Exhibitions of fashion leaders are typically ignored by art world professionals and art museum aficionados. The disregard of couturier creativity is especially unfortunate in the case of The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, currently at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (March 24-August 19, 2012). Not only do the designs exemplify the highest level of visionary talent and cultural significance but the installation effectively conveys both content and concept in ways that warrant attention by curators in all fields.
Viewer engagement occurs as soon as you walk into the exhibition. Unlike the introductory text panels that are ubiquitous in virtually all museum displays, here the first impression is the display itself. The room is darkened with soft lighting focused on mannequins aligned on a platform extending along the far walls of the gallery. Each ensemble is more alluring than the next and the entire presentation is utterly captivating. Gaultier’s artistry stops you in your tracks, draws you in and arouses curiosity for all that follows.
Approaching the exhibition as a creation in its own right, Gaultier shows couturier clothes in a distinctive way, not as a collection of staid objects on robotic models in a funeral procession. In contrast, he gives life to his collection, conceiving it as a projection of reality.
Of particular note are the individualized mannequins with animated faces that speak and sing. (Audiovisual projections endow the models with moving lips, blinking eyes and voices. The imagery recalls the sculptural aesthetic in Tony Oursler’s multimedia art.) At the helm is the lifelike presence of Gaultier appearing in his own guise, talking in his own voice. The ventiloquized message has the air of a conversation in which the couturier gives an unscripted commentary on design. Devoid of anything didactic verging on artspeak, the proxy Gaultier chats casually with the attentive “real” crowd standing enraptured before him. Intermittently, he catches viewers off-guard by addressing them directly, playfully asking why an anonymous person seems not to like something he has said or why another anonymous person is leaving before he has finished his remarks.
The exhibition includes 140 ensembles from Gaultier’s haute couture and ready-to-wear collections spanning four decades, from the 1970s to 2010. There are also accessories, archival documents, sketches, photographs, runway clips, and video excerpts from film and music collaborations. The sheer scope of his output is mind-boggling.
To say Gaultier challenges traditions is to put it mildly. As exemplified in his use of a cat food can as a silver bracelet or his fusion of luxury and mundane fabrics, he blatantly subverts entrenched codes. Topping this is his unabashed defiance of stereotypes: men wearing skirts and women flaunting lingerie as outerwear. As iconoclastic as this bravura may be, it attests to Gaultier’s deep-seated desire to assert a masculine/feminine fluidity that breaks gender barriers.
Among the many examples of unorthodox creativity are a 1977 ensemble combining a leather corset, motorcycle jacket, gauzy ballerina skirt, and sneakers. Or the audacious male model dressed in a tattered waistcoat, wraparound skirt, and tattoo-patterned bodysuit adorned with snake-like bracelets and a gaggle of necklaces. There is also the scandalous cone-bra corset worn by Madonna in her Blond Ambition Tour.
Gaultier has said he finds beauty everywhere. His inspiration derives from a wide range of radically divergent sources—ethnic cultures and old master paintings, rock stars and imperial rulers, street punks and aristocrats, religion and sexuality. His all-embracing approach commingles with a social message: fashion can be worn by everyone. He actualizes this idea by creating a couture collection of custom-made, one-of-a-kind designs for private patrons and a ready-to-wear collection of factory-made, standardized designs for a less exclusive clientele. Although Gaultier is not directly involved in mass production, spinoff copies have made his creations available to the general public at a low price point.
The grand finale of the exhibition caps the panache of the entire installation. It gives the semblance of a haute couture runway is conveyed by a parade of mannequins moving past viewers on a slowly rotating platform.
If ever there was an exhibition that captures the multifaceted imagination of an artist and engages viewers by the skillful potency of the presentation, this is it. And yes, Gaultier is an artist!
Captions. Parisian collection, Les Particules élémentaires, haute couture, fall/winter 2010-2011. First collection, ready-to-wear, spring/summer 1977. The Raw and the Refined collection, ready-to-wear, spring/summer 1994. Cone-bra corset worn by Madonna in Blond Ambition Tour, 1990. Virgins (or Madonnas) collection, “Lumière,” haute couture, spring/summer 2007. Calligraphy collection, “Labyrinth,” haute couture, spring/summer 2009. Photos by Patrice Stable.