Inside the world of Jean Paul Gaultier

Fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier comes to London with a new major retrospective at the Barbican and an additional exhibition of ephemera at the Fashion Space Gallery. It’s a rare and fascinating opportunity to get inside the creative mind of one of fashion’s most daring designers, whose work celebrates the pleasure of looking, sexual empowerment and the diversity of real beauty…

Fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier comes to London with a new major retrospective at the Barbican and an additional exhibition of ephemera at the Fashion Space Gallery. It’s a rare and fascinating opportunity to get inside the creative mind of one of fashion’s most daring designers, whose work celebrates the pleasure of looking, sexual empowerment and the diversity of real beauty…

“The exhibition is a study in pure creativity,” says Jane Alison, head of visual arts at the Barbican. “All that he does is infused with a genuine love of life, which I find deeply infectious. But the humanity and humour which are his trademarks are also underpinned by discipline, professionalism, and a skill that is second to none.”

The Barbican show, entitled The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, explores Gaultier’s exuberant inventiveness, his long-standing reputation as fashion’s enfant terrible, and his embrace of cultural and sexual difference and beauty in all its shapes and sizes.

The show is split into eight thematic sections – The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier, Punk Cancan, Muses, The Boudoir, Metropolis, Eurotrash, Skin Deep and Urban Jungle. Each features a series of mannequins dressed in Gaultier’s dazzling apparel. Some have faces projected onto their heads, unnervingly bringing the figures to life, as they blink, sing, chat and appear to make eye contact with visitors. Originally touring from Montreal Museum of Fine Art, the Barbican show also includes three new rooms for London, devoted to Gaultier’s muses, including Kylie, Madonna, Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse.

Alongside these haute couture living dolls, there’s a mechanical catwalk; archive video footage from the shows; some beautiful fashion photography, from the likes of Stéphane Sednaoui, David LaChapelle, Pierre et Gilles, and Sølve Sundsbø amongst others; Eurotrash memorabilia; and even the spitting image Gaultier puppet, on show for the first time.

The vast array of dramatically-lit couture, sits tantalizingly within arms reach, in this exciting chance for visitors to experience the work in the flesh.”If you think about it, it’s easier to see a Van Gogh or a Monet, than it is to see haute couture. You have the impression that you see haute couture because you see many illustrations, and great photos, but you don’t have the opportunity to see the skills, to see the objects, the pieces,” says Director of Montreal Museum of Fine Art Nathalie Bondil.

“It’s not really about fashion, its about his humanist vision. And I want you to see it as a really open minded, tolerant vision of our society,” she says, describing the “magical and meaningful” translation of his ethos into the exhibition. “And the animated mannequins, they pay tribute to the people who have inspired him, the people he loves, by making them human.”

In conversation with the show’s curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot prior to the preview, self-taught Gaultier traces his love for sketching glamourous women back to school-age, and describes his incredibly wide and diverse set of influences – seeing his grandmother’s corsets at a young age, which he saw as “abstract” objects; the theatricality of the Rocky Horror Picture Show; and his Hasidic Jew inspired collection of men’s skirts. He talks passionately about his long love affair with London and “its characters – the different and beautiful”. First visiting the city in the 70s, he was inspired by the subversive spirit, humour and radical experimentation of the countercultures he discovered, particularly the punk scene.

Alongside the Barbican show, is another smaller exhibition of Gaultier’s graphic design work, Be My Guest, at Fashion Space Gallery, part of the London College of Fashion, curated by Alison Moloney from LCF, alongside Loriot. Having worked with the Barbican in the past, LCF approached them about organizing a satellite show, which Fashion Space has put on before in collaboration with other major museums’ fashion exhibitions, such as Yohji Yamamoto at the V&A in 2011. Working with the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, and Maison Jean Paul Gaultier Paris, the Fashion Space show was put together, on loan, from Gaultier’s extensive archive.

“When you have an exhibition of such an intense and dense body of work, at the Barbican, how do you begin to tell a different story, because we didn’t want to recreate a mini version of a major exhibition. We wanted to tell a different story about the same man and his work,” says Moloney.

The show features iconic ad campaigns from throughout Gaultier’s career, and invitations which have never been on show before, so it’s a rare opportunity to access these usually unseen relics and often lost fragments of creative activity, from iconic moments in the history of fashion.

The work demonstrates how, from the outset, Gaultier translated his vision for his collections into all his creative work. “Its great for the students to see how from the beginning of his career, Gaultier developed his own advertising campaigns and invitations, so they can think about how they too can brand their own image,” says Moloney. “And I think its nice for a wider public who never have access to seeing such material, because the invites were only ever sent to industry insiders.”

Not all the invitations have survived over the years, but the exhibition includes ones from seminal shows, such as the Dada collection where he presented his corset bras and jumpsuits for the first time. Moloney’s personal favourite is the ad campaign for A Wardrobe For Two, with a figure dressed in the classic blue and white Breton stripes, and a ‘crack’ down the middle of the image. “It’s from when he was first talking about his ideas around androgyny. You need to look twice at the image and then you see that it’s a man and a women. It’s so simple but its genius,” she says.

They decided to show ad campaigns from the 80s and early 90s because this was when Gaultier was photographing the campaigns himself, working closely with his collaborator, and former boyfriend, the late Francis Menuge, with whom he established the business.

“The concepts for the invitations to the catwalk shows were devised a month in advance and referenced the inspiration for the collection. The Constructivist or Russian Collection show invite perfectly captures the inspiration behind the collection which was based on this art movement.” Moloney says. “The Frida Kahlo tribute collection ad campaign was illustrated by Fred Langlais who has worked with Gaultier in his atelier for many years and reflects the diverse approaches and styles which the designer adopted.”

Part of Gaultier’s appeal is his relationship to visual culture; how he continues to work within a creative feedback loop drawing from a melting pot of high and low culture, religion, art movements, politics, and more, and in turn his work transcends the fashion world. As echoed in these shows, he has the power to inspire creative minds whatever your background, and remind us that humour and risk, alongside skill and discipline, are often what produce truly unforgettable work.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk runs until 25 August at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. Jean Paul Gaultier: Be My Guest runs until 31 March at Fashion Space Gallery, London College of Fashion. See and


Picture credits

Image 1: Ad campaign for the Tribute to Frida Kahlo collection, 1998 (Jean Paul Gaultier/LCF). Images 2-6: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk exhibition (Barbican). Image 7:Jean Paul Gaultier, 1990. Images 8-9: From the Barbican exhibtion. Image 10:Body corset worn by Madonna (Jean Paul Gaultier). Image 11: Tanel Bedrossiantz, by Paolo Roversi, 1992 (Jean Paul Gaultier). Image 12: By Miles Aldridge (Jean Paul Gaultier). Image 13: By Stéphane Sednaoui for The Face, 1989. Image 14: Advertising campaign for the fin de siècle collection, 1995 (Jean Paul Gaultier/LCF). Image 15-19: From the LCF exhibition. Image 20: Invite for Constructivist (or Russian) collection, 1986-1987 (Jean Paul Gaultier). Image 21:Advertising campaign for the Elegance Contest and Casanova at the Gym collections, 1992 (Jean Paul Gaultier/LCF). Image 22: The Concierge is in the Staircase collection, 1998 (Jean Paul Gaultier/LCF). Image 23: Advertising campaign for A Wardrobe for Two collection, 1985 (Jean Paul Gaultier/LCF). Image 24: The Virgin with the Serpents (Kylie Minogue), 2008, by Pierre et Giles (Jean Paul Gaultier). Image 25: “Aow Tou Dou Zat” single covers, design by Jean-Baptiste Mondino (Jean Paul Gaultier). Image 26: Invitation to the Dance with Elena Sudakova, Numéro, 2008, by Sølve Sundsbø (Jean Paul Gaultier)

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