As Jean Paul Gaultier took the stage last Thursday night for a talk with curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot, he was welcomed with an aptly enthusiastic standing ovation from a crowd of fashionistas, Brooklynites, and decked-out devotees. “Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” open now at the Brooklyn Museum, offers a dynamic tour through the prolific designer’s innovative, wild, and intricate fashions. Loriot guided the fashion legend through a discussion of formative experiences in his journey to success, beginning with a teddy bear and ending with his secret ambitions to become a hairstylist.
Raised by his maternal grandmother who gave him the freedom and confidence to explore beauty and fashion, Gaultier’s early memories include giving makeovers to his teddy bear “Nana.” He calls the bear “the first transformer,” because over the years “Nana” was the recipient of a cone bra (way before Madonna), a new face, open-heart surgery, and even a wedding dress.
Gaultier admitted that in school, he “wasn’t very good in anything,” especially football. He found redemption one day when a teacher punished him for sketching a girl in class and made him wear the sketch pinned to his back. His classmates were impressed and soon commissioned their own portraits. What really cemented his decision to become a fashion designer was the 1945 French film Falbalas (in English, “Paris Frills”), the tale of a Parisian dressmaker who seduces his friend’s fiancée.
Gaultier credits his grandmother as a major early influence, teaching him that “because of the clothes you are wearing, maybe your life can change.” He would watch her dress each day, and remembers a particular morning when she left the house in only a slip, forgetting to put on her skirt! On another occasion while left home alone the seven-year-old Gaultier discovered a salmon pink corset, a fascinating object of mystery. Years later, in the early ’80s when Gaultier visited New York for the first time, he saw the Broadway show Nine and spotted a similar salmon corset, awakening in him the inspiration to redesign it. Gaultier made his own beautiful, voluptuous corset of the same color, commencing a career-long dialogue with the historical garment, creating collections of corset-inspired designs including dresses and bodysuits.
He described his fascination with corsetry as empowering objects of femininity and seduction, as opposed to their origins as hidden objects of pain and submission. He is particularly interested in the possibilities of mixing masculinity and femininity with the corset, dressing women in fitted masculine blazers with corsets showing underneath.
Loriot pointed out that “because Mr. Gaultier initiated most of the trends instead of following them, most of the pieces [in the show] are timeless.” Gaultier emphasizes his humble beginnings. For his first fashion show in 1976, which he describes as a “catastrophe,” he used dress lining fabrics and managed to borrow a line-up of Yves Saint Laurent models for free thanks to a good friend who owed him a favor. He notes that learning to design and put on shows with very little money helped him throughout his career in that he never felt so vulnerable and knew not to get too comfortable. “Too much comfort is not good for creation,” he said.
The talk ended highlighting the sculptural wigs designed by Odile Gilbert. Gaultier has a passion for hair and he describes its important role, especially in that unlike makeup, “it doesn’t hide personality.” He purports: “you can change your life with a new haircut!”
As the exhibition reveals, Gaultier has always embraced a diverse range of muses and models and never ascribed to conventional, restrictive images of beauty. He told Loriot, “There is not only one kind of beauty...You can find beauty in everyone, in anything.”
“Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through Feb. 23, 2014.