropolis" concludes the exhibit with his film and music costume collaborations. Overall, this fabulous exhibition truly reflects Gaultier's sense of humor and spirit of innovation, while answering the question, "Is fashion art?"
"I respect individualities and I like particularities. I mix and match, collect, twist, and crossbreed codes. Past, present, here, elsewhere, masculine, feminine, remarkable, humdrum -- it all coexists." -- Jean Paul Gaultier
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From The Sidewalk to the Catwalk runs through August 19 at the de Young. For tickets and more information, visit deyoung.famsf.org.