Jean Paul Gaultier: Immaculate Conception

Published in VAULT: Australasian Art & Culture, Issue 8, 2015.

One of the most iconoclastic fashion designers of the 20th Century, Jean Paul Gaultier, recently announced he will no longer be producing ready-to-wear collections. On the eve of his major touring international exhibition, ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Catwalk to the Sidewalk,’ at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, VAULT examines some of they key moments that have encapsulated the Parisian couturier’s spectacular career in fashion.

Jean Paul Gaultier was there when I had my first kiss at 16. Having spritzed myself with Jean Paul Gaultier: Classique perfume – which came in a corset-silhouetted bottle stuffed into a tin can – I met a boy for a date and smooched him on the street. I sheepishly can’t remember what his name was, but I can still, to this day, recall the embracing hints of ginger, fresh anise, vanilla and amber, floating around that kiss, slowing down time.

Gaultier launched his eponymous label in 1976, entered the fragrance scene in 1993, and joined the haute couture calendar in 1997. His first scent Classique went on to sell more than 40 million bottles and has propagated into 55 further colognes for both men and women. His perfume range remains the most lucrative component of his business.

In September Gaultier announced to the world that his 2014 Spring/Summer collection would be his swan song, leaving him to focus on what he excels in best: haute couture, perfume and special collaborations. This comes at a time when established houses are struggling to compete with the galactic dominance of superbrands and fast fashion.

In a statement to fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily, Gaultier reflects, “For some time, I have found true fulfilment in working on the haute couture and it allows me to express my creativity and my taste for research and experimentation. At the same time, the world of ready-to-wear has evolved considerably. Commercial constraints, as well as the frenetic pace of collections, don’t leave any freedom, nor the necessary time to find fresh ideas and to innovate.”

Thierry-Maxime Loriot, curator of the roving exhibition The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, which opens October 17 at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), believes the fashion industry can be quite demanding on its most creative visionaries.

“Gaultier is one of the few living legends of fashion,” says Loriot, “He has been producing prêt-à-porter for almost 40 years, and even though the pressure from the fashion industry is enormous, he still manages to renew and reinvent himself season after season.”

“Still, it’s insane for the industry to ask couturiers to creatively design up to 10 collections a year of menswear and womenswear, as well as bags, shoes, cruise, kids, perfumes… It is non-stop. No movie director can release 10 movies a year; no singer can put out 10 records a year.” For Loriot, the rapaciousness of the fashion cycle has also signalled a shift in values. “I do not think people appreciate craftsmanship and real design anymore. Nowadays, people buy from fashion giants who just copy looks that are fresh off the runway, and then when it goes out of fashion they move on to the next new thing.”

Loriot identifies with the fashion pace, having worked as a runway and campaign model for ten years, before turning his sights to art history and curating (the Gaultier show is his breakout project). Interestingly, he once auditioned as a model for Gaultier, but was turned down by the designer, who called the French-Canadian “too good-looking.” It says a lot about the designer. For almost forty years, Gaultier has captivated, invigorated and challenged the fashion industry, using his house as a social platform to champion people of diverse ages, sizes, gender and skin colours.

Beauty has long been tantamount to high fashion, but for the designer, being beautiful has nothing to do with physicality and symmetry – it’s all about attitude.  Injecting a provocative inflection into the fashion of the 1980s and 1990s, Gaultier sent albinos, elderly punks, tattooed tomboys, burlesque dancers, Rubensesque women, mohawked children, notorious pop stars and transgendered men and women down his runways. For the designer, the intention is not to shock people or to become media piñata (although this usually follows as consequence), but to empower the divergent and turn the unconventional into a new beauty.

Indeed, while in New York one day, the couturier noticed some rabbis with Shtreimel hats and satin coats exiting the public library. This inspired him to create his Chic Rabbis collection in 1993, where he clothed female models in Orthodox Jewish hairstyle and apparel traditionally reserved for the male. Chic Rabbis remains one of the most controversial collections that modern fashion has seen.

Looking back, Loriot acknowledges the cultural thorniness of the project. “Some people back then misunderstood what he was doing, but he wasn’t trying to laugh at a culture. He was paying tribute to its beauty of difference. It’s great that we have someone like Gaultier in fashion who continues to push the boundaries.”

From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, which shows for four months at NGV International,  features over 140 immaculately crafted dresses, corsets, codpieces and other garments fashioned throughout his career, dating from his first dress in 1971 to his latest tour costumes for Beyoncé and Madonna.

The exhibition was conceived and first staged at Canada’s Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) in partnership with Maison Jean Paul Gaultier, and has toured to seven cities, including Dallas, Rotterdam, Brooklyn and London. The conception of the project, which has been seen by over 1.3 million people wasn’t as easy as one might’ve imagined.

“Gaultier felt that museums were reserved for dead people,” Loriot says, “He also saw fashion exhibitions as being no different to say, entering a nice shop. If Gaultier would entertain the concept of a show, it would need to possess a ‘living’ presence. Enter talking mannequins.

MMFA commissioned the Montreal company UBU to sculpt 32 mannequins and animate their faces using audio-visual projections. The ‘living dolls’ were then voiced by Gaultier and his muses, including Kylie Minogue. The idea came about when Gaultier encountered UBU’s multi-media production at the Avignon Festival in France, which reminded him of Falbalas, the 1945 film he saw as a young child, and often credits as the ‘eureka’ moment that sparked his love affair with haute couture.

Rich in costumery, the plot centres around a fashion designer who is so fixated with his muse that he makes a mannequin in her image – only to emotionally discard her upon moving on to his new collection.  “In the end scene of Falbalas, this Pygmalion mannequin comes alive. Gaultier wanted to capture that essence,” explains Loriot, who goes on to share a fond memory from the Brooklyn Museum show.  “We were in the middle of installing the works one night, and the security guard didn’t realise we were testing the mannequins.” He breaks out into a laugh. “So, in the dark of night, the mannequins came alive and started to sing. She freaked out and ran away.”

The Australian show will survey Gaultier’s enchantment with his suite of Aussie muses – Catherine McNeil, Kylie Minogue, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Alexandra Agoston, and Gemma Ward – and will be accompanied by an exclusive magazine-styled publication titled after the exhibition.

Paola Di Trocchio, fashion and textiles curator at NGV, reveals that the publication will feature reciprocal interviews between Gaultier and the muses and a foreword by Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann, who were influenced by Gaultier throughout their careers. There’s even a special mention of Olivia Newton John, Di Trocchio confirms. “Her momentous role in Grease in 1978 inspired Jean Paul to revisit the theme in his 2014 Women’s Spring/Summer collection.”

In true dramatic Gaultier style, the particular collection involved fabulously-garmented models gyrating down a dance competition runway that spoofed modern programs like So You Think You Can Dance, with  supermodel Coco Rocha unleashing a few shimmies while dressed as Danny in drag.

Gender equality is a recurrent theme for the French provocateur, who was one of fashion’s first openly gay designers. In 20011, he propelled a blond androgynous model with carved cheeks and caterpillar eyebrows, into international stardom when he cast Andreja Pejic in both his menswear and womenswear walks, sensationally closing the show with Pejic as the mariée (female bride).

“At the start, modelling agencies didn’t know what to do with Andreja,” admits Loriot, “They didn’t know whether to place her on the men’s board or women’s board, or which clients to send her to. Gaultier was the one who launched her career. He presented her to the world without judgement. He had that open vision when nobody else did.”

“I have a lot of respect for her,” Loriot says of Pejic, who has since undergone gender reassignment surgery and now identifies herself as a transgender woman. “It’s not easy at her age (she is 23) to feel trapped inside a body that is not your own, but Andreja manages to live with it, and to make others accept it.”

Despite Gaultier’s numerous collaborations with Australian, he has only visited the country once – during Sydney’s Mardi Gras 20 years ago. The NGV show signals the designer’s first trip to Melbourne to unveil the show. “It’s great to finally be able to introduce Gaultier to Melbourne,” Di Trocchio says, “as this show allowed him to discover just how strong his connections are to Melbournians – particular Kylie, who he’s worked with a number of times.”

For Minogue’s X2008 Tour the couturier created nine costumes, including the Immaculata dress that hauntingly encased the pop princess during her video interlude for Like a Drug. Madonna fans meanwhile will be elated to see pivotal costumes from her tour, such as the 3D-caged patent leather corset from MDNA, and the cone-shaped bra she paraded during Blond Ambition – a move that catapulted both Gaultier and the Material Girl to iconic heights in 1990.

The first conical bra originated 30 years prior, when Gaultier, who originally asked his parents for a doll, was gifted a teddy bear instead. It didn’t stop him from glamming up his first muse with lipstick and a cone bra made from rolled-up newspapers. Today the glass-coffined teddy tours with the show.

Upon meeting Madonna to select the garments, Loriot has this to say: “I realise after having met her, why she clicked well with Gaultier. They have this connection of wanting to push boundaries, and from being both misunderstood at points in their career. When Madonna released the Sex book it was considered a scandal at the time. But now, 23 years later, it’s no big deal. In fact everybody continues to copy Madonna. She is more than a pop singer, she is a true contemporary artist.”

Alongside his muses, the Melbourne show partitions into six other themes exploring Gaultier’s fascination with underwear as outerwear, religious regalia, cultural crossbreeds, motion pictures, and the motley street styles of Paris and London. “He became infatuated, excited and stimulated by London in the early seventies, during the punk era,” Di Trocchio says, “and he tends to incorporate that energy into his works.”

And as for his eulogy to Breton stripes and sailor men? “When Mr Gaultier was a child he used to love TV, particularly Popeye,” says Di Trocchio. “His grandmother also loved to dress him up as a sailor, so you’ll notice the various incarnations of nautical stripes seeping into this show.”

After Melbourne, the show treks to the Grand Palais in April 2015 – “the return of the enfant terrible in Paris!” Loriot quips – and after that, Gaultier will act on collaborations he previously had no time to explore. “He is a sponge that is inspired by everything,” Mr Loriot concludes, “He has designed furniture, hosted TV shows and released a dance track…he continues to collaborate on movies and performances. He will certainly remain busy!”

Indeed, Gaultier’s tremendous contribution to the fashion world will continue to transcend the runway and infiltrate into everyday culture. A lot of his couture has a presence out and about in the world,” says Di Trocchio, “He  intends for them to be worn outside of the catwalk. Nothing pleases him more than to see someone wearing a Jean Paul Gaultier on the street.”

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is on show from 17 Oct 2014 — 8 Feb 2015 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

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Image 1: William Baker, Kylie Minogue. Virgins (or Madonnas) collection, Immaculata gown. Jean Paul Gaultier, haute couture spring-summer 2007
net lace dress with large patterned embroidery and white linen cut-outs
© William Baker

Image 2: Andreja Pejic wearing a Jean Paul Gaultier corset. Photo: Stéphane Sednaoui