The enfant terrible of the fashion world is finally back in London, thanks to a major exhibition taking place at the Barbican and celebrating the designs of a man who needs no introduction – but I’ll still introduce him anyway! – Fabulous French couturier / Eurotrash presenter / Tin can perfume creator, the one and only Monsieur Jean Paul Gaultier! (If only I could impersonate Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! to give even more oomph to this introduction).
The exhibition is a bit of a theme park of a show but the focus is very much on the clothes with a strong 140-plus outfits on display including the now infamous and iconic conical bra worn by Madonna during her Blonde Ambition Word Tour.
Spanning two floors, there is a moving catwalk, a set designed to look like a boudoir and mannequins with faces projected on to their heads to make them appear alive. “The effect is quite creepy,” my friend Lola commented. Indeed they blink, they sing, they chat, they even make eye contact with the visitors but even creepier was me trying to engage in a conversation with one of them – well, at least I tried.
The exhibition isn’t a traditional retrospective in the sense it isn’t a chronology but rather a distinct series of thematic sections such as The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier, his muses, Metropolis, Eurotrash, Urban Jungle and my favourite, Punk Cancan. When Gaultier first visited London in the 1970’s, he was inspired by the subversive spirit, humour and radical experimentation of the countercultures he discovered, particularly the punk scene.
Gaultier clearly enjoys mixing traditional and regional clothing with street trends and pop culture – often with great success and sometimes not so much (in my humble opinion) as I was not too sure what to make of that black Flamenco dress with S&M attire…
But then again, if this is your thing, why not pushing the envelope further? (Shhh! Your secret’s safe with me!)
Jean Paul Gaultier has broken many rules, challenged and redefined our preconceived notions of masculinity and feminity in a garment. He has long championed diversity in fashion, embracing all body sizes (Beth Ditto) and sexual differences on his catwalk. Of course, he is also renowned for working with countless number of celebrities, singers and artists and even collaborated with my all-time favourite movie director, Pablo Almodovar, on the set of Kika.
It has saddened me a bit over the past few years to read critics slating his latest collections, stating they felt out of step in contrast to his groundbreaking years. But Jean Paul Gaultier is a man who – at least in my mind –never sold his artistic soul or compromised his vision and talent to comply with the ethos of a Fashion House.
He may represent a great showman of Parisian couture for some but his clothes also offer a very humanist, tolerant and open-minded vision of our society, never dull and never conservative.