“I’ve always loved the graphic and architectural aspects of stripes. My mother dressed me in sailor-striped sweaters. They go with everything, never go out of style, and probably never will,” reads text accompanying the first room of the Barbican’s latest exhibition.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk makes its public debut in London today, as part of a world tour that rivals those of the designer’s clients; its last stop was New York while already a million people have apparently passed through.
To the left of the Barbican’s entrance is a gift shop swamped in Breton striped tops, greetings cards displaying quaint French phrases, and the kind of soap you’d expect to find in a small boutique in Paris (Winchester at a push).
The artisan bakery PAUL meanwhile, has a Breton dressed éclair doing the rounds, though none are currently present in the gallery; a scroll through Instagram is enough to strike that craving from the list mind.
But it’s not all gimmicks, at least not pocket deepening gimmicks. Inside the exhibition proper, a series of mannequins stand in various blue and white incarnations (none of which you’ll find next door), their baldheads topped with sailor hats, as their eyes and mouths move via projected faces.
Further down the line Gaultier ‘himself’ stands, all facial features but the nose moving: “’ello, welcome, I am Jean Paul Gaultier. I am very ‘appy to receive you ‘ere”. It’s a clever, if at first slightly unnerving experience – like the eyes of a painting that follow you around a room – and constant throughout; upstairs 96/97 era Modern Man is communicated through a mannequin joking with his mirrored reflection.
Later rooms introduce more collections (there’s even a conveyer belt catwalk!), which indirectly or otherwise hint at the 61 year olds perhaps overlooked influence within the more contemporary industry.
There’s Nicola Formichetti for Diesel’s denim inspiration, Ashish’s tartan sequins, Sibling and Rodarte’s knits, while J.W.Anderson’s thoughts on gender dressing can be likened to Gaultier’s analogy that, “Except for the medieval codpiece and the bra, garments have never had a gender".
Elsewhere a focus is drawn to his iconic collaborations with Madonna and Kylie Minogue: TV screens show concert footage, mannequins do their best to impersonate the popstars, and photos from the making of (Kylie in half a bustle anyone?) are all present.
Upstairs strikes equal fear and intrigue – there’s just so much to see – but far from maze-like the floor is split into very separate spaces. In one corner the idea of a boudoir is introduced by black and white images of Jean Paul with his grandmother circa 1957; it was she who introduced him to the 1945 Jacques Becker directed film ‘Falbalas’, which plays on a vintage television.
Beside this a pile of old suitcases play home to infamous JPG perfume bottles, while a padded box houses silk pieces from 2011’s Black Swan collection. It’s the most tender of the lot, and contrasts greatly with the other eye-catching area of the upper tier.
Here is where we meet Gaultier’s Spitting Image puppet, positioned in the window of a screening room that shows videos of said character, Absolutely Fabulous clips, and 1989’s ‘Aow Tou Dou Zat’ music video; it’s the Eurotrash days, the comical extension of the designer’s personality. The bit even your dad might be familiar with.
While humour is in the DNA of what Jean Paul Gaultier does, the very being of such an exhibition – with its own so-called ‘satellite exhibition’ co-existing at London College of Fashion, a close-up of his self-designed show invitations – plus the ‘how long it took to create’ notes that accompany many of the couture pieces (some 160 hours plus), confirmation of his seriousness for his craft is everywhere.
Though his clothing works for Oscar winners and Eurovision entrants alike, his collection aren’t for everyone – they never were – but his relevance today is nonetheless huge.
An advert he once placed in the French daily, Liberation for example reads, “Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models – the conventionally pretty need not apply”. It’s the kind of thing that befits France’s enfant terrible, and one such that will see him unlikely ever to go out of style, much like his beloved Breton stripe.
Until 25th August; Jean Paul Gaultier: Be My Guest opens at LCF 11th April-31st May.