According to fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, he’s too young for a retrospective. The 59 year old tells our audience, gathered for a press preview, “Exhibitions are for dead people. But I am still alive.”
I expect Gaultier to be outrageous, a bad boy, the so called “enfant terrible” of fashion. I did not expect him to be funny or endearing. He is.
There is something completely personal about “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” a show now open at the de Young museum in San Francisco. This is the second stop in the United States, after Dallas and the premiere in Montreal.
On display, the expected cone bra corsets designed for Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour and the gender bending, street-influenced outfits. What you don’t expect is to see Gaultier’s teddy bear from his childhood which he would dress up in lieu of a doll. “The first cone bra that I did,” he says, was on his teddy bear, “25 years before I did that for Madonna.” Funny and intimate at the same time. That teddy bear has seen better days.
Gaultier did not want a static show. As a result, he’s the first fashion designer to use “animated” mannequins. They look real. They look at you. They blink their eyes. And they talk. It’s kind of freaky at first, and then you can’t help but watch over and over. The 30 faces are actually video projections. The inspiration came from Gaultier, after seeing a play with what looked like live actors. At the play’s end it is revealed the actors were really projections. “I absolutely loved that.”
He’s never been one to use conventional models. Gaultier has always championed the different, the interesting and the unusual, giving voice, if you will, to the unconventional, the taboo. He eschews uniformity as boring. “There is no one type of beauty,” he says. “Beauty exists everywhere.”
This exhibit is a multimedia experience, with videos, lighting, photography, dance and music all contributing to the effect. Gaultier even has a hair stylist for the mannequins. While it’s all seamless, he has not left one detail out. The designer himself is represented by one of the animated mannequins, early on in the show’s progression.
His role, as he sees it, is not of an artist, but as an interpreter of what is happening in the culture at the moment. However, you can’t help but admire the vision and artistry in each of the 130 outfits. Descriptions include how many hours it took to make the garment. 88 hours for one, 167 hours for another. 295 hours for the green “Calligraphie” gown and 312 hours for the “Dubar” gown, made of layers of tulle, worn by Sarah Jessica Parker at the MTV Music Awards in 2000. That’s 13 days for one dress.
There are other gowns and costumes worn by performers, including Kylie Minogue and Dita Von Teese. But there are also very wearable clothes too, from suits to cocktail dresses, some of which are displayed on a motorized runway. “Fashion is to be worn by everyone,” says Gaultier.
If there’s one common thread running throughout this show and Gaultier’s career as a designer, it’s acceptance. This is best illustrated in another intimate story. Gaultier tells of the first time he saw the Folies Bergere on TV on a school night. He was so inspired that he spent the next day in class sketching. Keep in mind that he is not a popular kid and feels rejected by his schoolmates. His teacher notices he’s not paying attention. As Gaultier tells it, she made him stand up, pinned the drawing to the back of his shirt and made him walk around wearing it as punishment. Instead, this had the opposite effect. All the kids wanted him to make them sketches. “It was like my passport,” says Gaultier. “Through my drawing I could exist, I was not the one who was rejected. Drawing could open the door for me.” Indeed, we have that teacher to thank. “Maybe because I was rejected, because I was different that may be why I am so accepting of everyone.” A philosophy that goes beyond couture.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is on exhibit at the de Young Museum through August 19, 2012. The next stop will be in Madrid.