Couple of months ago, on my way to Canada, I had a three days stopover in Paris. It was my first visit to the City of Light, and I was intent of seeing as much as possible for such a short visit. I had a whole list of possible sites to see, but the highlight of my visit I found on a small tourist website on my first night there. “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk”, the amazing retrospective exhibit I’ve missed few years earlier in Montreal, was having its final show here at the Grand Palais in Paris. The experience was quite exhilarating for me. After all Jean Paul Gaultier, along with John Galliano and Alexander McQueen are my all time favourite designers.
I don’t even recount how many hours I spent there going back and forth, trying to absorb every single detail and taking numerous pictures. Unfortunately, the light in the halls of the exhibit was very low and the pictures are not the best of quality, but even though, I decided that I want to share my experience with you. The wonderful narrative accompanying my pictures is reprinted mainly from an article by Susan Orlean, a staff writer of The New Yorker and from the exhibition’s booklet. Unfortunately, the show is over, but I hope I can convey to you at least some of the atmosphere and the magic that was almost palpable in the halls of the Grand Palais.
Jean Paul Gaultier is born in Arcueil, a suburb of Paris, on 24 April. His father was an accountant and his mother a clerk; he was an only child and were, as Gaultier describes it, of modest means. His grandparents lived nearby, and he spent as much time as he could with his maternal grandmother, Marie Garrabe, a widow who ran a home business that sort of prefigured wellness counselling: a hypnotist and beauty therapist, she provided massages, facials, laying on of hands, and marriage advice to a clientele of local women. She doted on Gaultier; she let him watch television whenever he visited, so he soaked up hours of movies and shows, including a broadcast of performances at the Folies Bergère, which a less permissive adult might have considered too adult for a little boy.
Marie also often allowed Gaultier to sit in on her consultations with clients. To women who confided that their husbands were losing interest in them, she recommended that they jazz up their wardrobes. The idea that fashion was powerful enough to perhaps save a relationship fascinated Gaultier. Sometimes, as he listened to the counselling sessions, he drew before-and-after sketches of the women. The “before” image was how they looked when they came to his grandmother, and the “after” was how he thought they would look if they took her advice, which usually meant that they were transformed into, say, Ava Gardner or Marilyn Monroe.
From the time he was a boy, Gaultier also experimented with appearances, and Marie was a more or less willing accomplice. According to Gaultier’s cousin Évelyne, one of those experiments resulted in Marie’s hair being dyed blue. In the catalogue of the Montreal exhibition, there is a hilarious photograph of a teen-age Jean Paul working on Marie’s hair. He looks pleased; she looks as if she were being held for ransom. Gaultier talks about his grandmother frequently. He appreciates the fact that she spoiled him, and he found her eccentricity inspiring.
For instance, Marie would go outside dressed just in her slip; she was that kooky. While he loved his mother, he says she was “less interesting” than his grandmother. But he also told me a story about how he had once quit a job, claiming that his grandmother had died. His mother knew about his fib, and, when he asked her to pick up his final paycheck, she decided to go dressed in mourning clothes. The gesture thrilled him. “I couldn’t believe she would do that!” he said. “That she would dress up like that, for me.”
The Gaultiers weren’t political, but they insisted on an openness and acceptance that was unusual for the time. Once, when Gaultier said something insulting about Arabs living in the neighborhood, his mother reprimanded him. “She said, ‘They are nice people, and you should shut up,’ ” he recalled. His mother already suspected that he was gay, and added that Jean Paul ought to think hard about being prejudiced, since he, too, could be the target of insults.
The insults did indeed come, at school, where Gaultier was the misfit kid who wasn’t good at any sports and felt rejected by the boys in his grade. Then he got caught doodling in class. After smacking him with a ruler, the teacher pinned the drawing to the back of his shirt and made him walk through all the classrooms as a shaming punishment. This discipline strategy had one fatal flaw: the drawing was of women in bras and fish-net stockings, inspired by the Folies Bergère shows that Gaultier had watched at his grandmother’s. Instead of being the object of ridicule, he became the object of great admiration among the boys. “It was like a passport,” he says. “I realized if I sketched, people would smile.”
The fact that Gaultier does haute couture at all is remarkable. His house is one of the eleven formally recognized by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. He began the business in 1996, at a time when more couture houses were closing than were opening. By then, he had been working in fashion for more than twenty-five years. He never received formal training as a designer. Instead, he started sending sketches to famous couture stylists at an early age. He had left high school early, in 1970, to work as a studio assistant for Pierre Cardin, the designer who pioneered space-age dresses, bubble skirts, and the modern tunic jacket beloved by the late Ferdinand Marcos. Gaultier idolized Cardin, who was uninterested in convention and unafraid of the couture syndicate, which is regulated by French law.
After the stint at Cardin, Gaultier worked for Jacques Esterel, and then for Jean Patou, a fusty old French house, where he was mocked for the unconventional way he had begun dressing. As he once said, “When I arrived in the morning wearing my riding boots, the old salesladies would say to me, ‘Where’s your horse? Did you leave it outside?”
The good thing about working for Patou, though, was that the experience mirrored Gaultier’s idea of what it would be like to work in fashion. Like many of his notions, this one sprang from a movie: the 1945 Jacques Becker film, “Falbalas,” about a philandering couturier who ends up falling in love with a friend’s wife, has a nervous breakdown, and jumps out a window with a mannequin. Gaultier loved the drama and the romance of the movie, and he also loved the world it described—the mansions where the couturiers worked, the ateliers staffed by legions of stern seamstresses, the precision and the detail of the work. He has said that if he hadn’t seen “Falbalas” he might not have become a designer. The House of Patou, headquartered in a spectacular eighteenth-century building, made him feel that he was living in his favorite film.
In 1974, Gaultier went back to work for Cardin, designing and producing ready-to-wear clothes for the American market. In the meantime, his boyfriend, Francis Menuge, encouraged him to establish his own line of ready-to-wear. Scraping together his own money, and relying on friends and family (his cousin Évelyne knit the sweaters, the concierge of his apartment building helped with the sewing, and Menuge made the accessories and handled the business arrangements), Gaultier presented his first collection in 1976, at a Paris planetarium. There were nine models, who wore dresses made from placemats, canvas, and upholstery fabric, and biker jackets with tutus. The clothes were sexy and witty, making use of iconic fashion motifs (toile, biker jackets, ballet costumes) in unpredictable ways and humble materials in reverential ways, and grafting unlikely components together.
That spirit has guided his work ever since, conveying his appreciation of anything hybrid and surprising, and, as he explained, “the question of what is beautiful and what is not beautiful.” One of the phrases Gaultier uses often is “Why not?,” which he delivers with his eyebrows lifted and his shoulders raised, as if he were a human interrobang. He says it most often to explain a lot of the decisions he makes with clothes. Why would someone wear a tutu with a biker jacket? Well, why not?
One section of the exhibition named The Odyssey, refers to what might be dubbed the “founding myths” of the Gaultier universe – it is the origin of certain recurring figures in his collections: that of the sailor character, who is both virile and strongly connoted sexually, and that of the siren, who embodies ultimate grace, hybridity, feminine seduction and trompe l’œil. Religious iconography and its “misappropriation” are also found in several of his collections.The designer is fascinated by the poetic world of Jean Genet and Jean Cocteau. His taste for the marinière, the striped jersey, became his emblem, and harks back to his childhood: “I have always loved the graphic, architectural appearance of stripes. My mother used to dress me in marine sweaters, as they go with everything. This is a basic, a garment that will probably never go out of style. There have been several influences: Coco Chanel, Picasso who wore it, but also Popeye and Tom of Finland. But it is the Rainer Fassbinder film Querelle(1982) that turned it into my favourite garment.” The iconic stripe embodying the brand would be rolled out in a thousand ways.
Many of the other young designers of his generation, such as Christian Lacroix and John Galliano, riffed on opulence and luxury; their clothes evoked a fantasy world of wealth and exclusivity. Gaultier was more interested in what he saw on the street: London kids with sky-high Mohawks and safety-pinned kilts, fetishists with full-body tattoos, African women in Paris who wore men’s overcoats on top of traditional dress. His fantasy world was one where ethnicity and gender were comfortably jumbled—a kimono could be spliced onto a double-breasted suit, or a ball gown could be made of camouflage fabric or, even better, of camouflage fabric that on closer inspection revealed itself to be colored bunches of nylon tulle, a cheap material usually used only for tutus and wedding dresses.
In London, which he discovered as a teenager, the designer was struck by the mixture of tradition and avant-garde permeating the English capital. He found inspiration in less conventional sources: dandies in bowler hats meet tattooed punks in Trafalgar Square; their outfits in which they mixed latex, leather, tartan, safety pins, lace and fishnet nourish the eye and the imagination of Gaultier.
The meeting point between these two worlds, between Paris and London, was the “punk cancan” that reappears throughout his career in the form of clothing embodying both class and non-conformism, classicism and spirit of rebellion. Feathers, boas and frilly cancan accessories rub shoulders with leather, jeans and plaid fabrics. Chic lies in the suit, dress or trousers... for men and women. Gaultier, fashion designer with a punk soul, was already inventing new aesthetic codes, without imposing anything but instead encouraging everyone to dress in a style of their own.
His choice of models was also part of his effort to conjure a world without boundaries. In the mid-seventies, fashion, was ruled by towering blondes, including Jerry Hall, Cheryl Tiegs, and Margaux Hemingway. Gaultier chose unconventional models of all races; some were bald or tattooed (or bald and tattooed), some overweight, some elderly, others extreme in some way. His beauty ideal was the fierce, androgynous French model Farida Khelfa; her appearance in his shows was the first time that a model of North African descent had had such prominence. There were only nine journalists at Gaultier’s first show, but the collection drew enough attention so that, within two years, his clothes were being sold at the influential Paris boutique Bus Stop, and were being championed by the Japanese apparel company Kashiyama.
Among the first pieces he designed were his tattoo “skins”: long-sleeved tight-fitting stretch-nylon tops that were printed with the bursting roses, pierced hearts, and tribal swirls of body art. But not everything that Gaultier designed was pure invention. He was also interested in tradition: not conformity for the sake of conformity but those traditions of clothing, such as the trenchcoat and the sailor shirt, which were timeless and, above all, very French. It’s just that he looked at them in a different way. What if you took a trenchcoat and made it into a dress? Or made it in red satin? Or made the sleeves into huge, draping bat wings or layered them with feathers? Well, why not?
Gaultier says that he met Madonna in 1987, after her concert at the Parc de Sceaux, outside Paris. He had been a fan from the moment he first saw her, singing “Holiday” on television. “I thought, Oh, my God! That look is incredible!” Gaultier recalled. “The fish-nets! The jewelry! The stomach! The little boots! Truly, it was the same spirit of what I was doing, a little rebellious. Then I saw her on the MTV music awards singing ‘Like a Virgin,’ wearing a wedding dress, with the masturbation. . . . American show business was very shocked, but she was fantastic!"
As it happened, Madonna was a fan of Gaultier’s. She wore one of his dresses, in black, to the 1985 American Music Awards and, a few months later, she wore the same dress, only in white, to the première of the film “Desperately Seeking Susan.”
A few years earlier, he had begun making his first corset dresses—boned, bra-topped corsets that continued past the hips to qualify as legal street wear. He had first seen a corset at his grandmother’s. It was salmon pink, and he was struck by the luscious fabric and the delicate stitching: “I felt so much admiration for it. My grandmother explained to me that she wore it to have a slim waist, and that she had to drink vinegar to give herself a stomach contraction so it could be laced tightly. Like so!” He drew in his breath sharply, to demonstrate how his grandmother would collapse her stomach. “It’s like theatre!” He really liked Madonna, and he told her that he would like to make a corset dress for her.
These days, an exposed bra strap or a lingerie-style top is commonplace, but it wasn’t in the early nineteen-eighties. Foundation garments were demonized as anti-feminist and subjugating, and were not flaunted—if they were worn at all. But his grandmother’s corset and her intricately seamed bra struck Gaultier as celebratory, rather than confining, as did any article of clothing that conveyed the idea of the body and of flesh. Then one of Gaultier’s employees came to work wearing a Chanel jacket, unbuttoned, over nothing but a lacy bra, which reminded him of his grandmother walking around in her slip. He decided to design some clothes that were an elaboration on her lingerie. In some of the pieces, he exaggerated the cups of the bra, so that they looked like inverted ice-cream cones or an African fertility carving. He called the collection Dada, and it was an immediate sensation.
The corset-dresses were analyzed for their politics—was dressing a woman in a corset enslaving or empowering?—and for their shock value. Gaultier says that he was surprised at the commotion. “I didn’t know there would be a reaction,” he said. “I did it quite naturally!” Pedro Almodóvar confirmed that Gaultier’s motivation was ingenuous. “He has an outrageous side, but he’s far too innocent and authentic to shock for shock’s sake. He’s very sexual but never dirty. He can be provocative, but he’s not a poseur, trying to be scandalous.”
By the mid-eighties, Gaultier had collaborated with a number of artists. He had designed costumes for the French actress Annie Girardot, and for performances choreographed by Régine Chopinot. But he had never collaborated with a star as big as Madonna, who asked him to design costumes—three hundred and fifty-eight of them—for Blond Ambition. The tour was a sold-out success around the world, and Gaultier’s costumes were acclaimed. In particular, the pink corset bodysuit, with exaggerated conical bra cups, which the blond, ponytailed Madonna wore over black menswear trousers, became one of the indelible images of the era.
When Gaultier was working on Blond Ambition, Francis Menuge was stricken by a devastating AIDS-related illness. Menuge had handled the business side of Gaultier’s work since his first show, and they had been a couple for fifteen years. When he died, in 1990, Gaultier found it hard to continue with the business they had created together. He thought about quitting fashion, but decided to stay with it, and even to look into designing a couture line, as Menuge had urged him to do for years. It was a huge commitment, one far more demanding than designing ready-to-wear clothing.
To be officially sanctioned by the couture syndicate, a designer must create made-to-order clothing for private clients, employ at least fifteen full-time craftspeople, and, twice a year, present a collection of at least thirty-five outfits, some for day and some for evening. Couture houses almost always operate at a loss; they exist to showcase the designers’ most unencumbered fantasies. Very few people buy couture, since one dress can easily cost fifty thousand dollars. Most customers can only afford something from a designer’s ready-to-wear line—or a perfume—whose brand has been made more valuable because he or she designs couture.
By the mid-nineties, the number of couture customers was shrinking, and there was a nagging feeling that the business was decadent, and dying. At first glance, Gaultier, would seem to be the last person interested in having a couture house, but he was the person who had grown up dreaming of “Falbalas,” and who, despite his rascally reputation, was deeply respectful of the French grand tradition.
In 1996, Gaultier says, he met with Bernard Arnault, the chairman of the fashion conglomerate LVMH, which owns Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, and Céline, among other brands. Gaultier thought that perhaps he would go to Dior, which was looking for a new head couturier. But Arnault wanted John Galliano, who had been a success at Givenchy, where he had spent the previous year, to take over Dior, and, according to Gaultier, Arnault wanted him to take Galliano’s place at Givenchy. Gaultier was dismayed. “I thought Givenchy was very bourgeois,” he said. “I loved Saint Laurent, Dior, Cardin. Givenchy was not a dream of mine. So I told Mr. Arnault no, I was not dreaming of Givenchy.”
Instead, he opened a couture house under his own name. He showed his first couture collection in 1997; Nicole Kidman bought one of the first pieces. “My God, Nicole Kidman!” he said. “I had a client!” He had thought he would do just the one collection, but he quickly discovered that he loved the freedom of designing couture, where, if he could imagine a full-body corset encrusted with Chantilly lace, or a unitard that was beaded with anatomical details, so that the wearer looked nude but sparkling, he could have it made. And he loved being in the atelier every day, tweaking and fussing over the pieces, working with the seamstresses and the hatmakers and the beaders and the corset-makers. (He also showed men’s couture—the first designer to do so.)
So he did another collection and then another. In the early years, he showed as many as a hundred and twenty outfits. “I have a defect,” he confessed, saying that he allows himself to explore too many ideas, and that he admired designers like Rei Kawakubo, whose collections explore a single, rigorous theme. “But I love it,” he said, excitedly. “What I love is the process! I love it!”
Even Gaultier’s riskiest moves have often paid off. For instance, he has famously advocated that men wear skirts, showing them for the first time in 1984, in a collection he called “Boy Toy.” Of course, the sight of a brooding male model, wearing a five-o’clock shadow and a skirt, set off all manner of comment. Gaultier says that he had no intention of making a statement or of being provocative; he was inspired by tradition, including the long aprons that waiters wear in brasseries, by togas and kilts, and by one of his male models, who had shown up for a fitting wearing a sarong, looking very masculine. Gaultier sold three thousand of the skirts, and continues to include them in his collections. “It was not a gay statement—quite the contrary,” he said. “Men were changing—they were not so macho. So I thought, Why not?”
In the summer of 2009, Nathalie Bondil, the director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, approached Gaultier with a proposal to mount an exhibition of his work. Before settling on Gaultier, Bondil had considered doing an Alexander McQueen exhibition. “He also had a very strong visual world,” Bondil said. “But Jean Paul Gaultier is like smiling sunshine. McQueen is the dark moon.”
Gaultier says that he was reluctant but Bondil convinced him that the exhibition could really reflect his way of looking at the world. “I wanted something very, very alive,” he said. “I didn’t want something dead—a museum can seem dead, the clothes are very old, it’s like a funeral.” He thought that if the exhibition could show his obsessions—“flesh, ethnicity, different kinds of global beauty, cinema, my interest with Madonna, tattoos, the Parisienne, the male as object, all that kind of thing”—he would consent.
Thierry Loriot, who is in charge of fashion and design projects at the museum and was the chief curator for the exhibition, interviewed almost everyone who has been instrumental to Gaultier’s career, and began looking through some eight thousand pieces that he had designed over the years. Loriot selected a hundred and forty for the show, along with accessories, photographs, archival materials, and seventy videos.
Gaultier’s favorite thing—besides sugar and couture—is film, and the exhibition ended up echoing his beloved “Falbalas.” He said, “At the end of ‘Falbalas,’ there is a beautiful scene—it’s the presentation of the couturier’s collection.” Then he described how the couturier, who is starting to go mad, stares at a mannequin, which suddenly becomes an apparition of the woman he loves. The way the mannequin came to life gave Gaultier the idea of making mannequins for the show that would also somehow come alive. “Why not?” he said, shrugging.
He had seen a theatre performance in Avignon that used video projections and blank mannequin faces to create a similar illusion, so he approached Denis Marleau and Stéphanie Jasmin, the directors of the experimental theatre company Ubu, and together they created thirty-two animated mannequins that talk, wink, smile, and sigh. The effect is startlingly realistic, but slightly unnerving. The first mannequin you see in the show is one of Gaultier, chatting and laughing and exclaiming, as he often does.
The show itself is mind-boggling; there is a gown made to look like the skin of a leopard, fashioned entirely from beads; thigh-high tights made of Chinese-print satin; mermaid dresses that drape into swirls of liquidy fabric; long skirts with mariner stripes, made entirely of tiny feathers. While I walked around the exhibition, most of what I heard people saying was: “It’s amazing.” The visitors that day were the kind of mixed bag that would have made Gaultier happy—a lot of fashionable young women, some gay couples, a few families with children, and a number of elderly people, who tilted their bifocals so that they could examine the fabrics more closely. Gaultier is thrilled with the way the exhibition has turned out. “It’s like a dream come true, in reality, for me,” he said. “It’s alive, it’s a story, it’s a movie. It is like a dream!”
These days, Gaultier lives alone, in Paris. He has a boyfriend who lives in Greece, and they see each other when they can. He doesn’t think that he will ever be as close to anyone as he was to Menuge. “He and I did something together,” he said. “We did my company. It was like our baby.” Most days, Gaultier works, then goes to the movies, then reads a book, then works some more. Facing his sixtieth birthday, with a major exhibition of his work travelling the world, has made him a little philosophical. He looks back at his old collections more than he used to.
For his couture collection, he now designs about forty-five outfits—more than the thirty-five that are required, but not the flood of clothes that he created in his first seasons. He has a staff of seamstresses and public-relations people and helpers, but he designs everything himself: the couture, the ready-to-wear, the jewelry, the menswear, the nautical collection, the accessories, and the packaging for the fragrances, as well as Piper-Heidsieck limited-edition champagne bottles, a knit collection, lingerie, and children’s clothes. The last really great assistant he had was Martin Margiela, who left, more than twenty years ago, with Gaultier’s blessing, to do his own collection. “In the future, to be honest, I’d love to delegate some of my work,” Gaultier said. “But I can’t teach someone. I have to find someone who matches my sensibility.”
Gaultier fiercely loves difference. Seeking it out in worlds still impermeable to the standardisation of fashion, he respects individuality and loves all that is unusual. This observation has resulted in a new aesthetic, where the garment embodies the dialogue between cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities, beyond geographic boundaries, religious beliefs and language barriers.Gaultier blurs the boundaries, creating hybrids halfway between urban world and wild territories, between tradition and modernity, between animality and refinement. Observer of his time, the creator denounces the injustices of society and taboos in his shows, while highlighting the beauty of difference in his silhouettes.
Like in a world à la Prévert, we find bullfighters’ bolero jackets, the shtreimel and long sombre coats of rabbis, gilets from Mongolia, geisha kimonos, flamenco skirts and African masks. They combine with elements and materials typical of the Gaultier wardrobe like corsets, leather, vinyl and glitter, brilliantly illustrating how the mingling of peoples allows enriching encounters. The unconventional couturier says of his work that he is midway between Malraux’s Musée imaginaire and Dadaism: he
brings together everything he loves, mixes, matches, collects and transgresses, and then synthesises this approach into a single garment.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier. From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is a phenomenon that has wowed over a million visitors on its international tour. In its tenth stop in Paris, after Montréal, Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Brooklyn, London and Australia, the show is a high point in Jean Paul Gaultier’s career.