At the opening reception for the The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaulter: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, the designer related how he and his team had been working on the exhibition for over a year. It shows.
The show is an amazing testament to one man's vision and his unswerving pursuit of excellence. Not only in content but, as you might expect from a designer who over the last thirty-odd years has pushed the boundaries of what defined a fashion show, also in presentation. 'Amazing' was a word that I heard over and over again as I walked through the exhibition, from the very first mannequin wearing a vast striped Deauville-style sun hat that doubled as a jacket to the mannequin next to her: a rather saucy sailor whose animated face winked and flirted as guests gazed upon his loveliness - he was dressed in a ragged shipwreck-style matelot top and snug button-front sailor pants. As guests wandered through the exhibition so the eyes of many of the mannequins followed them around the room. Other mannequins sweet-talk and serenade. A genius idea that had many guests swooning left, right and centre. But, do not be seduced. While the mannequins are indeed amazing (each one is a character in their own right, just like the models that walk down the designer's catwalks), the clothes are even more so. Quite simply, this is a staggering body of work and beautifully curated display of workmanship.
There is so much to see and (re)discover. I do not want to say too much specifically about the content of the exhibition but some things to look out for include Gaultier's childhood threadbare teddy bear (with pointy brassiere and smeared make-up), a mannequin shrouded in a woven facsimile of the designer, a corset dress constructed from old flesh pink underpinnings (a bra cup becoming an elbow pad), a stencilled Mongolian coat, a suit that is a combination of crocodile and crochet accessorised with tights that are a technically mystifying blend of both, 3D icons embroidered on evening gowns, a garter belt for holding a packet of Gauloise, tulle camouflage, holy lace and several riffs on the Eiffel Tower and hussars jacket.
Gaultier says that he has added extra pieces specifically for the British show - cue a bevy of Punk inspired Mohawks and Union Jacks. "I've known London for so many years," he said at the opening, describing the people he had been lucky enough to meet as 'eccentric' and 'extraordinary'. "I've been a long time coming to London to have fun. I get a lot of inspiration from here. It's been a f**king great time," he enthused in the vernacular of his hosts. The English and the Japanese, he said were the first to appreciate his work back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Later in the evening he name-checked British models Amanda Cazalet, Erin O'Connor and Jade Parfitt (all in attendance). "I have been inspired by you!" he said.
The designer hoped that the retrospective was 'the contrary of a funeral' and, indeed, it is very much a celebration of a life dedicated to deconstructing the rules of dressing-up and rewriting the last word on chic. Ensembles from various collections down the years are juxtaposed, sometimes in the same outfit, revealing how threads of certain ideas are central to the designer's repertoire (gender and sexuality, glamour and power), explored and reimagined with ever inventive results: turn a corner and a ballgown beaded with a life-size leopard skin is breathtaking in its bravado, until a few steps further a leopard skin shrug of a coat turns out to be completely constructed from feathers.
It is this kind of masterful accomplishment that demonstrates how Gaultier has united the exacting techniques and skills of yesteryear haute couture (his early training was with Patou), with a farsighted vision that has attempted to challenge every accepted preconceived notion of propriety and good taste while high kicking over every trace. Yet this entertainer is a polished professional. A brocade jacket adorning a punk rocker (complete with holey knit sweater that swathes the head and spikey cockscomb hairdo) appears to be destroyed by Jackson Pollock meets The Clash paint splatters. On closer inspection the drips and daubs turn out to be an intricate woven design of silk and metallic thread. A 'nude' sequin bodysuit worn by Gael Garcia Bernal in Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education and featuring a beaded triangle of pubic hair typifies the designer's risqué sense of fun, apparent throughout his archive.
This exhibition is a triumphant tribute to a man who has sold the world a different way to dress up fancy. It is amazing, astounding, astonishing, audacious, ad infinitum.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 9 April to 25 August 2014