November 14, 2013

In Review: Gaultier at the Brooklyn Museum

More than two years ago the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts curated a multimedia exhibition, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk and it has been touring the world ever since. Such is the influence and popularity of the man often called ‘l’enfant terrible’ of fashion. After stops in places like Dallas, Madrid, Rotterdam, and London, this incredible exhibition has finally made its way back to America and the only East Coast stop happens to be in NYC (with some new additions not seen in other cities). But not where you might expect.

One of Gaultier's signature sailor looks.

The Brooklyn Museum has picked up the banner that the Met’s Costume Institute dropped with their last two (in my opinion) lackluster exhibitions and is flying it high by hosting this tour stop. What sets The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier apart is that it is less a retrospective and more of a creation in its own right. It spans the whole of Gaultier’s career to date and all of the aspects that it encompasses: film, television, photography, furniture design, music, fragrance, and, of course, fashion.

A leather sailor look.

In case you are unfamiliar with the enigma that is Jean Paul Gaultier, he has been designing for basically his entire life, as evidenced from his childhood teddy bear, Nana, on display complete with her cone bra. He began his career at Pierre Cardin in 1970 before launching his own women’s ready-to-wear line followed a few years later by a men’s line. One of the few design houses who actually produce true haute couture, Gaultier took it a step further by being one of the first and only to offer men’s as well as women’s haute couture. Following a six year stint at Hermรจs, he returned exclusively to his own lines in 2010.

Nana the bear atop one of Gaultier's travel wardrobes.

Before attending the exhibition, I was only moderately informed on Gaultier’s life and work. After leaving, I can’t understand how that was the case. The history, insight, and appreciation that is conveyed comes close to the experience that was Savage Beauty. Divided thematically into sections like The Boudoir, Punk Cancan, and Metropolis, this exhibition explores the breadth and mastery of the work of Jean Paul Gaultier.

Incredible corset dress.

The first thing that I have to mention is the animated mannequins, dozens of them. Sort of creepy, but also pretty damn cool. Videos of faces are projected onto some of the exhibition’s mannequins to bring them to life. Some sing or speak; others just silently stare back at you, blinking occasionally. The star of the show, literally and figuratively, is the mannequin of Gaultier himself who, in a very metatheatrical moment, welcomes you in French and English to his exhibit.

Gaultier himself, in mannequin form.

This theme of interactivity continues throughout, manifesting in various ways. There are ‘Making Connections’ plaques that tie in other items in the museum’s collection and encourage you to go search them out. At various points, there are questions posted on the wall with oak tags hanging below them, encouraging you to formulate your own opinion. Whether or not you choose to put pen to paper is irrelevant as the mere act of reading the question spurs thought and consideration.

How do you communicate your identity?

Even the info plaques themselves go beyond the typical rote of description, materials, collection, and year. Several of those accompanying the more intricate couture pieces contain a detail I haven’t seen before – the number of hours it took to produce the garment. Small though it may be, it felt to me to be a surprise hidden in plain sight for the diligent patron. I watched so many people walking through the exhibit casually looking at the garments, barely breaking stride.

Hand-beaded 'leopard skin' (above) and
accompanying plaque (below)

Reading the fact that it took hundreds of hours to produce a single dress (or even 1060 hours for one particularly extravagant hand-beaded gown) begs you to look closer, to examine the minutiae that you might have walked right past, to notice the hand stitching, the detail, the fragility of each garment. This additional information, also often paired with a relevant quote by Gaultier about his fashion philosophy, draws you into the exhibition and leaves you with a sense of knowing more than when you came.

Satin ribbon 3-D horn of plenty corset-style gown

Perhaps the most striking aspect though is the way in which the pieces that make up the exhibition are presented. Gaultier said, “I didn’t want the show to be something like a funeral, because for me, to be in a museum, it is for people who are dead. I am still alive!” In this he unequivocally succeeded. It is more of an overall feeling than anything that can be specifically enumerated, but walking through the show feels more like a contemporary art installation than a museum gallery. Dresses flow over the edges of their platforms, mannequins spin, and nothing is behind glass. Other than a few pieces that are positioned high up, everything is right there in front of you. Right there to examine, to appreciate, to experience.

Scene from the Metropolis section

One of my favorite things about how this exhibition was curated is the way that the looks have been assembled. Pieces from different collections exist harmoniously on the same mannequin. Haute couture mixed with ready-to-wear. A top from one decade with pants from another. Even men’s and women’s pieces styled seamlessly together to create a new statement.

Men's and women's ready-to-wear from four different
collections mixed seamlessly.

That last one has stuck with me. Gaultier’s vision and aesthetic is so clear and strong that a mannequin can be dressed in a combination of pieces from both genders and you would be hard pressed to single out which ones belonged where. But that is kind of the point. In Gaultier’s world, there is no gender to clothes. Gaultier said, “except for the medieval codpiece and the bra, garments have never had a gender.”

Every wardrobe needs a codpiece, right?

I am really not one to remember quotes, but this particular one embedded itself in my head. The way that Gaultier seamlessly blurs the line between gender and convention is truly inspiring. I’m not saying you should start shopping at Anthropologie or anything, but what I took from this quote is that you should always be true to your style. If you like a piece, it fits well, and it works with your sense of style, wear it.

This is my favorite look. Red tartan mohair riding outfit.
I would wear this all the time.

I could go into detail about the items featured, layout, and themes, but I don’t feel that it would do the show justice. This is something visceral that, like live theatre, must be experienced. If you can’t make it to the exhibition, the catalogue that accompanies it does a pretty good job of showcasing the work (which for $125 it better).

Sometimes the mannequins staring at you gets a little

Clearly I was impressed with The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier. The fact that I have been able to have a critical conversation with others who have seen it speaks to that. What I have found to be even more impressive is the paths that those conversations take you down. Like Alice’s rabbit hole, Gaultier opens a new world that you didn’t know existed but can’t imagine being without.

Stay stylish,
- JJ

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk runs through February 23, 2014 at the Brooklyn Museum. Admission for the special exhibition is $15, which includes general admission to the rest of the museum. The line to buy your ticket can get pretty long on the weekends (30-90 minutes) but the actual exhibit flows pretty freely. If you can swing it, weekdays would be the best time to go but keep in mind that the museum is only open Wednesday thru Sunday. Either way it is worth both the time and money and pictures are permitted (just keep the flash off).

One last amazing cage dress and parasol.

The exhibition is organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in collaboration with Maison Jean Paul Gaultier, Paris and curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot of the MMFA. The Brooklyn presentation is coordinated by Lisa Small, Curator of Exhibitions, Brooklyn Museum. 

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