What’s Going on at the Barbican?
Earlier this week, I took a little trip to the Barbican to see an exhibition I have been curious about ever since it first arrived in London; The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier; From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk (shout out to Mama Candy for the tickets!) is the first major exhibition devoted to the famous French couturier. London is the eighth stop on its international tour, so stop me if you live on the other side of the world and you’ve heard this one before.
Gaultier himself was originally against the idea of an exhibition dedicated to his work, which he referred too as “something for when you’re dead.” He was instead more interested in making a show that is an adventure in creativity, rather than a standard retrospective.
Indeed, The Fashion World of John Paul Gaultier does what it says on the tin, providing a visitor with what is more of an adventure through the designer’s explosively imaginative world than a cold, straightforward exhibition. Alexandra Shulman got it spot on when she said of the exhibit, “there is nothing dull for one minute about this collection, which is a riot of sound, movement and colour.”
The whole set up pulses with energy and life; videos show the clothes in action throughout the years, a rotating catwalk allows you to sit front row at your own Gaultier show, and the mannequins faces sing, speak and give you sardonic little expressions with the aid of video projection (a mannequin sporting a striped jumper and a tartan skirt sports Gaultier’s face, which politely welcomes you to his own retrospective).
Indeed, Gaultier’s entire personality shines throughout the vast collection of sketches, video footage, fashion photographs, testimonials and (of course) over 140 outfits; you almost feel like you know the man.
Of course, everyone knows Jean-Paul Gaultier to an extent; over the years, it is as though he has transformed himself into a breton-striped, grinning caricature of himself. His tongue may be firmly in his cheek for much of the time, but his creative vision has been a great advocate for beauty in all its forms and sexual empowerment (for both men and women). Gender stereotypes do not seem to exist in Gaultier’s world, and his infamous man skirts caused uproar when they were first shown in 1984, causing a whole host of fashion editors to actually get up and walk out.
“I don’t believe that fabrics have a gender, any more than certain garments do,” Gaultier rightly points out, and his celebration of gender fluidity and androgyny is perhaps not only one of the things for which he is best known, but perhaps also one of his most important contributions to the fashion industry.
Gaultier’s designs are known for their playfully pioneering creative and political statements, in the face of which the incredible craftmanship and attention to detail can be easily overlooked. However, this exhibition provides a fairly unusual opportunity to get a close look at couture gowns and jackets, and many of the pieces are accompanied by information cards which state how many hours of work went into them; this beautiful, beaded tiger gown clocked in at 1060 hours!
We are never allowed to forget that couture is an art form, but not one which is imitative of life; no, couture, fashion weaves together art and life with an expert eye, and this exhibition never allows you to forget that the beauty of these pieces lies in the fact that they are wearable, liveable art.
The exhibit also provides us with an insight into what influences Gaultier’s work, not least of all the city which the Barbican calls home. “There is a lot of London in my work,” he says. “I was more at home here than in Paris at one point.”
This cross-channel marriage between witty design and couture-level quality is an integral part of Gaultier’s style. However, it is not just from the streets of Paris and London that the couturier draws influence; the rest of the globe, too, is well-represented throughout the outfits on show. One thing which really shines through this exhibition is the way in which Gaultier is able to draw inspiration from everything and anything he experiences; there are collections inspired by China, by eskimos, even by Hasidic Jews, the latter of which was very controversial for the Jewish community.
However, what he says of the latter proves the way in which Gaultier is not (as it might often seem) about deliberate irreverence, but rather about finding the beauty and elegance in everything.
“The catalyst for the Chic Rabbis collection was a trip to New York in the early 1990s. I saw a group of rabbis leaving the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. I found them very beautiful, very elegant, with their hats and their huge coats flapping in the wind. It was a fantastic scene. I was afraid that the collection would be poorly received. I knew reactions might be mixed, that some might feel offended and find my approach ridiculous..what I wanted to convey with this collection was the feeling these traditional costumes gave me, to pay tribute to their beauty.”
For The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is just that; a whole world of influences. “I feel a globality,” he once put it, as he spoke of his willing embrace of all races, ethnicities and sexual persuasions, which should really be the standard in this increasingly globalised world.
Diversity in beauty is also something which Gaultier searches for in his models, as evidenced by a room dedicated to his muses; polaroids of Jean-Paul and Madonna line the walls, along with outfits worn by the likes of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Kylie Minogue (and, yes, Madonna’s conical bra is there).
Overall, the exhibition is a true treat for all the senses, and you come away feeling somehow lifted by not only the magnificence of the clothes themselves, but by the curiosity, creativity and fun which make up Gaultier’s vision.
As the Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican, Jane Alison, said, “all he does is infused with a genuine love of life, which I find deeply infectious. But the humanity and humour which are his trademarks are also underpinned by discipline, professionalism, and a skill that is second to none.”
The exhibition is still at the Barbican until 25th August, so you’ve still got a little bit of time left to experience Gaultier’s creative universe; you’re not going to want to miss it.