‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’ Finally Hits Brooklyn

Jean Paul Gaultier’s music video, “How To Do That” in 1989.
Photo: MTV

Real talk: I have seen this Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition three times. I saw it in San Francisco last summer. I saw it again last Thursday—briefly—before I heard the marvelous Parisian designer speak in a discussion led by the exhibition’s curator, Thierry-Maxime Loriot, from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. And then I enjoyed a guided tour by Thierry-Maxime himself on Friday morning moments before the installation was officially opened to the public. If you find yourself in Brooklyn or, truly, anywhere even remotely within driving/flying/subway-ing distance of the Brooklyn Museum, you should check this out. It’s f***ing mind-blowing. God’s honest. It’s here ’til February 23 so you have time but DO NOT FORGET.

“Embellishments” dress from the Spring/Summer 2009 “Calligraphy” Collection/Beyoncé performing in 2009.
Photos: Mary H.K. Choi/Getty Images

The “Urban Jungle” room; an homage to multiculturalism
Photo: Mary H.K. Choi

So, I’ve been obsessed with Jean Paul Gaultier since I was a little kid (please refer to these wonderful interviews with him from our House of Style archives). All the hard-assed teens in Hong Kong used to all wear piece-dyed Soviet designer jeans and have matte, black JPG wallets with a sleek metal bar that had the designer’s name stamped in old english calligraphy. I don’t even know if they were knock-offs or what but they were sick.

By the time Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour took off (mind you this is pre-Internet so I had to really search for scraps from magazines) and I watched Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element where Gaultier designed all the fur rompers, band aid cage leotards, collard bustiers (and whatever the hell Gary Oldman was wearing), I was full-on besotted. Like, please look at this darling polaroid of a brunette Madge (WITH A BOB) and a not-quite-entirely platinum JPG? It’s so emoji with the heart eyes.

A young Madge and a young Gaultier
Photo: Mary H.K. Choi

This exhibition celebrates Jean Paul Gaultier’s inclusive, whimsical, sexy, and gender-bendy universe. Thierry-Maxime (who first approached the designer in 2009) mentioned that the designer (who had been making clothes since the ’70s) had been reluctant to participate in a retrospective because there was something so “funereal” about the production. The solution was to make the exhibition not about a chronological timeline but more a showcase of Gaultier’s passions and obsessions with mannequins that felt vibrant and alive.

Projected faces on mannequins
Photo: Mary H.K. Choi

In order to do this, 32 friends, models, celebrities were recruited and casts were made of each of their heads with videos projected onto their faces so that the mannequins would appear to wink, sing, and talk in several different languages. Gaultier himself is included as well as Thierry-Maxime, Ève Salvail (a.k.a. the ’90s model with a tattoo of a dragon on her shaved head), Nicole Fiorentino (bassist from Smashing Pumpkins), and Paolo Roversi (the gorgeous dude who appears in many of Gaultier’s fragrance ads).

Wedding dress headdress
Photo: Mary H.K. Choi

An Inuit outfit famously worn by Bjork; Hasidic Jew homage
Photo: Mary H.K. Choi

No less than 140 haute couture and prêt-à-porter ensembles are featured in Gaultier’s “Fashion World” which is divided into seven themes which include exploration into motifs like mermaids, virgins, sailors, as well as studies into his work in lingerie, bondage, tattoos and multiculturalism. For the Brooklyn show, there was a specially curated (the CORRECT usage of that term for once) room for Gaultier’s muses and his love of music which included dresses worn by Beth Ditto, Beyoncé, Madonna (of course) as well as his Spring/Summer 2012 collection dedicated to the memory of Amy Winehouse.

Amy Winehouse; Spring/Summer 2012
Photo: Mary H.K. Choi

Here’s the thing, I could honestly prattle about each individual garment all day but you should really just go see the whole thing in person yourself (in fact, I’d recommend going more than once). There’s a pink, satin, quilted boudoir that features the very first cone bra ever (made in newspaper and sewn onto Gaultier’s teddy bear when he was a child), there’s a catwalk with thoroughly spray-painted walls that includes his first designs (JPG was the FIRST to pair a prom dress with a leather jacket), and a BDSM tableau.

Madonna “Blond Ambition” sketches
Photo: Mary H.K. Choi

There’s even an area ensconced in this throbbing ultramarine light that swoops across the room to evoke a continuous maritime stripe. It’s only in person that you’ll notice that some of the clear, rubber beads of a bodice is actually made of caulk or that a tube dress that appears to be printed with the naked female body is actually EMBROIDERED to indicate the breasts, ladybits, legs and toes to where when you flip the skirt inside out you can see all the pink, brown, and red thread coursing throughout. It’s dazzling.

A young Madonna at Gaultier’s studio.
Photo: Mary H.K. Choi

Plus, there are Easter Eggs throughout. Like, footage from Jean Paul Gaultier’s music video, “Aow Tou Dou Zat,” sketches, as well as evidence that Kurt Cobain was a huge Gaultier fan and that what appeared to be bedraggled, hole-ridden, Seattle vintage clothing was for the most part made by the Parisian designer.

Skirts for dudes
Photo: Mary H.K. Choi

There’s also his first “skirt for men.” Created in 1985, the dude jupe was inspired by the long aprons of Parisian waiters in cafés, and the suiting that appears to be a long column skirt is actually one leg of wide-legged pants. It’s classic Gaultier to create impeccably tailored clothes with serious lines that are nonetheless imbued with glittering humor. A suit with a skirt for men that’s actually a pant-leg is so surrealist, “ceci n’est pas un pipe” ish that it makes me ridiculously happy. If you want to spend an afternoon smiling like a lunatic for all the dorkiest fashion reasons then definitely hit this up. It’s 40 years of unbridled pleasure and unfettered talent. It makes you believe in your gut that Jean Paul Gaultier is an amazing person. It makes you want to hang out with him and it makes you crazy-jealous of Madonna for new reasons.

Madonna performing during the Blond Ambition Tour on April 4, 1990/Jean Paul Gaultier “Blond Ambition” sketch.
Photo: Getty Images/Mary H.K. Choi

Madonna performing during her Blond Ambition Tour on May 11, 1990/Jean Paul Gaultier “Blond Ambition” sketch.
Photo: Getty Images/Mary H.K. Choi

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