I’ll be the first one to tell you, I don’t know a thing about fashion.
Or Jean Paul Gaultier for that matter, outside of basic name recognition and the fact that a friend in Paris gave me one of his shirts she didn’t want anymore (which I absolutely love).
So when I arrived in Melbourne last October and saw that the National Gallery of Victoria was hosting an exhibition on the designer, I was intrigued.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk would be at the NGV from October 17, 2014 to February 8, 2015. I love visiting art museums when I travel, and the NGV ranks as one of my favorites (fun fact: the design firm I worked with in Melbourne actually designed the bookstore, and it’s fabulous). And also given my francophile tendencies, I simply couldn’t miss this chance to educate myself on one of the most famous designers Paris has ever produced.
For those of you wondering where you heard the name Jean Paul Gaultier before, think Madonna. Gaultier is responsible for the conical bustier the singer made so famous. He also has an ongoing partnership with Kylie Minogue, collaborating on many projects with the Australian singer.
The exhibition began by walking into a room filled with mannequins set up on a sort of platform. Dressed in Gaultier designs, each mannequin had a talking face projected onto its head. The center mannequin acted as a model for Gaultier himself, an audio recording of his voice playing an introduction in his own words as his talking face was projected onto the blank face. Visitors were then directed to the adjacent room, where the fantasy world continued.
I learned that Gaultier is affectionately referred to as the “enfant terrible” of the fashion world, known for pushing the boundaries of gender in sometimes perverse ways. He doesn’t design clothes for men and different clothes for women – when left up to his own devices, he blurs the lines as much as anyone dares. Wearability is not a concern for haute couture design, which is his forté. Rather the designer focuses on expression, much like a painter or installation artist.
I already mentioned the bustiers worn by Madonna, but it bears mentioning again Gaultier’s obsession with sexy. This ties into his exploration of gender definitions. As stated in the description of the exhibition, “… the couturier does not subscribe to the myth of the weaker sex.” Instead, he gives the feminine powerful undertones and uses the corset as a symbol of strength rather than submission.
The exhibition was divided into seven themes: Odyssey, The Boudoir, Punk Cancan, Skin Deep, Metropolis, Urban Jungle and Muses. Each theme draws its inspiration from a different belief or perception held by the designer.
What struck me most about each is the raw creative energy and thought that went into each and every collection. This was not mere dresses and tops and bottoms – they were works of art making a statement. Every piece contributed in some way to support the message Gaultier was trying to communicate.
And the craftsmanship… by definition, haute couture has to be made entirely by hand. There are extremely strict regulations in place which designers must follow in order to call their creations haute couture. And Gaultier is a master of the technique and a true artist at his craft.
So while I may never fully appreciate the potential of fashion as it applies to my own everyday wear, I can certainly appreciate the creative process that goes on behind the scenes.
And I just might wear that favorite Jean Paul Gaultier shirt a little more often now, and with greater pride.
Merci bien, Monsieur Gaultier.