I had been looking forward to this fashion retrospective for a while, as right now the world needs more beauty and art. If I’m asked to name the world’s best fashion designers, normally I immediately say “the Big Four” – Chanel/Karl Lagerfeld (I’m cheating a bit by lumping them together), Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. When you look at Jean Paul Gaultier‘s body of work, you realise he can’t be left out of that list. I knew that this exhibition wouldn’t resemble any other recent retrospectives, such as Valentino or Isabella Blow at Somerset House.
The Barbican is perfect for showcasing Gaultier’s legendary back catalogue of work, and is curated exquisitely – as you wander around each JPG era from the past thirty years, you get a true sense of the evolution of his work and the personality of a man who is one of the last great French couturiers, a genius at sketching and someone who was never afraid to display his sexuality and up to the minute interpretation of culture and gender through his designs, capturing the imaginations of millions in the process, with clothes that simply couldn’t be ignored.
As you wander around the 165 couture and ready to wear pieces (split into different sections marking defined periods and collections) and marvel at the animated faces of the mannequins telling parts of the story (JPG himself makes an appearance as the classic sailor – his face projected on a mannequin wearing the Breton top and pleated kilt) you realise the boundless creativity of a man who perfectly captured the mood of the 80s and 90s celebrity. It was amazing to get so close to his world renowned designs for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, the famed conical bra and corsetry and outfits from the many films he designed the costumes for – notably The Fifth Element and Almodovar films.
The exhibition flows beautifully between different eras in JPG’s career – the moving catwalk with mannequins revolving around on discs and the animated mannequins were my personal favourites. It is split into eight thematic sections – The Odyssey of JPG (charting his rise to fame) Punk Cancan, Muses, The Boudoir, Metropolis, Eurotrash, Skin Deep and Urban Jungle. The tartan bedecked mannequins with magnificent one metre high mohawk headpieces are the highlight of Punk Cancan. Muses includes iconic images of the celebrities who have inspired him – Kate Moss, Madonna, Naomi Campbell and Beth Ditto, to name but a few. The Boudoir focuses on the designer’s obsession with lingerie, and features the conical bras designed for Madonna, alongside a display of his iconic perfume bottles on a French style dresser. Metropolis includes outfits from stage and screen (I particularly loved the Fifth Element leopard skin), Eurotash looks back upon the cult Channel 4 show in the 90s. Skin Deep looks at his fascination with the human body, with some pretty out there dresses featuring body parts and sex organs. There is an amazing dress which mimics the musculature of the body, which wouldn’t look out of place in the Bodyworlds exhibition. Urban Jungle features some of the best animal print and feather designs I’ve ever seen, with an amazing trompe l’oeil leopard skin dress which is so realistic it’s a shock when you get up close to see it’s all beadwork. He never fails to surprise, delight and perplex.
His wit and fun-loving personality shine through, as well as his obsession with sub cultures in the more S & M themed designs. I loved the Eurotrash section, which took me back to my teens, looking at his madcap antics with Antoine De Caunes. He was so famous at the time he even had his own Spitting Image puppet – lovingly preserved in a glass case, accentuating every detail of his Gallic charm. Footage of his scene in Absolutely Fabulous is played, reminding us that his appeal is also in not taking himself too seriously.
I was also taken aback with his collaborations with many of the world’s top fashion photographers, such as David LaChapelle, Pierre et Gilles, Andy Warhol and Stephane Sedanoui (Kylie’s ex) – creating beautiful imagery which never ceased to astound and shock simultaneously. I didn’t realise he’d dressed Kurt Cobain either – some cool shots were included with Nirvana, as well as classic shots of Dita Von Teese, Madonna, Boy George and a whole host of supermodels.
As you would expect the gift shop is full of cool memorabilia such as a 12″ vinyl of the single he released in the 90s, Tatty Devine jewellery, teddybears wearing chains and beautiful JPG leather bags and purses.
I left, giddy and almost skipping because he manages to take you away from reality with his work to a place where the trivialities of everyday life cease to exist, into his world which is infinitely more fun, creative and playful with a dark edge – surely a place where most of us would rather live.
Jean Paul Gaultier – From Sidewalk to Catwalk
9th April – 25th August
Barbican Centre, London