'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Upon entry to the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican, you soon come face-to-face with the great man himself. The world-renowned fashion designer stands in a corner, clad in his customary kilt and striped top, babbling in both French and English – his accent heavy and his voice almost sing-song, the words are hard to decipher. “I am not good at speaking, but you can understand me through my clothes.” he says to bewildered passers-by. Immediately I realise this is no ordinary fashion exhibition. Quite on the contrary, I feel as if I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and am now in Wonderland – or rather Gaultier-land, complete with the Mad Hatter himself, welcoming me to his crazy tea-party. Feeling somewhat overwhelmed, I embark upon my journey into this Avant-Garde world of Haute Couture. What I encounter shocks, amazes, scares and inspires me, all in equal measure.
First I must clarify – alas Monsieur Gaultier does not personally greet all viewers to his exhibition. Instead it is a rather clever play with technical artistry; there is a mannequin (dressed to look like him) and there is a hologram of his face projected on to that of the mannequin’s, there is also a recording of his voice which matches with the movements of his face. Smart. Very smart. But this technical wizardry is not just reserved for the man himself – there are dozens of talking (and singing) mannequins dotted throughout the first floor of the exhibition; all of which speak absolute gibberish. In fact my sister and I were quite disturbed and walked rather quickly through this section. There is a definitive animated quality which binds the whole spectacle – from the talking mannequins to the revolving catwalk of mannequins, which clunks and judders like a mechanical creature. All of which seem to say one thing; these outfits bring inanimate objects to life. Similarly they give models and the few-lucky celebrities who wear his designs a sense of unadulterated freedom; like a glamorous and wild awakening. The supermodel, Erin O’Connor, said that when she ‘walks’ for him she is “able to unleash my inner diva… as well as get paid for it!”, it is this sense of utter empowerment that makes his creations so desirable.
Gaultier’s muses are strong, independent and unique women. Walking through the goldmine of couture, it’s impossible not to notice the plethora of outfits worn by eminent alpha-females – all of which evoke a magnetism that’s all-encompassing. There’s the gold metallic fish-scale jumpsuit which caressed the most famous curves on the planet; Beyoncé – surely the true embodiment of sex, power and style? You can’t miss the conical breasts of Madonna’s notorious corset – like two giant Egyptian pyramids strapped to the chest. And of course there’s Kylie Minogue’s flamboyant stage outfit for her X Tour in 2008, consisting of a silver bodysuit and fluffy pink cape – the ultimate feminine body armour. The exhibition is like a who’s who of the music industry; Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga were also dressed by Gaultier, thus illustrating the designer’s engagement with pop culture, as well as his popularity with stars. No one else creates clothes that generate such a buzz – both for the wearer and for the viewer – than Monsieur Gaultier. Perfect for strutting your stuff on stage, whilst singing your heart out.
As well as musicians, Gaultier likes using inspiring models to flaunt his latest conceptions. But the models he chooses are far from the conventionally pretty which other designers tend to favour. Farewell oval face, high cheekbones, baby-blue eyes, bee-stung lips and shining blonde hair. The French master of dress-making champions all races, all genders, all body shapes. What a refreshing change to the fashion industry’s narrow guideline of what constitutes ‘beautiful’. In fact Gaultier helped launch the career of the very first top model with a North African background, Frida Khelfa – a stark contrast to the limited range of ethnic minorities we see (or rather don’t see) on today’s catwalk. He strongly believes that perfection is boring, Gaultier’s raison d’être is “I want to make imperfection admirable.” Despite this rallying cry, the series of oil portraits of his vast and varied muses certainly evoke a sense of divine, unreal beauty; a coquettish young Kate Moss stares innocently out from one frame, while the chiselled cheekbones of Erin O’Connor jut out from another and the scarlet pout of Dita Von Teese almost reach out to kiss the viewer.
This exhibition is unquestionably one which sets tongues wagging and hearts pumping, as well as generating an audible collection of gasps. Overall I thought it resembled a clash between a magic show and a sex show – some displays on the upper floor were so kinky I thought I’d been transported straight into the heart of Amsterdam’s Red Light District (think PVC, bondage-style and whips). Yet there are also clear demonstrations of pure magic; the craftsmanship of the garments is simply exquisite. One particularly unique garment was a corset (there is a wide variety) made from wheat and braided straw, which took 84 hours to construct. This is not a mere piece of clothing, but a work of art. In fact, all of Gaultier’s designs are works of art; yes they may be incredibly strange, weird and wacky, but they are an expression of himself. Albeit a very crazy expression. I salute you Jean Paul Gaultier – or ‘The Frog’ as he calls himself.