La planète mode de Jean Paul Gaultier de la rue aux étoiles – Part I

When attempting to articulate the delightful spectacle of the current Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition on designer Jean Paul Gaultier, I caught myself using several film analogies to try and give the exhibition its due credit.  I likened the twists and turns of the thematic organization of the show to the general idea behind Being John Malkovitch–like discovering a portal into Jean Paul Gaultiers brain–but unlike John Cusack in a Charlie Kaufman film, exhibition viewers  wander from room to room, witnessing the twists and turns of inspiration without attempting to harness control of their host.  In this way it was also was somewhat reminiscent of the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his collaborations with Marc Caro.  Clothing and display details unfolded with such intricacy and imagination that it called to mind the rich minutiae of a film like Micmacs, not to mention the dark dreaminess of La Cite des Enfants Perdus–a project for which Gaultier actually designed several of the costumes.  As an art form, film has long been one of my favorite mediums as it allows for the opportunity to engage several senses at once.  The fashion world of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the sidewalk to the catwalk, is a breathtaking exhibition that manages to do this also, while telling the story of a beautiful and quirky world created by the imagination of Gaultier.

As viewers ascend the staircase, a blue neon sign beckons from the top of the landing with the designer’s name, and a misty halo of light leading into the first segment: The Odyssey of Jean Paul Gaultier.  As the landing becomes nearer, the blue glow intensifies and the faintest strains of music can be heard.  It is a choir of saints, clad in designs from his Spring 2007 Les Vierges couture collection.

Approaching the platform one realizes that the mannequins themselves are actually singing.  Each figure has a realistically detailed face, conjured from digital video projections onto custom-made forms, created by JoliCoeur International.  The experience was unlike any museum exhibition that I have ever attended.  Looking at these figures–who blink, glance from side to side, smile, or stare back intently–added a disarming voyeuristic feeling to the experience.  It took several minutes to adjust, but as I started to become accustomed to the mannequins staring back at me, the playful side of the video installation began to surface.  Several figures seem to follow you with their eyes, and knowingly smiled as they posed for photographs and basked in the admiration.  There is even a mannequin that represents the designer himself, and he stands to the side of his choir of saints, greeting viewers and talking about the exhibition.

To the left is a group of figures mixed in gender and ethnicity wearing Gaultier’s signature sailor stripes. To the right is another platform with mannequins wearing designs from his Mermaid collection, including the gold sirène-reine gown, of which Marion Cotillard wore a white version to the 2008 Academy Awards.  Another mannequin propped up with lavishly adorned coral-motif rubber crutches wears his La Mariée wedding gown, also from the Mermaids collection.  Her eyes dart around the room coyly, as she occasionally flashes a smile or smirks, at moments whistling or breaking out into playful song herself.  At the base of the stairs, another model reclines atop a pedestal, the long lace skirt of Le Bal des Sirènes gown from the S/S 08 Haute couture collection flowing over the edges of the platform.  This gown, with its hinged and embellished corset, latex scales, and chiffon and silk skirt with lace overlay took 176 hours to create according to label copy.

The introductory wall copy advises that this exhibit is “a contemporary installation rather than a fashion retrospective”, and the interactive and sensory nature of the mis-en-scène of the show, truly creates the feeling of entering another world.  Gaultier is a designer who embraces artistic collaboration, and not only are garments from his couture and prêt-a-porter shows represented (including over 140 garments and accessories), but there is also a wealth of photography, sketches, film stills and clips that document the many forays that the designer has taken into dressing and collaborating with film makers, musicians, dancers, and photographers.

The second section of the exhibition is titled The boudoir.  It’s difficult to separate the image of the corset or the cone-shaped bra from the name Gaultier, and this room explores the legacy behind some of these garments.  Claiming the center of the room is a large padded box with windows cut out on each side to reveal some of his intimate-wear as outerwear creations.  This includes two corset-bustiers worn by Madonna, a collection of arrestingly textured and sculpted pieces that rotate 360 degrees including his Baby bump corset from 2010 and a Men’s corset from his 1997 House of Pleasures collection, as well as his iconic fragrance bottles, and fashion photography including the work of Herb Ritts and Nathaniel Goldberg.

In the accompanying catalog for the exhibit, Gaultier addresses his relationship with the corset in several areas.  At one point he mentions, “For me, the corset evoked something extraordinary, fascinating and mysterious…when I started designing, young women had begun to reassert their femininity.  They were reinventing the idea of the female sex object, who became strong and free enough to play with the rules.  It was Madonna who came to perfectly embody this type of woman.”

At the back of the room, Gaultier’s earliest muse, his childhood teddy bear Nana is on display.  Affixed to the chest of the bear are small crumpled cones of newsprint, the first “cone-shaped breasts” that the designer created.  To the left of him is a small vintage television, the black and white 1940’s Jacques Becker film Falbalas flickers quietly on the screen.  This film, and the fashion show scene from it in particular, were extremely inspirational to the designer in his childhood.  The solemn and contemplative way that they are displayed, tucked into the back corner of a shadowed ‘boudoir’, implies dually the significance of them to the designer, as well as the dreamy formative aspects of their influence on his childhood.  I particularly appreciated the quiet, unobtrusive appearance of the film–through presentation on the small television screen, it simply added to the milieu without overpowering or detracting from the garments in any way.

Adjacent to Nana are two figures wearing impressive cage-look corset dresses from from S/S 1989.  The center figure is animated, and between long pauses she breaks out into statement, oscillating between French and English:

I am not Eve, Ophelia, or Juliet…I’m not waiting for a prince.  I exist because I speak.  I’m not waiting for anyone.  I am who I am…My corset is no longer something to hide but to show.  I love it.  I love to be beautiful for myself.

Skin Deep is the third theme of the exhibition.  Entering this large, spacious room after the confined intimacy of the boudoir is jolting.  The far wall of the room contains six rectangular vignettes with fetish-inspired clothing created for Madonna’s Confessions tour from 2006.  Red light bathes the tops of these dark ensembles that anchor the back wall, and scattered throughout the room are circular pedestals with groupings of mannequins dressed in garments that explore and challenge gender stereotypes, as well as ideas about the human body in a playful and engaging way.

Some pieces emulate nudity, contain trompe l’oeil tattoos or nipples, or expose the inner anatomy of the human body.  Wall copy addresses Gaultier’s interest in showing all body types and an inclusionary definition of beauty.  The designer is known for using models that challenge gender and sexual stereotypes, question assumptions about weight and the ideal body, as well as embrace those from a wider age range– such as his use of Polly Mellen in his 1989 Women among Men runway show.

The dress above, his French Cancan gown from Ze Parisian S/S 2002 haute couture collection, was worn on the runway by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy shortly after giving birth to her son.  Although a seasoned model at this point, Sarkozy walked down the runway with the soft curves of a woman who was still a breastfeeding mother.

Particularly enjoyable and notable about this show is the inclusion of so many creative and challenging Mens items as well.

This was a large exhibition, and I was fortunate to get many photos. Check back tomorrow for more that include the second half of the show!

For those in the Montreal area- tonight August 11th, at 6pm the museum will be screening Madonna: Truth or Dare in conjunction with the exhibition.  The museum website notes:

Unless otherwise indicated, films are presented free of charge at the Maxwell Cummings Auditorium, Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, 1379 Sherbrooke Street West. Doors open 30 minutes before the event begins. Places are limited and are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

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