Imagine a geological accident which makes London join with Paris – but without either of them losing their individual indentities. The work of Jean Paul Gaultier, 62, is the fashion world’s equivalent of this. For forty years he has been engineering aesthetic earthquakes, combining the eclectic individualism of the street fashion we associate primarily with Britain (he first visited London around the age of 16 or 17) with the elegance of French design (on his 18th birthday he was taken on by Cardin). Now, in the first exhibition devoted to the work of this celebrated couturier, we have a chance to appreciate the contribution he has made to fashion sequin dresses .
Gaultier’s style is a reflection of the way pop culture and social forces have fed into each other over the past forty years, showing the relations between the sexes, and the way they have morphed – literally. The eye-catching aspect of androgyny – think Marlene Dietrich in top hat and tails in the 1933 film Morocco - has long made it a fashion selling-point, whilst changes in sexual roles have given it a social peg on which it can be hung. Hence his use of traditional feminine features, such as frills, in male fashion, and wide men’s suits for women. In addition, he’s adopted the street style which originated in Punk-era London from designers such as Vivienne Westwood (and its London female pioneers like Siouxsie Sioux and Sue Catwoman were experimenting with things like wearing underwear as outerwear back in the 1970s). All has been packaged by him with the traditional craftsmanship associated with haute couture.
So what do we see here? There are mannequins sporting clothing which combine the glamour of the Belle Époque with the street flamboyance of the King’s Road in its Punk/New Romantic glory days. There is camp galore, such as a gilded latex bodysuit from his ‘Mermaid’ collection of 2014. A perpetually- moving catwalk brings us a parade of further figures. There are photographs of his muses, such as models Terry Toy, Andrej Peji?, and Erin O’Connor, and singer Beth Ditto. There are photographs of his creations by top snappers including Herb Ritts, Stéphane Sednaoui, Cindy Sherman, and David LaChappelle (whose ‘Hollywood Confidential’ shows what seems to be a sex session in a sleazy motel being interrupted by a handcuff-wielding cop, a scene that could be straight out of a James Ellroy noir novel), whilst footage of catwalk shows, concerts, music videos and films and dance performances shows his clothes in action. The exhibition, stretching over two floors, is bathed in darkness, giving it a suitably night-club feel (there is a pop-up Bar Gaultier where you can slake your thirst).
At first glance, some of Gaultier’s work might seem to support the view that that concept
beloved of cultural commentators – the cutting-edge – can be a blunt instrument that’s not the sharpest tool in the box. But we should remember that it is show clothing – such as the famous conical bra and corsets he designed for Madonna to wear during her 1990 ‘Blond Ambition’ tour, and a stage costume designed for Kylie Minogue, which we see here – that he designs, not stuff for everyday practical living. At a time when female pop stars – or, rather, their stylists – seem to have an over-reliance on the stylistic dead-end of the near- naked body for commercial exposure, Gaultier’s work reminds us that the clothed body can be exciting. The fad for flesh will eventually fade, and alternative ways of catching the eye will be needed. This exhibition is a good place to start recovering the glamour of the exuberantly-covered body.
Tickets: £7.25 – £14.50, Under 12s: Free
Words: Nicky Charlish
Gaultier devotees may be interested in the Jean Paul Gaultier: Be My Guest exhibition at
the Fashion Space Gallery of the London College of Fashion
11 April – 31 May