Imagine being thrown directly into the mind of one of the greatest couturiers in history, tossed around his riotous and brilliant psyche, and then thrown back out into reality. That’s how I felt when I walked out of the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican.
On the ground floor, I was immediately surprised and somewhat scared by the talking mannequins on show, babbling away in either hurried French, or antsy English, repeating phrases as if they were backstage at Paris Fashion week, (I was also surprised by a talking Jean Paul, repeating a brilliantly sarcastic monologue about his designs). At first, I was rather sceptical about the choice of infusing the peculiar mannequins with the power of speech, but looking past that, it made the outrageous outfits all the more theatrical.
The ground floor was dedicated almost exclusively to the evolution of Jean Paul as an Haute Couture artist. But, the conical corset and its variations, made famous by Madonna during her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, was undoubtedly the star of the second floor. These were exhibited in numerous forms, from dainty pale pink with lace attachés, to bondage-inspired leather accessorised with a whip. The exhibition allows the viewer to see things the way Jean Paul does, by providing justifications for specific designs created, a background of his female-dominated childhood and his passion for portraying women as strong, independent and powerful. The exhibition contextualises his then outrageous designs with the sexual revolution of the 70s and 80s, illustrating his strong support of such movements and his advocacy of freedom and expression.
Not only did the exhibition expose mannequins with original designs in their most well-kept form, but it also provided viewers with footage of previous catwalk shows, photographs and artwork to enhance the versatility and development of Gaultier as not only a fashion designer for both haute couture and ready to wear, but also as an artist.
The experience itself was a brand new one. I had walked in half knowing how to distinguish a Gaultier gown from a Vivienne Westwood dress, and walked out being able to pinpoint exactly what makes Gaultier’s designs his. I was particularly drawn to one of his previous advertisements for models in his earlier years: “Non-conformist artists seek unusual models – the conventionally pretty need not apply”. Not only did that particular ad allow me to understand why he chose the muses he has, but it also taught me that Gaultier, despite being criticised and scrutinised by the somewhat hostile fashion industry, was unafraid to show what he was really meaning to do: bring diversity, androgyny, equality, and society into fashion, something that was wholly unprecedented.
Was it absolutely insane and completely not what I had expected? Yes.
Would I go again? Hell yes.
Photo credits to meligrossa.