When we heard that Jean Paul Gaultier’s fashion designs were going to be featured in a retrospective exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, we were already trembling with excitement. Partially because so many people missed the Alexander McQueen show, “Savage Beauty,” which was at the New York Met for just a few short months, and partially because, well, it’s Jean Paul Gaultier. The De Young exhibition, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” is just like the designer himself. It’s fresh, dynamic, and instead of meeting expectations, it shatters them.
At the entrance of the exhibition, you see the first descriptive text on the galleries, along with a message from Gaultier, which looks like it might have been scribbled on the wall by the designer himself.
Jean Paul Gaultier was born in France in 1952. He was first hired as an assistant in 1970 by Pierre Cardin after sending some of his amateur sketches and impressing the designer with his raw talent. From there, Gaultier premiered his first individual collection in 1976, and was eventually dubbed the enfant terrible of French fashion. He is best known for his incredibly intricate and groundbreaking haute couture collections, and continues to entrance crowds with his fashion aesthetic, even in the present day. At first, Gaultier declined the offer from the De Young Museum to do a retrospective on his career so far, because he believed it signaled to the public his career was ending. He eventually agreed, as long as the show was innovative and dynamic, and indicated that his career was far from over.
The first room is entirely flooded with a glowing blue background. There is a long line of mannequins, all of whom are wearing looks from one of Gautier’s first “prêt-à-porter” (ready-to-wear) collections, inspired wholly by sailors and their striped fashion. Perhaps the most haunting part of this first room is the mannequins’ faces: almost all of them are moving. Using projectors, the faces of some of the actual models have been super-imposed onto the mannequins. They smile, laugh, and interact with the audience. Even Gaultier himself is among the figures, speaking about his designs and his inspirations. As you move through the gallery, the other models speak and look around, some of them sing in the background. It’s all very chaotic and completely mesmerizing.
We don’t want to give too much away, but the exhibition moves through a vast amount of Gaultier’s different styles and eras of inspiration. We see his childhood teddy bear, which he adorned with make-up and his first cone bra. We see the period where he experimented with androgyny and sex appeal, and when he sought to blur the lines between genders; also included is an array of his looks inspired by the emergence of the punk rock style, and the mixing of exotic influences from other cultures, including Africa and Russia. Also featured are his costume work for the concert tours of famous pop stars such as Madonna and Kylie Minogue. We even catch a glimpse at his costume designs for feature films, including “The Fifth Element,” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.” Along with collection information and year, some of the couture gowns also list the amount of hours of work (done only by hand!) devoted to create the finished product. Some of the gowns required over one thousand hours of dedicated hand stitching.
As a finale to the exhibition, almost twenty of the looks from Gaultier’s more recent collections circle on a fabricated runway. Each figure mechanically struts behind the other in a waterfall like formation, endlessly circling. The simulated runway makes a statement about the prospective future for the veteran designer. Everything is still as dynamic and forward thinking as ever. This designer is nowhere near finished. All we can do is anxiously await his next move.
“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” will be at the de Young Museum through August 19, 2012.
All images courtesy of author.
Ryan Roschke is currently a reporter for BARE Blog. An eternal optimist, he is an avid proponent of food, fashion, music, movie, and culture. Special emphasis on food.