The Frenchman, the legacy, his teddy-bear and her cone brassiere

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You don’t go to a Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition just for the clothes. But my, aren’t they just something else? And upon entering the no- holds-barred Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From The Sidewalk to the Catwalk (STC), it won’t take long for Gaultier’s colossal output to really astonish you. Showing the enfant terrible in the City of London’s Barbican Centre, it’s clear that the iconoclastic expo is at home amid the bitter-sweet brutalist paradise of the looming multi-arts hub. This makes the first major exhibition devoted to the unlikely, yet rightfully acclaimed, French couturier all the more engaging, and that’s without even getting started on the trompe l’oeil idiosyncrasies that compose STC, be mindful to engage your sense of humour though, you’ll need it.

It’s the charismatic crux of STC that really demarcates the designer’s daring inventiveness, and concentrates the kind of charisma fashion is often starved of, makes it one of the most exciting stand-out exhibitions this year. Pinpointing each of Gaultier’s influences with a sublime wit is an audacious undertaking, accomplished with ease thanks to the theatrical installations that house around 165 articles of his boundary-breaking design, clocking up thousands of hours of assiduous workmanship under one roof.

Setting aside at least two hours to trace the wonders that stimulated Gaultier’s irreverent creative development is imperative, and the eight thematic sections, which range from Punk Can Can, to The Boudoir, and the all-important Muses, without discounting the divinely florid Eurotrash, prove that above elevating everyday dress, Gaultier raises the standard of the everyday exhibit. An off-kilter brand of sass emerges in every minute aspect sure to hook the visiter in an instance, as one crowds, along with other onlookers, around overhead screens relaying clips of cinematic contributions, and his muses, such as the Spanish actor Rossy de Palma, the Pedro Almodóvar stalwart, displaying her Modigliani beauty on the Great Journey catwalk, and a coy Dita Von Teese disrobing to unveil intricate corseted lingerie on show below.

Next to this, exhibition goers should prepare themselves to hoot and howl at the jaw-dropping sight of unnerving mannequin effigies personified with video projection allowing them not only to converse with visitors, but to serenade them and even flash a lascivious wink. If this sounds like a gimmick, this is Gaultier, and this is personality.

Moving on, among the many hardcore notions of femininity the industry’s comédien extraordinaire has established throughout his over 30 years of outré escapades, the conical bra is undeniably the epitome. At STC you will see many fascinating variations, but above all else, Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition corsetry screams transgression at the highest pitch, and is – rather predictably – presented as one of Gaultier’s crowning achievements. Gaultier’s marvellous hyper-sexualised engineering for the Queen of Pop then comes further into focus when set against his lifelong penchant for the Boudoir practice, and his perception of the culture surrounding the associated powdery pink cushioned aesthetic.

Around this point, Nana’s presence at the STC is a sentimental touch. Nana, if you didn’t already know, is Gaultier’s cuddly childhood teddy-bear plaything which was the first figure subjected to a mock-up of the cone bra treatment, and the rest is history. But in many ways it’s not history, for you’ll see that Gaultier’s work is always beyond space and time because, despite a ceaseless interest in the society he is living in, his ground-breaking designs serve fundamentally to bring joy. Some of the most iconic fashion images of our time are interspersed from beginning to the end of the show to render this logic in photographs by the likes of Pierre et Giles, Miles Aldridge, Herb Ritts and Andy Warhol, and much like the rest of the exhibit, they are not to be overlooked.

Gaultier’s fluent contribution to culture over the previous decades has been stitched together with a similar composed, yet typically expressive, loquacity in The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, one that ensures his standing as a “true artist”, to quote the Barbican, and my, aren’t they just right on target.

by Liam Feltham

Images courtesy of The Barbican

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk runs until August 25, 2014 at the Barbican Centre



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