“We’ve got to do it, darling. It’s Gaultier,” Patsy insists to Edina in a 2003 episode of the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous.
Everyone seems to share this sentiment.
The first exhibition devoted to French couturier Jean Paul Gaultier attracted millions of visitors to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where Quebecois curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot conceived the idea in 2011. From there, the exhibition circulated to Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Brooklyn, London, and Melbourne.
Now, it has finally landed on the designer’s native soil, à Paris, in the expansive Grand Palais, where it will be on view through Aug. 3.
The Paris exhibition showcases signature moments from the original exhibit, such as the hyperrealist animated mannequin faces created by Montreal theater company UBU.
In addition, the exhibition is supplemented with Paris-specific installations, such as a digital projection in which each visitor is larger-than-life “Gaultiered.” Overall, it brings together 182 looks designed between 1976 and 2015, as well as photographs and videos, all of which are divided thematically.
The exhibition deems Gaultier a couturier with a punk soul, and the designation fits.
Gaultier cheekily—and actively—engages with multiculturalism and gender-bending, good taste and campy kitsch, shaking up and even inverting conventional aesthetics. His imagination and open-mindedness push him to invent and reinvent.
Gaultier’s creations on display show he is as brazen as he is witty, whether it’s creating a flipper-footed stiletto in 1978 or rubber crutches kitted out in coral reef in 2008 or a ruched tulle dress flipped up to reveal kicking cancan legs lined beneath in 2011.
The exhibition provides insight into Gaultier’s childhood and the development of his distinct style, which is sure to delight his diehard fans. Growing up, Gaultier was entranced by variety shows and their dazzling costumes, such as those of the dancers at the Folies Bergère. This sense of pop spectacle has clearly his marked his creativity and come to characterize his brand.
His first “client” was his teddy bear, Nana, which is also the first model of the expo. She premièred his conical bra, fashioned from newspaper and a doily, the rest of which he used to made a skirt. “Without knowing it, I made my first bias cut!” he is quoted as saying.
The vision of beauty Gaultier upholds, both on and off the runway, willfully ignores the ruthless dictates of the fashion world.
Even his models and muses extend the spectrum of beauty to any body type, race, age, gender: Rossy de Palma, Beth Ditto, Boy George, transgender Eurovision champ Conchita Wurst. In the 1980s, Gaultier worked with first transgender model Teri Toye. More recently, he collaborated with Andrej Pejić, both pre- and post-sex change.
Self-taught, Gaultier always loved to draw, which provided him his ticket into the fashion world. At age 18, he started working for designer Pierre Cardin as a studio assistant. He eventually created special collections for the label aimed at the American market.
In 1976, Gaultier launched his own prêt-à-porter line. He was broke, and his assistants were mainly his family; his materials, which he’d cobbled together on a shoestring budget, were from the Marché St-Pierre, a no-frills garment district in the 18th arrondissement.
In October 1976, Gaultier presented at the planetarium of Palais de la Découverte in Paris. That venue is actually located just behind where the retrospective is shown, creating an inadvertent but lovely full circle on his career.
Sailor stripes and religious iconography are signatures, but the exhibition showcases that Gaultier never draws from the same well.
In a section titled Urban Jungle, the spectrum of global references is breathtaking: boleros, waxed rabbinical coats and shtreimel fur hats, sheepskin Mongolian jackets, elaborate kimonos, embroidered chapkas, flamenco skirts, African raffia masks.
The Punk Cancan section englobes closer-to-home French tropes—the Eiffel Tower, the beret, a mix of bistro and cabaret—and manages to makes them playful and new.
Here, they are mixed with London’s chapeau’ed dandies and mohawked tartan rebels. The juxtaposition is compelling: rebellion and refinery, culture and counterculture, frayed denim and hound’s tooth.
For the Punk Cancan collection in 2011, Catherine Deneuve MC-ed the looks, as was the custom for haute-couture shows presented in private salons. Here, her voice streams down from the speakers over a moving runway. Garments rotate before recognizable mannequins of editors on one side—Franca Sozzani, Carine Roitfeld, Suzy Menkes—and a lineup of Union Jack punks on the other.
In 1983, Gaultier’s Le Dadaïsme collection introduced corsets and bustiers, which are shown spinning seductively in various iterations: a wide-hipped gold cage silhouette, origami-esque pleated taffeta, woven straw, leather-laced.
These antique symbols of female submission are turned into topstitched outerwear and declarations of sensuality and power. Madonna popularized them during her Blond Ambition World Tour in 1990, during which Gaultier created all her stage looks. The two worked together again in 2006 for her Confessions tour.
Not just gender, but nudity and eroticism are explored throughout the exhibition.
For certain collections, Gaultier utilized wildly atypical “fashion world” materials in latex and fishnet. He repurposed bondage themes to be part of casual discourse and wardrobe long before 50 Shades of Grey author E.L. James hijacked them.
Meanwhile, his nude dress embroidered with paillettes to create trompe-l’oeil pubic hair is a more playful approach that shows his range when it comes to showcasing the body. It was famously worn by Gael Gracia Bernal in Pedro Almodóvar’s La Mala Educacion (Bad Education).
Throughout his career, Gaultier received many validating accolades, including the International Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2000. Thus, it came as surprise when the designer shuttered his ready-to-wear line last year.
During a conference held in tandem with the exhibition, Gaultier was point-blank asked about the future of haute couture. He countered skepticism in his signature candid manner.
“There are copiers who make things 10 times cheaper. You can’t fight it,” he noted. However, he was optimistic. “In a period where we have so many industrial things, it’s good to have couture, and necessary to have couture.”
Those who head into the Grand Palais to see the breadth of his creations will most certainly concur.