Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy once said that “All the best rock stars come from the gutter and aspire to be sublime. And that’s a great tension, it’s very romantic, very glamorous.” Whether he knew he was paraphrasing Oscar Wilde or not, Murphy’s rather luminous statement could be effortlessly transferred to fashion’s only true rock star, Jean Paul Gaultier. Born in the working class Paris suburb of Arcueil, fashion’s enfant terrible has always, since his beginnings as an assistant to Pierre Cardin in 1970, had one eye cast towards the gutter and the other gazing up at the stars.
In the process, he’s fiercely cultivated a view of beauty that’s often as shocking as it is ravishing, consistently conjuring the sublime from the seemingly outrageous. Having absorbed the confrontational stylistic mien of punk, yet ever-possessed of a Frenchman’s feel for historical context, Gaultier designed as much for louche rock stars and glorious misfits as for the most refined mondaines.
This summer, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will be presenting The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From The Sidewalk to the Catwalk, which, at his fervent insistence, is much less a traditional exhibition than a dazzling, multi-sensory spectacle. To wit, the show will feature animated “replicants” of not only Gaultier himself, but also such inimitable muses and collaborators as Montreal-born rocker Melissa Auf der Maur (of Hole and Smashing Pumpkins) and Canadian model/DJ Eve Salvail.
Curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot reveals that, “It’s not the typical fashion exhibition. In fact, Gaultier refused to do a retrospective on his work, because he said he is too young. It’s more a thematic exhibition, about all his obsessions and how they come out in his work.”
Of course, Gaultier’s obsessions are legion. His designs have over the years fearlessly engaged religion, fetishism, cross-culturalism, corsetry, tromp l’oeil, even zoomorphism. And indeed, far from some banal, static display of frocks, the exhibit delves into his work in film (Fifth Element, The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, Almodovar’s Kika, etc), his collaborations with some of the towering figures of art and photography (Cindy Sherman, David LaChapelle, Mario Testino, Warhol), and his headline-grabbing costuming of musical superstars like Kylie Minogue and Madonna. “He was the first runway designer to do a real collaboration with a musician,” Loriot points out. “Before that, it was only costume designers.” Despite the hundreds upon thousands of times he’s been branded with the ‘avant-garde’ tag, the exhibit proves, Gaultier is really a wide-eyed, fun-loving monsieur, who has an apparently limitless passion for engaging the culture around him, be it high or low, exotic or familiar, historical or pointing the way to the future. It’s hardly a wonder that Alexander McQueen (another working class bloke and rebellious visionary) admired him so much; few other designers have come close to JPG’s ability to so wondrously transcend the often uninspiring business of fashion.
According to Loriot, “Gaultier says that there is a thin line between provocation and originality, and he believes he is more an original than a provocateur. He is a couturier with the spirit of a punk. He just doesn’t take himself so seriously.”
If it seems odd that the lifelong Parisian would have chosen Montreal as the site of his first dedicated museum exhibition, just know that Gaultier has recently gushed about his amour for the Francophone but exceedingly international and sophisticated Quebec province city, citing its food, films, music, and the warmth of its people. But Loriot’s palpable and rapturous enthusiasm for the designer’s work surely also has a lot to do with the decision.
Loriot gives a little laugh, thinking back on the enormous task of condensing such a prolific and ineffable career into one show. “Gaultier said it was like he’d just finished six new collections!”
Asked if there was a favorite moment during the process, he points to a series of fascinatingly candid Madonna photos.
“She was very surprised to see these photos from her fittings for the Blond Ambition tour. She had actually never seen them before.”
Surprised, indeed. In the photos, the ambitious blond’s hair is black.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk runs from June 17 to October 2 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.