When the de Young Museum first asked Jean Paul Gaultier to have a retrospective exhibition, he turned them down. After all, the word retrospective means to look backwards, and usually implies glass cases enclosing works from artists who have seen their prime come and go. As he says, retrospectives are for dead artists, and Gaultier is not dead and neither are his fashions.
He eventually changed his mind and as a compromise, he worked with the curators to present an exhibition bursting with energy, life and movement. He creates clothing with a particular person in mind — someone full of energy who lives an alternative lifestyle, taking risks and reveling in life’s thrills each and every day.
Fashion designer retrospectives have recently been a growing trend in the museum world. Alexander McQueen’s show at The Met generated significant buzz and drew record crowds. Balenciaga, Vivienne Westwood and Yves Saint Laurent have all had retrospectives at the de Young over the past few years.
“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” however, brings a new sense of vivacity to fashion exhibits. Mannequins float down an automated runway, displaying the fashions as they move and flow. In the first room, the viewer is immediately bombarded by mannequins that talk, smile, blink and sing. Using cutting-edge technology, videos of models’ faces are projected onto the mannequins, imparting real personality to the white manufactured figurines. In this first room, one of the figures is Gaultier himself. He introduces the exhibit to the viewer, instructing them to “notice the details.”
Whether asserted overtly or embedded below the surface, Gaultier’s presence is felt in the entire exhibit. Photographs and video footage of his fashion shows are shown throughout — multimedia works together with the clothing to create an image of globalized street fashion that bursts through all previously held fashion conventions and formulas. As a designer that was dubbed the “enfant terrible” of French couture fashion, it comes as no surprise that his fashions aren’t for the everyday pedestrian.
The women and men for whom his creations are intended bend gender standards, travel to far-off destinations and perform in sold-out concert tours. (Gaultier designed Madonna’s famed cone bra for her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour.) In a classified advertisement he released in France, Gaultier wrote, “Non conformist designer seeks unusual models — the conventionally pretty need not apply.”
Every meticulously crafted detail evokes gritty street fashion from London, Paris or even San Francisco. Each collection approaches a different aspect of the lifestyle of his crazy, eccentric clientele. A piece of red chiffon cascades down a purple silk dress from a glass heart-shaped broach, intimating a saintly virgin. A tribal printed jacket, fur backpack and white puffy hat evoke travels in Mongolia.
The show has only appeared in a select few locations, but its San Francisco arrival imparts new relevancy to his exhibit. At the height of the AIDS pandemic in San Francisco, Gaultier was making provocative androgynous clothing including skirts for men, which he says has nothing to do with transgenderism. To him, skirts are functional, comfortable, attractive articles of clothing, and suitable to both men and women.
The show is undoubtedly brave and invariably strange. Gaultier not only introduces us to these women and men who wear his clothes, but also demands we intimately get to know them. As Gaultier constructs these idealized personas, he declares his vision for a futuristic world that has progressed beyond current preoccupations to a world populated by feisty, ultra-glamorous fashionistas, who are unafraid to shock or scare others with their style.
Anna Carey is the lead visual art critic.
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