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Jing Qu for Spectator

Jean Paul Gaultier speaks at the opening of the new Brooklyn Museum exhibit celebrating his work, “From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.”

When haute couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier was very young, he was dazzled by a Folies Bergère cabaret revue. The elaborate costumes captured his imagination, and he began to draw them. When his teacher caught him doodling showgirls in class, Gaultier received a painful rap on the knuckles with a ruler, but the punishment didn't deter him—it spurred him on to become the weaver of whimsy and fantasy he is today. It is apparent from his playful designs, now on display at the Brooklyn Museum in “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” that Gaultier will forever be that young boy in love with cinema, theatre, variety shows, and science fiction.

Gaultier has never before been the subject of an exhibit—he has always felt that “a museum is a cemetery, and clothes have to have life”—but he says he is flattered by the retrospective on his creations. At a press preview on Wednesday, the boisterous Gaultier, who peppered his speech with French, claimed he “did [his] profession because [he] wanted to be loved,” and, tongue-in-cheek, expressed a hope that museumgoers would adore him even more after attending the exhibition. Curator Thierry Loriot praised the way the designer has flouted taboos and pushed boundaries, as well as his “open vision of society—everyone is welcome in his world.” 


Gaultier works with models of all races, ages, body types, and genders, as well as the bald, tattooed, and pierced. His credo is that “perfection is relative and beauty is subjective”—he works to “make imperfection admirable.” Gaultier's muses have always been atypical. He fondly remembers his grandmother, a nurse who put makeup on her patients to lift their spirits, and his classmate, who was so ethereally pale that her veins were visible through her skin. He is disgusted with the dictatorial obsession of the fashion industry with the “slim, slim, slim” model and speaks highly of zaftig beauties such as Gossip's Beth Ditto and model Crystal Renn. He also bemoans the idea that models should “be beautiful and shut up,” advocating instead that they use their public platform for good. 

Perhaps Gaultier's most iconic piece, the cone bra famously worn by Madonna, is on prominent display in the exhibit. (This cone bra was not the first Gaultier designed—as a child, he fashioned one for Nana, his stuffed bear, out of newspaper.) Madonna adored the way Gaultier “mixed masculine and feminine together,” admiring the “humor [and] sense of irony” apparent in his works. Women are not the only ones who were sexualized by Gaultier's body-hugging lingerie: The designer's men were gussied up in corsetry and codpieces as well. After all, according to Gaultier, “why should men not be the object?”

Gaultier is very much influenced by religious iconography, as revealed by his kitschy, candy-colored collaborations with photographers like Miles Aldridge and Pierre et Gilles and the halos, all-seeing eyes, and sacred hearts adorning his models. He also “always loved graphic and architectural aspects of stripes,” he said. 

From the sailor sweaters of his youth to powerful style influences ranging from Coco Chanel to Popeye, stripes have become a Gaultier staple. One pair of pants at the exhibit looked like an “On the Town” costume filtered through a disco nightmare. 

Gaultier's masterpieces are made with atypical materials like vinyl, Lycra, and neoprene. He combines patterns and materials in unique ways: camouflage paired with tulle, yellow plaid matched with sequins, and feathers that liberally cover denim. He also deconstructs and rearranges components of ensembles, using bra cups as elbow pads and placing fringed epaulettes on hips. 

The one motif he returns to time after time is the corseted female figure. His perfume collection features bottles in that shape, and the exhibit is filled with corsets of metal and crocodile skin. A legend on the wall of the exhibit urges visitors to think of the corset as not an instrument of torture but a suit of armor, and Gaultier takes evident pleasure in the empowerment of women of all stripes. 

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” runs until Feb. 23 at the Brooklyn Museum.  |  @ColumbiaSpec

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