GT Arts

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk

An exhibition of the enfant terrible – how to do that?

Any younger fashionistas reading who are, perhaps, thinking Gaultier is in the "used to be cool, sweetie" group of designers, better known for fragrances (the ubiquitous Le Male in this case) than for clothing - line-up while we frogmarch you quickly to the Barbican in London.

This is the retrospective of the career of Monsieur Gaultier who, just in case you have missed the last 30 years of contemporary culture, is arguably one of the most important fashion designers of recent times. Dubbed the 'enfant terrible' of French fashion after his debut in the 1970s, Gaultier become widely recognised for his boundary pushing (when he first showed men in skirts on the catwalk the whole staff of Vogue walked out) and his ceaseless interest in society, personal identity and counter-culture.

The vast display, spread over two floors in the iconic venue, is already without a doubt London’s must-see attraction.

Taking centre stage are those classic French items - the Breton stripe, the trench coat and the corset (you’ll know these if you've seen the re-runs of 'Allo ‘Allo), with the recurring themes of religious attire, street punk and glamour.

Even if you don't consider yourself clued up in the rag trade, it’s a safe bet that you'll be impressed and amused with the audio-visual side of the exhibition. Custom-made mannequins that come alive with interactive faces and ‘speak’ (even of the designer himself) and a moving catwalk are in keeping with the couturier's sense of playfulness and artistic vision. The inclusion of his mini-me puppet from Spitting Image only adds to the treasure trove mix of fashion and fun. Sadly his Eurotrash giraffe puppet co-stars Pee Pee and Po Po must have been otherwise engaged. Gaultier’s childhood teddy bear, Nana, puts in an appearance though - in fact modelling the first ‘cone bra’ he ever designed.

This theatrical installation is a step ahead of most fashion exhibitions with its super modern, free to download, multimedia app guiding you through the superbly presented highlights from the 1970s through to current work in eight thematic sections (including the most obvious: Sailors, Punk and Boudoir). There are costumes for film and performance including pieces for Kylie, Madonna and the Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar. Giant video screens and film walls remind you just how much Gaultier’s work - and the man himself - has appeared in. We particularly loved seeing Ab Fab on the big screen, and being reminded of his 80s single, How To Do That.

You may want to reconsider your gayness if Madonna's iconic pointy, nipple outfit (*conical bra) doesn't get you excited. And then again if the exhibition doesn’t make you question WHY her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour – which Gaultier designed the outfits for – still hasn’t had an official DVD release…

Via the app you are encouraged to take as many pictures as you fancy (you'll want a reminder of everything!) and post them via Facebook or Twitter. You may want to give yourself an extra half hour to get around all the photographers in fact...

Gaultier, a self-confessed Anglophile, has long been influenced by the street wear in London and parts of this current exhibition – which he notes is his favourite incarnation of the installation – have been specially chosen to be shown here rather than the other eight cities on its phenomenal tour.

This exuberant and colourful exhibition is a glorious celebration of not only style and creativity, but also of sexual and cultural diversity and freedom, and has never been more relevant. Go again and again.


The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, until 25 August, Barbican Art Gallery, London. A series of related events surround the exhibition.
Details here.

Words: Russell Barratt @RussellRB.

Image: Paolo Roversi, Tanel Bedrossiantz, 1992 Barbès collection, Women prêt-à-porter fall/winter 1984 – 1985

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