Monday, 14 April 2014

‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, or Sartorial Lessons on How to Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Since it was first unveiled to the public on 17 June 2011 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibition ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’ has toured across the globe to cultural venues in Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid, Rotterdam, Melbourne, Stockholm, Paris and New York. In the process, it has not only garnered critical praise but, rather impressively, managed to attract in excess of 1 million visitors. On 9 April 2014, it was London’s turn to welcome this major retrospective of the work produced across four decades by one of the most influential French couturiers in history.

Jean Paul Gaultier © Rainer Torrado

On display at the Barbican Art Gallery until 25 August 2014, the exhibition features over 140 ready-to-wear and haute couture pieces created between the early 1970s and now, many of which are being shown in the UK for the first time, as well as drawings and photographs capturing the creative process from the sidewalk to the catwalk. Grouped as a series of themed installations, the exquisite garments were selected to illustrate Gaultier’s undeniably original and ground-breaking approach to fashion and style that stemmed from a passionate interest in, and incessant analysis of the concepts of difference and conformism in a personal attempt to understand society. 

Intrigued by representations of gender, sexuality, age and race from an early age, Gaultier has developed a critical questioning of the status that he went on to apply in his creations. In one way or another, his designs reflected how beauty can be found in the unexpected, and how reversed expectations can construct a new creative language to describe the world afresh. Deeply interested in ethnic and social cultures and countercultures, throughout his career Gaultier conceived a new idea of fashion in both the way it is made and worn by varied body typologies. By questioning normativity and embracing transformation, transgression and reinterpretation, he has pushed the semiotic boundaries of identity, gender, sexuality, and body image and redefined their meanings by speaking a very unique fashion lexicon.

Illustrating Gaultier’s admiration for his grandmother’s corsetry and for the demi-monde of Parisian burlesque, the exhibition includes costumes for film and performance such as the conical bra and corsets Madonna wore during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, outfits designed for Kylie Minogue, and pieces created to match the eccentric personalities of the characters created by Pedro Almodóvar for his films. And, in a gesture of gratitude to British street style and its influential subcultures, the London exhibition includes a large number of mannequins sporting outlandishly big punk Mohawk wigs created by a team of six hairdressers.

Halfway through visiting the exhibition, what begins to impresses while delving into The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is not just how the sidewalk influenced his catwalk, but how he managed to secure and sustain his accomplished level of proficiency within the echelons of the fashion establishment for several decades. It is undeniable that, since he founded his own label in 1976, and particularly after being recognised as an official couturier by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in 1997, Gaultier has always sought inspiration outside the societal constraints imposed by moral axes of any nature, and never lost sight of the importance of irreverence on the path to manifest creativity.

However, and in spite of the constraints that social rules might have imposed, it is when visitors to the exhibition pause to observe the details in the numerous examples of fashion and haute couture painstakingly crafted with high-quality materials over thousands of hours, that they realise how Jean Paul Gaultier’s creations will always manage stand in their own right as irrevocable displays of genius. And for this lesson alone, it becomes imperative to join over 1 million people on this admirably educational global journey and take the most daringly outrageous steps from the sidewalk to the catwalk.

Jean Paul Gaultier in conversation with Thierry-Maxime Loriot, photograph © The Style Examiner / João Paulo Nunes

Unless otherwise specified, photographs are © The Style Examiner / João Paulo Nunes

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