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Parsons the New School for Design

From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk: Jean Paul Gaultier at the Brooklyn Museum

“I am proud and honored that my exhibition will be presented in Brooklyn,” Gaultier says, “where the true spirit of New York lives on.”[1] In an interview, Gaultier remembers one of his first trips to New York: an entire day walking from the Village to Harlem. The exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum itself resembles this personal experience of the acclaimed French fashion designer. Moving from one collection to the next in the space mimics the feeling of leaving one New York neighborhood for another, especially during the initial border crossing, when an acute awareness sets in that there is something both consistent yet imperceptibly different about the surrounding scene. “Jean Paul Gaultier: from the Catwalk to the Sidewalk” showcases 130 haute couture and prêt-à-porter ensembles from the designer’s past and present, and the movement from one of the seven thematic sections into the next carries with it a unifying sense of the designer’s imagination and identity while pushing its viewer into a new neighborhood with its own distinct life-force.

Next time you see Madonna, be sure to thank her for loaning her conical bras and corsets circa the 1990 Blond Ambition and 2012 MDNA tours. The iconic corset-style bodysuit designed by Gaultier for the singer is emblematic of more than its pop fame; it is a testament to Gaultier’s conceptual and visual risk-taking. He created his first cone bra in the 1960’s, modeled and worn not by Madonna but by his childhood teddybear, Nana. The anecdote reminds us of the designer’s early onset determination; that he didn’t abandon or relinquish the designs that were equally as provocative as his manner of thinking can certainly be seen as an underlying force grinding the gears through his entire creative enterprise. A facet of continuity amidst Gaultier’s diversity is this thread of commitment to his own ideas, and it’s easy to see how many of his most iconic and celebrated creations would fall short of the mark should the designer have let up even the smallest bit of his radical commitment to actualizing his ideas.

The “Cages” couture collection of autumn-winter 2008-2009 highlights the cylindrical shapes prominent in the boudoir pieces; the various straps and cutouts recall the human ribcage. The torso becomes a fixation for Gaultier, and his “Skin Deep” collection reveals elements of this exultation of the mid-body as well as the body’s internal structures; garments in this collection were designed for the most part to aggrandize the human body or to reproduce a nudeness that runs deeper than the skin. Stylized veins and blood vessels run along flesh-colored and skintight pieces, turning the body and its physical beauty inside out. The photograph of Naomi Campbell taken by Paolo Roversi in 1994 is recognizable, matched in infamy by the bodysuit that ironically makes Campbell appear to look as if she’s wearing nothing at all. Gaultier masters the play between nudity and exposure, proving himself to be a master of classic illusion as equally as he is an innovator of appropriating visually deceptive techniques in a way haute couture hadn’t yet acclimated to.

Gaultier is not subtle with his influences, and overt homage paid to cultural or mythic heritage helps a viewer unfamiliar with the designer’s collections feel at home in a world that otherwise feels fantastic. Bedouin, Orthodox Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Nordic, and additional ethnic influences comprise Gaultier’s “Urban Jungle” collection. The collection grounds the viewer in an avant-garde “It’s a Small World” universe where the designer’s departures from cultural fashion norms are mediated by a cohesive authenticity teeming from the varied set of influences which recalls his journey once upon a time from the bottom of Manhattan to the very top; the concatenation of ensembles is itself a walk from one neighborhood or cultural milieu to the next. The sense that the creative energy motivating the varying aesthetics both changes and remains fundamentally the same is held in tact, much like the move from one quarter to its distinct neighbor nonetheless doesn’t make one doubt that they are still in New York, no matter how contrasting the elements of the neighborhoods establish themselves to be.

As a designer who got his start in the fashion world at the age of eighteen, it’s hard not to feel like the exhibition in part plays out a sort of evolution and maturation. The natural fascinations we have with the human body and the emotions experienced while seeking its limits and capabilities are reflected in the various stages of Gaultier’s work. The emotional confidences as well as complexities underlying his inversions and experimentation with the skin and human body as anatomical above all else calls upon a very different fascination with the body than, say, body and figure in their more sanctified or ritualistic understandings (seen perhaps in the “Virgins” spring-summer collection of 2007).

Gaultier’s work is romantic: not the romantic of romanticism, but that of the androgynous. His work celebrates beauty in its most basic and fundamental forms which rely heavily on broad universals as opposed to gendered situations. This adds an element of irony to the work, where the most basic and fundamental becomes the most evocative. Gaultier’s “High Tech” collection of the late 70’s incorporates Lycra, vinyl, and neoprene, all scandalous materials for the catwalk. Whether referring to essential elements of the human body or common fabrics, something about Gaultier’s use of the quotidian has both disrupted the world of fashion and worked to push forward and re-think it.

“While paying tribute to the creative genius of Jean Paul Gaultier,” writes Brooklyn Museum director Arnold L. Lehman, “the exhibition raises the bar in terms of fashion presentation as art in a museum as well as celebrates today’s cultural and ethnic diversity.”[2] Thirty-two mannequins come to life with interactive faces due in equal part to the technologic audiovisual projections and to the team of stylists and technicians who worked to make the exhibition one of art, rather than mere fashion as art. The exhibition doesn’t illustrate the chronology of a designer by way of a retrospective, but situates Gaultier within a history and legacy still designing itself.

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum at 200 Eastern Parkway through February 23, 2014. More information can be found at www.brooklynmuseum.org.

- Amie Zimmer
All images courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum


[1] Press release, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
[2] Press release, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum