Jean Paul Gaultier‘s take on fashion has always come with a playful wink – think of the infamous conical bra worn by Madonna in the 1990s – and an exhibition at the Barbican celebrating his work is no exception.
This is a theme park of a show, with a moving catwalk, a set designed to look like a boudoir and mannequins wearing wigs designed by hair stylist Odile Gilbert with faces projected on to their heads to make them appear alive.
At a press conference ahead of the opening of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, the French designer quipped that he had previously resisted the idea of a museum show “because that is something for when you’re dead”. He responded, he said, by making “an adventure of a show”, a Gaultier spin on the designer retrospective.
All of Gaultier’s superstar designs are included – from the outfit worn by Madonna on the Blonde Ambition tour to costumes for Pedro Almodóvar films and the “pregnant” corset Jourdan Dunn modelled in 2009. Clips of Eurotrash, the latenight show Gaultier appeared on in the mid-1990s are on show in an upstairs gallery, along with the 1993 Spitting Image puppet of the designer, in his trademark kilt.
The exhibition works through different themes of Gaultier’s design classics, starting with the Breton stripe. The first galleries show its various incarnations – as a long sequin sheath dress, a huge hat and as a cropped top for men. A mannequin dressed as Gaultier in striped jumper, kilt and peroxide hair completes the picture.
A room labelled Punky Cancan explores Gaultier’s love of London’s street culture, which he first encountered on frequent visits in the 1970s. Kilts, tartan, ripped denim and camouflage are included, but reappropriated into ballgowns and smart suiting for an unexpected, and very French, chic.
This channel-crossing combination – witty design but of couture quality – has Gaultier’s handwriting all over it. “There is a lot of London in my work,” he said. “I was more at home here than in Paris at one point.”
Paris-born Gaultier was self-taught and set up his ready-to-wear label in 1976, with couture following in 1997. Now 61, he is in his fifth decade in the fashion industry and has the output to warrant an exhibition on this scale.
While some rooms, particularly in the upper galleries, lose the viewer when the overly dramatic sets threaten to overshadow Gaultier’s status as a couturier, gowns in one gallery have captions on how many hours they took to make – making the craft of an atelier explicit. One red raffia and tulle design, for the spring/summer 2005 Tribute to Africa collection, clocks in at 163 hours.
Originally exhibited in Montreal in 2011, the London stop marks the eighth venue for The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, which has now been seen by about 1 million visitors. It is expected to be just as popular here. There will be a film season at the Barbican curated by Gaultier, the London College of Fashion has a companion exhibition of Gaultier’s show invites over the years and the patisserie chain Paul has created a Breton-striped eclair in its honour.
The Barbican’s show finishes with rooms dedicated to the muses of Gaultier. Madonna’s corset is here, along with Polaroids of the designer and the popstar backstage. Designs worn by Naomi Campbell – including a memorable body stocking with sequins for pubic hair – are featured alongside those worn by Kate Moss and Kylie Minogue. A picture of Minogue, photographed by Gaultier collaborators Pierre et Gilles in 2008, shows the singer as an alternative religious icon, wearing a flowing chiffon gown, surrounded by tiny topless sailors with angel wings. This is a typical Gaultier conceit – beautiful, couture-like design mixed with high camp. The exhibition follows similar lines, and is all the more enjoyable for it.