Jean Paul Gaultier says that when he was asked to do a museum exhibition of his work he initially resisted. He thought, respectfully, that museums were for dead artists. He does not consider himself an artist and (thankfully) he’s not dead. But when he reconsidered, he knew that his exhibition would be different. It would have to be more than just displaying clothes. “Oh but, I want it to be alive and not like funerals.”
Alive it is.
I was fortunate enough to be part of a preview gathering and in the introduction we were told that the exhibit was really more of an installation, a world premiere that incorporates multimedia. That didn’t make much of an impression on me. Multimedia is old hat these days. I thought Oh, well perhaps the mannequins move. But as I approached the gallery my gaze did not rest, as I expected, on the fashions but instead I immediately focused in the mannequins’ moving lips, shifting eyes, expressions … faces.
Thirty-five mannequins in the exhibit have recorded faces projected onto them. Video projectors discretely hang from the ceiling providing the faces of models and actors talking, singing, reciting and some just looking around the room. It is truly something to experience.
Gaultier is known as the bad boy of fashion for challenging societal conventions through his designs, so it fits that he would be the first to shake up an exhibition experience. I heard some fellow attendees call the faces creepy and unsettling but in a fun way, like a Disneyland ride. Everyone was stunned at first and it took time to adjust to the incongruity but that’s not to say people didn’t love it. I loved it, although I have to say the faces are a distraction. I was fascinated by them and how real yet unreal they are. Luckily I soon realized I was ignoring the fashions and went back around a second time.
Speaking of the fashions, there are 130 ensembles chosen by Gaultier and organized into sections. They span his 35 years in the business and include variations on his signature Breton stripes, mermaids and virgins, the punk period, and multicultural influences.
Gaultier was born in a Paris suburb in 1952. As a child he became interested in fashion, influenced by film and his stylish grandmother. Using his teddy bear as a model, he designed many an outfit including what later would become the cone bra for Madonna. (BTW, the tattered teddy is still around and in the exhibit.)
What I appreciate about Gaultier is he takes classic fashion and turns it upside down encouraging us as the audience, buyer, admirer to rethink what we know. A couple of my favorites in the exhibit are a gown with a leopard appliqué made of beads (pictured right) and a simple georgette black shirt dress with mother-of-pearl buttons acting as the pin stripes (pictured below).
I really like what Gaultier did with plaids in the 80s mixing and matching and making a British old-school staple a stylish punk statement. His creative combinations are fabulous – knits with tulle, stripes in lace, skirts for men, tin can bracelets. Gaultier says beauty can be found everywhere. I say he makes everything exciting.
Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the de Young Museum in San Francisco now through August 19, 2012.
(All photos copyright 2012 by Moya Stone. Please do no use without permission.)