When Jean Paul Gaultier greeted the press at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts last week, he announced that he became a fashion designer because he "wanted to be loved". Perhaps it's not the most radical revelation, but the timing of his statement was perfect. Gaultier was in the Canadian city to open the first international exhibition devoted to him and his many collections. It's the most comprehensive presentation of the designer's works to date and one that will ultimately make visitors fall in love with the work of the l'enfant terrible.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk opened at the Museum of Fine Arts last Friday. The museum commissioned the show to celebrate 35 years of the designer's own label and with help from the Maison Jean Paul Gaultier, they have produced a major presentation of Gaultier's work that includes 140 of his creations, mainly from his haute couture collections. The exhibition will run until 2 October before embarking on an international tour that will include San Francisco, Madrid and the Netherlands.
It gives a rare insight into Gaultier's craftsmanship and expertise of avant-garde fashion. However, in the run up to its opening, Gaultier has remained adamant that this presentation is not a retrospective. Instead, the animated mannequins dressed in his designs highlight how the exhibition is a contemporary art installation in its own right; what Gaultier does, as Andy Warhol once said, "is really art".
On entering the museum, visitors are introduced to the Skin Deep theme. It includes sailors, mermaids and virgins, represented by Gaultier's famous nautical stripes and religious motifs. A talking sailor (Gaultier himself) welcomes guests in French. He stands next to a singing mannequin dressed in the crocheted dress worn by Kylie Minogue in her Like a Drug video in 2007 and on his right side there's another talking model showcasing the mermaid-inspired dress that Marion Cotillard wore to the Oscars last year.
It's not simply the array of designs that take your breath away. The interactive element throughout the exhibition is innovative and unique and, as Nathalie Bondil, Chief Curator of the museum explains, reflects Gaultier's "great humanity". Bondil continues, "Beyond the technical virtuosity resulting from technical expertise in the various skills involved in haute couture...he offers an open-minded vision of society, a crazy, sensitive, funny, sassy world in which everyone can assert his or her identity". In addition, when talking about his work, Gaultier said, "what interests me about couture is being able to bring my ideas to life". The animated mannequins throughout the exhibition, from The Boudoir themed room to the final Metropolis, all pay tribute to Gaultier's humanist vision in precisely that way; his designs are literally alive.
Many of the pieces on show have never been exhibited before. They span Gaultier's career from the early 1970s to 2010, including sketches, stage costumes and rare prints from the likes of Warhol, David LaChapelle, Mario Testino, Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. The iconic corsets from Madonna's Blond Ambition tour are just one of the many highlights of the exhibition. There's also the cape look corset dress worn by Grace Jones at the International Rock Awards in 1989, a group of mannequins with mohawks, some of which are dressed in Gaultier's first spring/summer collection from 1977 and the padded nylon dress in neon green from the autumn/winter 1995 Riders and Horsewomen of Modern Times collection to catch your eye.
And that's just a fraction of the work on show. Bondil refers to Gaultier as "a contemporary artist who goes beyond fashion" and this is made clear at every point in the exhibition. Whether it's the staggeringly intricate 'La Mariée' or the more recent Punk Cancan dress from his last couture collection, it's impossible to not admire the beauty of each and every one of the ensembles that fill the exhibition.
However, arguably the most poignant piece is Nana, the teddy bear Gaultier treasured as a child. Complete with cone-shaped breasts cut out of newspaper, this is where it all began. Gaultier has made it clear that his family, particularly his grandmother, were important in shaping his career as a fashion designer and while the exhibition is expansive, it doesn't forget that.
If you can't make it to Montreal to see the show, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has created a catalogue of Gaultier's work to accompany the exhibition. Look out for it in September when it goes on sale internationally. Visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to find out more about The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.