In the 1960s, there was a schoolboy who was a bit peculiar. He was no good at football. The other schoolboys didn’t really get him. He spent a lot of time with his grandmother, a tarot card reader, who said he was going to be beautiful and have a good life. Together they watched 1940s films, and he became fascinated by the costume design on screen: the couture, and all that came with it, wondrous fabrics, exotic feathers and sexy fishnets. Jean Paul Gaultier took what had inspired him at home, and reproduced these images in class. The teacher slapped him on the wrist, safety pinned the sketch to his back, and told him to face the wall. She intended to humiliate him, but the boys now understood Gaultier, and wanted more sketches. Gaultier opened his exhibition in London with this anecdote and in a way, it beautifully captures all you’re about to see.
“The purpose of exhibition is to pay tribute to Jean Paul Gaultier’s humanism” said Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts who, to my relief gave a charming but brief introduction to the exhibition. That humanism took shape in an iconoclastic approach to fashion and a liberal celebration of beauty.
The exhibition displays not just the fashion, but the musings and principles which underpin all of Gaultier’s work. He doesn’t like his models to be robots. He doesn’t care much for conventional beauty; that is to say the slim, ethereal, classic figures that characterized the fashion world during his apprenticeship in the 70s. His models are fat, old, transgender, mixed race and tattooed. In so many words they are diverse, a fact that reflects his original interpretation of beauty. The spectacular photography on display, small and large images, exemplifies his enduring commitment to that belief, and just the right amount was included, which enables you to give each piece its due appreciation without being overcome with material.
“In Paris, fashion has to be serious”, said Gaultier, “but in London people can be fun’. After a few paces around the exhibition it becomes obvious that Gaultier may, according to his own definition, be in fact more than 1/8 English — something he told us with pride. The talking models scattered around the exhibition in provocative poses removed all doubts as to whether or not he was a designer who challenges convention and enjoys poking fun at the establishment.
By the end of the exhibition, the headline “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” made perfect sense. Gaultier drew inspiration from the sidewalk. Whether it was walking past David Bowie on the Kings Road in 1974 or, wandering around Portobello. He elaborated that “it is more interesting and inspiring to look at people who are not in fashion as they aren’t observing a code”. He transferred these ideas and the people that embodied them to the catwalk. It was his world meeting another world, a distinction, which today can no longer be drawn. He fulfilled his grandmother’s prophecy, and went a bit further, making others beautiful and leads a life good for himself, and even better for society. So to borrow his own words: “Enjoy it, and have a good moment”.