An exhibition spotlights the ways Jean Paul Gaultier’s cutting-edge fashion has intersected with the contemporary art of his time
In 1983, Dianne Benson had the idea to hire an artist to put together an ad campaign for the avant-garde clothing in her Dianne B. boutique. The store, located in SoHo, was among the first in New York to sell the cutting-edge designs of Jean Paul Gaultier, in a neighborhood teeming with young artists and new galleries. After seeing a solo show at nearby Metro Pictures, Benson had found the right person for the job: the chameleonic, self-photographing Cindy Sherman.
“SoHo was a tiny place then and everyone was friendly and on the same wavelength,” Benson says. “I called Cindy, and I said, ‘You can come into the store and take anything you want and do anything you want.’”
Sherman posed for the camera in several high-fashion getups, including two Gaultier ensembles, and an iconic image was born. A sunburned, auburn-haired iteration of the artist appears in a silky pink jumpsuit, befitted with the now-famous Gaultier cone bra. But Sherman put her own twist on the concept by poking in the pointy bust, and the quirky ads soon ran in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.
Images like Sherman’s play a key role in the Brooklyn Museum exhibition “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” which includes numerous examples of how Gaultier’s designs have intersected with the art of his time. The show (on view through February 23) spotlights 130 ready-to-wear and haute-couture looks, as well as films and concert footage featuring Gaultier costumes. But it also has a fascinating selection of work by big-name artists and photographers who have been inspired by Gaultier.
“A lot of that came out of a response to the clothes. I felt forced to use these clothes. I didn’t have a choice,” Sherman says of her photographs, in an interview in the exhibition catalogue. “I was real interested in what the clothing was bringing out of me and some of it was a retaliation against fashion, as well as humor.” Sherman’s subsequent work would continue to riff on fashion and magazine layouts: her 1984 show at Metro Pictures expanded on those Dianne B. photos, with a series that was commissioned by French Vogue but never published.
“Gaultier’s relationships with photographers are very important because he understands it’s about image,” says Thierry-Maxime Loriot, the curator behind the original presentation of “The Fashion World of Gaultier,” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (It has since traveled from the Dallas Museum of Art to the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design in Stockholm, with many stops in between.) “The way these images are transferred to the public is through the eyes of photographers.”
The now 61-year-old French designer first broke onto the fashion scene in the 1970s, with designs that not only challenged traditional formulas but also who might wear the clothing. Gaultier’s name today brings to mind fashionable sailors, religious imagery gone rogue, and men in skirts. He was a pioneer of deploying shocking advertisements, blurring the line between the sexes, and hiring models of different ethnicities and sizes.
Many photographs in “The Fashion World of Gaultier” originated as high-fashion editorial spreads. Herb Ritts shot Gaultier with his muse Madonna for the June 1990 cover of French Glamour in anticipation of Madonna’s Blond Ambition World Tour, for which Gaultier designed the costumes. But the shoot also generated more artistic compositions, such as Ritts’s photograph of the back of Gaultier’s head, with its close- cropped, bleach-blond hair. That picture now serves as the opener to the exhibition catalogue.
Important editorial work by Richard Avedon also appears in the show. The photographer’s portfolio “In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort: A Fable in 24 Episodes,” which ran in the New Yorker in 1995, contained two Gaultier designs. The strange series chronicles Mrs. Comfort (model Nadja Auermann) and Mr. Comfort (an eerie skeleton stuffed into various outfits) as they traipse through a postapocalyptic city. In the opening shot, Mrs. Comfort appears in a tangerine Gaultier dress—its corseted proportions exaggerated by pillow-like padding at the hips and around the neckline —and holds a broken doll. She’s a lightning bolt of color towering above her corpse of a husband, who wears a dingy striped suit. The clothes themselves tell this atypical love story.
Gaultier had previously refused to participate in any museum exhibition of his work, Loriot says, because he believed himself too young. “I’m not dead yet!” he told the curator, explaining that he finds most fashion exhibitions to be funereal. He said, ‘I need the clothes to look alive,’” Loriot recalls. “‘Clothes are made for movement, and you need to see how people move in them.’”
The solution was another example of art inspiring fashion and vice versa. Gaultier had seen a theater performance that used advanced technology to project animated faces onto inanimate mannequins. The same set designers who made those high-tech heads worked on the exhibition, recording the moving faces of dozens of models, singers, and actors, which are replayed on blank dummies in Gaultier garments. The show opens with Gaultier’s own projected face, surrounded by a choir, greeting museumgoers.
The Brooklyn presentation includes new material not seen in previous versions, adding ensembles from Gaultier’s most recent runway shows and outfits he devised for Beyoncé’s stage performances. Brooklyn Museum curator Lisa Small has divided the show into seven sections that trace Gaultier’s evolution. The first part, “The Odyssey,” introduces his major themes and features his very first design, from 1971, which had never before been exhibited. “The Boudoir” is devoted to his lingerie-inspired work, most notably the cone bra, while “Skin Deep” addresses Gaultier’s designs that take cues from the human body. His punk looks are on display in “Punk Cancan,” and his interest in cultural identity shows up in “Urban Jungle,” with ensembles based on the dress of Hasidic Jews, Peruvians, and the artist Frida Kahlo. “Muses” reveals the individuals who have directly impacted Gaultier’s ideas, and “Metropolis” focuses on his collaborations with performers and filmmakers such as Tina Turner, Nirvana, Kylie Minogue, and Luc Besson, whose futuristic movie The Fifth Element (1997) memorably featured bright, geometric costumes by Gaultier.
“These are really groundbreaking designs: under- as outerwear, androgyny, the incorporation of elements of street style. Gaultier was there first and continues to be,” Small says. “He’s a designer who has departed on purpose from a cookie-cutter esthetic, from the way models look to the way fashions are constructed.”
Unlike other designers, Gaultier, from the beginning of his career, has had a high profile in pop culture. Even Andy Warhol took notice. In 1984, when commissioned by the Italian magazine Mondo Uomo to photograph the hip, young, notorious people of the day, Warhol immediately thought of the club kid Gaultier. The famed Pop artist snapped a group of Polaroids of Gaultier at the trendy nightclub Area, just after the designer had shown a collection at Bryant Park.
“I asked Jean Paul, ‘Do you remember this?’” Loriot says of the Warhol shoot. “He said, ‘Yes, but I’ve never seen it. I was too shy to ask for one.’”
But Warhol clearly had his eye on Gaultier. “I think the way people dress today is a form of artistic expression,” he told Mondo Uomo. “Art lies in the way the whole outfit is put together. Take Jean Paul Gaultier. What he does is really art.”
Ali Pechman is a writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Observer, the Paris Review Daily, and Salon.