It was 1999 when I first experienced fashion. At the time, I didn’t even know what fashion was. I had heard people mention it, but as a 9 year nothing really matters. I suppose, however, that every child is different.
It was really the subliminal message I got from the music video that affected me though. Who was this woman and why was her face so noticeably white? What was that red thing with baggy sleeves she was wearing? And why were people carrying around these giant bags of water in this cold, clinical interior? All I knew is that I wasn’t supposed to be watching MTV and that I’d probably never see the video again, at least for a few years.
It started to all come together when I was in high school. I had just started to really get into Madonna as a freshman. Confessions on a Dancefloor came out and I was hooked. It prompted me to delve deeper into her world. I discovered my second favorite album, Ray of Light soon after. When it came out in 1997, it was the antithesis to the overly sweet pop albums that ruled the airwaves. It was a bit grungy and totally reflective, even for Madonna. And one song very literally brought me back to that time as a 9 year old.
I found the video online and I instantly remembered it. Everything about it was familiar: the beat, the lyrics and most importantly, what they were wearing. As a 9 year old it must have really impacted me. The song was “Nothing Really Matters” and now as a teenager the context made sense: the bags of water were infants, she was a geisha wearing a kimono, and the music video, while disturbing, was backlash to overt materialism. Needless to say, it was added to my iPod.
Fast-forward to November 2013. I’m 23 and I’ve waited well over a year to see The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Brooklyn Museum. Conceived by model-turned-curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, the exhibit ran in Montreal, traveling to Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid, Rotterdam, Stockholm and in 2014, London. Finally, the exhibit had reached its east coast home until February 23, 2014.
We arrive promptly at 10:45 A.M., 15 minutes before the show even opens. I highly recommend you do too. I rush to the door and luck out: I’m first in line. It’s freezing out and thankfully, the security guard lets me into the holding room early, noticing my eager anticipation while doing his best to mask his opinion of one very giddy fashion enthusiast.
It’s finally 11:00. He lets me in and to my surprise I’m the first in line to purchase tickets. I pay my $15 and sprint for the elevators, wishing they could move faster to the fourth floor. The doors open and I follow the signs, past the banal American art, to be surrounded by couture dreams. The security girls check my bracelet and I’m in. There he is: Jean Paul Gaultier, wearing a mink sailor shirt, he completely lives up to my expectations. I walk past the timeline he conceived outlining his career to finally see what I’ve waited 2 years to see: three-dimensional interactive animated mannequins, their faces projected onto otherwise conventional mannequins. It should be noted, however, that nothing is quite conventional about a designer who combines gender, culture and history to create some of the worlds most important haute couture.
Upon entering the exhibit, you are greeted by a solid blue maritime screen in the initial gallery entitled “The Odyssey.” The room toys with Gaultier’s obsession with the matelot, the French term for sailor. Gaultier loves to take classics and turn them on their head: his reincarnations of the basic navy and white striped sailor top worn by French sailors and fishermen have become a defining trait in his work. As iconic as Louis Vuitton’s monogram or the Hermes Birkin, the Breton stripe sailor shirt has become synonymous with Maison Gaultier.
Behind you stands a mermaid on coral crutches. One mannequin wears the most incredible corset made of oyster shells, her mermaid skirt made of enough sequins to make you a little dizzy. The couture is from his spring-summer 2008 collection, one of Gaultier’s best.
You may notice one thing in particular in this gallery, however: the crying mannequins. Featuring religious themed haute couture from spring-summer 2007, which takes its inspiration from the Virgin Mary, the dresses are the epitome of what it means to be considered couture. One dress in particular is crocheted by Claudia Ortiz-Buritica and features metal plates engraved with icons of saints, as well as a holographic breastplate tile that moves with the viewer.
An in-house artist at Maison Gaultier, as all of his vendors are, she was featured in the 2009 documentary The Day Before by Loïc Prigent, in which she crocheted an embroidered crocodile dress for the haute couture fall-winter 2010-11 show (that dress is featured later in the exhibit, specifically in the last room. It’s a must see).
A number of looks from the documentary are also featured throughout the exhibit. Make sure you don’t miss a white macramé dress from the same collection worn by Kylie Minogue in her video for “Like a Drug.” It’s the definition of amazing.
Next you enter a black room that discusses Gaultier’s youth and his obsession with the female anatomy and corsetry (you’ll notice his teddy bear, of which he enhanced with newspaper breasts).
But there’s one thing that stands out in the far left of the room: a blush pink, quilted wall that looks as though it came straight out of some fabled Parisian boudoir. And there in that boudoir padded room is arguably the most iconic piece of couture of the 20th century: Madonna’s corset from her third tour, “Blond Ambition.” It’s no shock that the enfant terrible of fashion had a close relationship with Madonna. If you knew Madonna in the 90s then you knew who designed the conical brassiere that defined Madonna as much as her music did. She sang “Express Yourself” in it and was threatened by Canadian police during “Like a Virgin” because of it. I sped by Beyonce’s tour costumes and a corset made of wheat, a sign of good luck in French couture (aptly named “George”) to have my picture happily snapped with it. It is undeniably the highlight of my year. Both provocateurs, she helped him as much as he helped her.
One gallery, “Punk Cancan”, is decked out in graffiti walls and features his work broken down into sections: punk, denim and his obsession with the human body (be warned: there is nudity). In the center of the room is a giant rotating runway featuring some of his most iconic punk inspired looks: The infamous cancan dress from haute couture spring-summer 2011 and my personal favorite look, featuring a model decked out literally in head to toe houndstooth. Featured in his spring-summer 2007 prêt-a-porter 30th Anniversary Show (the look was originally debuted in 1991), it was exciting to finally see it in person. Some of his edgier couture and prêt-a-porter from the early to late 90s is also displayed, featuring elaborately beaded skirts and tops that render themselves incomprehensible in production and mastery. It’s in this room that the London punk rocker meets the Parisian couture client in an effortless manner.
My favorite room dealt with the erotic Gothicism loved by Gaultier that frequently occurs in his work. Entitled “Skin Deep”, the room features a narcissistic male mannequin dressed in an elaborate cock feathered corset from Gaultier’s “The Modern Man Collection 1996-7”, in which he introduced the idea of haute couture for men, true to his gender bending roots. The mannequin is having a discussion with his reflection in regard to his appearance and the preconceived notions of gender and their affect on the way we look. The takeaway was simple: “Your image is a game. Be fluid and free.” It was enough to move me to tears, as was the costume worn by Madonna to perform “Future Lovers” in on her “Confessions Tour.”
It’s no secret that Gaultier’s muses are equally important as the seamstresses that create his clothing. The gallery “Metropolis” focuses on Gaultier’s work in costuming movies, music videos and various performers. Beth Ditto of the Gossip, Amy Winehouse and Neneh Cherry are just a few examples of an endless list of inspiration for Gaultier. The dresses each wore on the runway are equally important. It just happens to be that Madonna is more important, but maybe it’s because I like her so much. Or maybe because of a screen projecting the music video for “Nothing Really Matters.” Jean Paul Gaultier designed the costumes for the video. It meant that I’ve been a fan of Gaultier since I was 9, a lot longer than I had expected. It was quite a shocking revelation.
The final gallery, “Urban Jungle”, features clothing from various Gaultier collections. It’s an eclectic mish-mash of Geishas and flamenco dancers, Russian beauties and Masai women. One dress from haute couture fall-winter 1997-8 features a hand beaded leopard skin dress that took 1060 hours to complete. From a distance it looks like fur, but it’s not. In this room you’ll also find an Indian meets Marie Antoinette wedding dress, complete with a feathered veil and jewel encrusted corset from couture fall-winter 2002-3. You will need a lot of time to take in this room. It’s a complete sensory overload, but the good kind.
If anything, I suggest you take your time at this show. As much time as you possibly can manage. Personally, one visit won’t do it. There is a lot to take in and the crowds make it difficult to read and really get up close and personal with every theme in the show. But if you take your time, you may just discover something you never knew about your relationship with fashion. I know I did…