October 2014

Arts & Letters

The artisan

By Karen de Perthuis
Tanel Bedrossiantz, in a dress from the Jean Paul Gaultier Barbès collection, ready-to-wear, Autumn–Winter 1984–85. © Paolo Roversi
‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

“Fashion appeals to too many people,” complained the extravagant fashion muse Isabella Blow. It’s not a complaint you’ll often hear from art gallery curators and museum directors. The fashion show is the new blockbuster. When The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the sidewalk to the catwalk made its debut at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) in 2011, a city parade in Gaultier’s honour drew a crowd of nearly 100,000 spectators. By the time it arrives at the National Gallery of Victoria (17 October to 8 February), this travelling archive of the French designer – the man responsible for putting Madonna in a pinstripe suit and shell-pink corset, men in skirts and more than many of us are willing to admit in cone-shaped bras – will have been on the road for three years and visited by record-breaking crowds in museums across North America and Europe.

Like Jean Paul Gaultier’s catwalk shows, the exhibition is a theatrical event. Its curator, Thierry-Maxime Loriot of the MMFA, in collaboration with Maison Jean Paul Gaultier, has brought together 140 design ensembles in a multimedia installation that includes unique animated display mannequins, video, fashion and art photography, and various documents and paraphernalia, all imaginatively staged around seven themes.

The cultural and social significance of Gaultier’s body of work is undisputed. He was one of the first designers to toy with gender and sexual identities – those famed corsets were never only for women – and to challenge conventional fashion and beauty stereotypes by including models of all ages, ethnicities and body types in his catwalk shows. He was trained in the rigorous methods of French haute couture, a point noted by the New York Times’s art critic, even as she somewhat condescendingly observes that it’s “nice” to encounter his subversive objects in an art museum.

In the folds of the Times review lies the perennial question of fashion’s status as art, a question that will only finally be settled when the publicity for shows such as this no longer feel compelled to insist that it is. Gaultier himself refuses to buy into the debate, insisting, “Fashion is not art.” And the label “artist” is one he has steadfastly refused to wear throughout his four-decade career, preferring instead the more democratic descriptor “artisan”.

He has found it more difficult to divest himself of the epithet “fashion’s enfant terrible”, first coined by the press in the mid 1970s. Now 62 and respectably paunchy, Gaultier is clearly no longer enfant. And, for the outsider coming fresh to the designer’s CV, terrible might seem equally a stretch. Sure, he’s strapped women into bondage gear and Victorian cage crinolines, and decked men out like Folies Bergère showgirls, but the tailoring has always been impeccable. Since launching his own label in 1976, he has designed more than 8000 pieces and changed the way men and women think about dress. In 1997, he opened his own couture house, creating dresses that cost around $50,000 for private clients such as Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Kylie Minogue. Along the way, he’s released incredibly successful fragrances and was creative director at the luxury brand Hermès from 2004 to 2010. Little of the rebel or iconoclast to find here.

Gaultier does, however, have form. The witty, irreverent spirit that so attracted the fashion press in the first place has also been turned against those who don’t get the joke. He once sent Christmas gifts of live turkeys to top fashion journalists who repeatedly attacked his shows for being in bad taste and damaging France’s reputation. More recently, he created an exhibition for the Fondation Cartier of dresses made entirely out of bread. In the ’90s, he was a regular presenter on Channel 4’s celebration of bad taste, the pop-culture TV show Eurotrash. He dressed the Spanish star Victoria Abril in a techno-fetish mash-up of slashed dominatrix catsuits with exploding prosthetic breasts for her role in Kika. There have been sinister houndstooth gimp suits, padded bums, codpieces and questionable visual puns. He’s plastered Christian iconography across rippling male torsos; he riffed on the dress codes of Hasidic Jews for his 1993 Autumn–Winter ‘Chic Rabbis’ collection, attracting accusations of anti-Semitism. Finally, like the air-headed designer Mugatu in Zoolander, Gaultier is guilty of claiming to have been inspired by the very poor.

Add to this the indelible image he created for himself in 1984 of spiked, peroxided hair, multiple piercings and knee-high boots worn with a Scottish-plaid kilt and a striped Breton sailor top, and the bad-boy reputation starts to make sense.

These days, Gaultier’s hair is an elegant silver. The boots have been replaced by scruffy shoes and the kilt by a grey suit and black sweater. But at the NGV the Breton top remains, worn by the “Gaultier” mannequin who greets visitors to the exhibition. The designer is so closely associated with the motif that the television advertisement for the Montreal show had the whole city transformed by painted horizontal lines, and one of the highlights of the NGV program is a series of academic lectures on the history of the stripe. For Gaultier, it has been the “wallpaper” of his career, appearing on his branding and packaging as well as on multiple garments, from a humble jersey knit to a painstakingly beaded and feathered couture gown.

In France, the stripe is richly symbolic. In medieval times, striped fabric was associated with outcasts – criminals, prostitutes, jugglers and even the Devil himself. Commentators have linked its appeal for the designer to Jean Genet’s explorations of a tawdry, homoerotic dockside underworld. Gaultier himself explains his ongoing attachment to the mariner stripe as a tribute to the sailor outfit he was dressed in as a child. Whatever the source, it serves as an unambiguous sign of Gaultier’s absolute “Frenchiness”.

In the world of French haute couture, however, where the artistic directors of all the famous houses come from elsewhere, the Paris-born Gaultier is an anomaly. He is also one of the few trained in its exacting standards, having spent the first few years of his career in the ateliers of Pierre Cardin and then at Jean Patou. The early 1970s were not a high point for couture, the fashion historian Farid Chenoune likening them to “a magnificent ruined city, with crumbling piles of tulle, faille and organza”. Cardin, with his space-age vision, was an exception, and he actively encouraged Gaultier’s inventiveness. The House of Patou, on the other hand, was as fusty as they get, but it was here that Gaultier spent time in workrooms where two months could be devoted to a single hand-embroidered dress. In between these gigs he worked for Jacques Esterel, known for providing Brigitte Bardot with her pink gingham wedding dress and creating, in 1966, a plaid suit for men with a kilt instead of trousers.

By the time Gaultier launched his own label, these “catwalk” influences had merged with those of the “sidewalk”. In later collections, he would draw on the exoticism of street life in India and in the Far East, where he had been sent by Cardin in 1974. But it was pop music and subcultural style that got him first. He was a regular visitor to London from the early ’70s, and like the early punks (and the surrealists before them) he developed a ragpicker-pickpocket approach to design: finding beauty in the banal and the everyday, using scraps found at the flea market, making a dress out of straw mats and transforming a cat-food tin into a bracelet.

This was before magazines like The Face and i-D brought together music, art, design, film and fashion under the single banner of “style”. And it was way before international trend forecasting killed off the concept of “cult” by repackaging it into something accessible, palatable and mainstream. Gaultier was the original coolhunter. Combine this with his kaleidoscopic knowledge of fashion history and his technological wizardry in clothes construction, and it’s easy to see why his name is the one most associated with the “bubble-up effect” – fashion’s version of the postmodern mixing of “high” and “low” culture so fashionable in the ’80s.

This fantastical collision is present throughout The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier and still at play every time the designer sends a model down the catwalk. At his Autumn–Winter 2014 couture show, there were sweatpants and hoodies in luxe silk velvet – with pewter sequins and sparkling Swarovski crystals – and hooded veils in chiffon, net and leather. Ecclesiastical vestments had a fiery, vampiric edge; red-carpet gowns fell in a cascading river of pearls; and the crinoline cage returned in an engineering feat of sheer organza and trompe l’oeil gold chains. Everything shimmered and pulsated with light.

Upstaging it all was Conchita Wurst, the gorgeous, bearded Eurovision Song Contest winner, a gothic empress in a wasp-waisted bodice and circular skirt embellished with three-dimensional obi-inspired cut-outs. This was cross-dressing, cross-cultural and decidedly queer. It was also breathtakingly beautiful. When the models filed down the catwalk for the final round of applause, they were joined by Gaultier. The artisan took a bow.

Karen de Perthuis

Karen de Perthuis is a writer and fashion scholar. She teaches fashion and design at the University of Technology, Sydney, and the University of Western Sydney.

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