If you're a fashion aficionado from the Netherlands, you've probably visited the Thierry Mugler exhibition at De Kunsthal. I also rushed to Rotterdam to feast my eyes on the mesmerizing creations from the hand of Mugler. This reminded me of an even larger exhibition at De Kunsthal about another legendary couturier: the fashion world's l'enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier. Back in 2013 I reviewed this exhibition for Volt Magazine.
Miles Aldridge for Jean Paul Gaultier
‘It’s not a funeral exhibition,’ is how Jean Paul Gaultier introduces The World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, an exclusive selection of his famous creations, which is now on view at The Kunsthal, Rotterdam. The legendary couture designer initially imagined the deck of a ship to be the most fitting framework for his pieces of art. Instead, the more flexible museum space in The Kunsthal allowed Jean- Paul Gaultier and his team – most notably the exhibition’s curator, Thierry-Maxime Loriot – to pioneer with the implantation of technology in curating and creating a theatre within an exhibition.
Gaultier’s vision has made him a natural for cross-disciplinary work with film directors such as Pedro Almodovar, Luc Besson and Peter Greenaway. His stage designs have graced Kylie Minogue, Tina Turner, Lady Gaga and Madonna. His fashion has been worn by Catherine Deneuve, Bjork and Grace Jones. It is great to see the amount of space allocated to show off the fashion photography of his work by photographers and artists such as Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, David LaChapelle, Richard Avedon, Robert Doisneau, Mario Testino, Peter Lindbergh and many more.
From the start of the exhibition the beauty of his design genius is simply breath taking. Just when you think you can’t possibly experience this overwhelming sensation one more time, another window into the world of Jean Paul Gaultier opens. Even though it almost seems impossible to take in anything else than the creations, it’s the way in which they are displayed that makes this exhibition truly unique. It soon becomes clear what Gaultier meant with a ‘lively exhibition’ once the faces projected on to the mannequins start to wink, seduce, speak and sing. The already surreal experience of looking at fashion ripped from its natural context – the living body – becomes surreal in completely the opposite way. A dozen celebrities, including Gaultier himself lent their faces – and in some cases also their voices – to the project.
Jean Paul Gaultier, photo Rainer Torrado
The mannequins tell the story behind the creations. To illustrate Gaultier’s sexual liberation of women, a young mannequin stealthily undresses down to her corset when no one is looking at her. “I love to be beautiful, for myself,” she says, clearly feeling confident about her sensuality. Creation connects with inspiration, once she starts humming along with Micheline Presle in Falbalas which is displayed next to her; this was the film that motivated Jean Paul Gaultier to become a couturier.
It goes without saying that Madonna’s famous cone bra is present in the exhibition. But amusingly, someone much more precious wore it before her. Jean Paul Gaultier’s teddybear Nana is on display, the erstwhile fit model for the cone bra years and years before. The poor bear doesn’t have many hairs left, but her iconic cones still point proudly in the air.
Jean Paul Gaultier, corset by kind permission by Madonna, photo Emil Larsson
From every single exhibition room it becomes clear that Jean Paul Gaultier truly is a pioneer with a vision ahead of his time. The Punk Can Can room shows how he combined inspiration from the raw energy of London’s punk rockers, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s boutique ‘Sex’ and the David Bowie movement in haute couture while The Metropolis room shows an overview of Gaultier’s work for films, concerts and theatres and highlights his collaborations with artists. Not to forget The Odyssee room dedicated to the Breton stripe, a trend that is synonymous with Gaultier and which never really goes out of fashion. Jean Paul Gaultier wears the iconic stripe himself, being the captain on a ship full of gorgeous mermaids. ‘Fashion is a reflection of desire,’ is how he expresses his vision. The world of Jean Paul Gaultier certainly is!
There is of course an equally breathtaking catalogue. The first ever monograph on Jean Paul Gaultier with more than 550 illustrations spread over 424 pages also contains 50 interviews with Gaultier’s many muses, colleagues and celebrities including Boy George, Polly Mellen, Tom Ford and Dita Von Teese. Articles by Valerie Steele, Suzy Menkes and Florence Müller make this book a very definite must-have.
Words by Juliette Sijnja
Published at Volt Magazine