I am not a fashion buff. I don’t watch catwalk shows, adjust the length of my skirts to what’s in this season, nor buy Vogue. But I love fashion. I grew up surrounded by women’s magazines and the smell of Givenchy perfume, and developed an appreciation for quality and uniqueness (thanks, Mum!). I avoid shopping on the high street, as I’m not keen on the idea of cheap and disposable mass-produced clothes, and instead I prefer hunting for good labels in vintage shops or on eBay. Despite being mostly indifferent to current trends, I have always taken a great interest in fashion creators. So when I read that the Barbican were hosting a retrospective exhibition celebrating the 40-year career of Jean Paul Gaultier, one of my favourite designers whose Classique perfume I wear, I knew I had to go.
And I loved it. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk exhibition is absolutely stunning—very well designed, arranged and balanced. It is divided into eight themes, and the upper floor consists of luxury boutique-style booths where the garments are beautifully displayed with theatrical lighting. The mannequins are custom-made, and some of them are animated: they chat, hum, and recite poetry. Needless to say, I spent four hours in an aggressively air-conditioned space and found it hard to leave.
The section where I spent a lot of time, for it stroke a particular chord with me, is dedicated to the artist’s muses. One of the (many) things that early on differentiated Gaultier from other fashion designers, was his rejection of the standard “tall, blonde and ethereal” look. “Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models—the conventionally pretty need not apply,” he wrote in an ad in the French newspaper Libération. And so he began his long-term work relationships with people of non-standard body type and non-specific gender, including models, musicians, and actresses. Erin O’Connor is flat-chested with a nose “the size of Concorde,” to use her own words. The nose of famous Spanish actress and his other muse, Rossy de Palma, is even bigger. Beth Ditto and Velvet d’Amour are both obese, Lily Cole has very widely set eyes and a small mouth, and Andrej Pejić and Terry Toy are both androgynous.
“Perfection is relative and beauty is subjective,” says Gaultier. “I wanted to make imperfection admirable… Sometimes a different energy and bearing, or an unusual type of body catches my eyes and makes me want to invent something. With both haute couture and prêt-à-porter, I’ve always tried to create collections that could speak to all kinds of men and women of different ages and styles.” He’s not interested in trying to make people “different from what they really are, but only bring out their personality.”
Stacey McKenzie, Canadian fashion model of Jamaican origin, owes her success to Gaultier’s support. “To this day, I cry when reminiscing on meeting Mr. Gaultier—a man who changed my life,” she wrote in an article for the Huffington Post. “At this point, I was very close to reaching my breaking point. The bullying, teasing, criticisms, hate, and NOs were beginning to take their toll on me. Jean Paul was the first designer to tell me I was beautiful. Jean was also the first to encourage me to stay true to myself and pay no mind to what anyone thought,” she confessed.
Gaultier’s work is a celebration of unconventional beauty and personality. His message is clear—embrace your body with its oddities and imperfections and have fun with your look! With his Wardrobe for Two collection (1985), he introduced clothes that escaped gender conventions. But he doesn’t push for the androgenic look and allows men and women to be as masculine or feminine as they wish to be. A woman can wear an impossibly glamorous dress made out of pearl buttons and sequins (Mermaids collection: Haute couture spring/summer 2008), or a masculine Jewish-inspired tailored black overcoat and curly side locks (Chic Rabbis collection: Women’s pret-a-porter autumn/winter 1993-1994.) A man can wear a “macho” sailor’s outfit and tattoos, PVC trousers and a top with embroidered skulls, a tulle and lace bodysuit or frilled flares. It is thanks to Gaultier that men have reclaimed a skirt and a corset—two items of clothing that, as Nathalie Bondil (Director and Chief Curator The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), points out, “have antecedents in sarongs, kilts and aprons, and old military and cavalry corsets.” Gaultier empowers both sexes. His corsets aren’t the 19th century cage crinolines which imprisoned female body. They’re a symbol of sexual freedom and strength, beautifully illustrated by Dita Von Teese stripping off her underwear to reveal a skeletal bustier encrusted with black and red crystals at the end of Women’s Haute Couture autumn/winter 2010-11 show. Bondil says: “During the ancient régime, for a man to show his legs was a sign of phallic power; for Madonna to expose her breasts in a Gaultier‐designed cone bra proclaims feminine power.” For Gaultier, there is no weakness that women should conceal. In his Bad Girls—G Spot collection (spring/summer 2010) the artist showed a corset that emphasised the abdomen of an expecting mother.
And no-one else (apart from perhaps Vivienne Westwood) has been so successful at bringing together completely opposite aesthetic worlds: the grotty street (Mohawk haircuts, torn stockings, studded biker jackets) and Paris boulevard (trench coats, berets, baguettes); the fetishist dungeon and Virgin Mary robes and halos; the east and west, north and south. A lot of his collections are tributes to different countries and cultures: Africa, Greece, Ukraine and Russia. “The skin, its different types and various tones, has always appealed to me: from white to caramel, red, black that’s almost blue, ebony. Complexions have an influence on the garments, set them off, like when I showed the Paris neon embroidered dress on Alek Wek, a model with very black skin. It was extremely beautiful.” One of his favourite models is Farida Khelfa who became the first model with North African background when she appeared on Gaultier’s catwalk in 1979.
As a white middle-class woman size 8, perhaps I have no reason to be so concerned with women on the catwalk. But I am, for in the culture striving for the ultimate look devised through Photoshop retouching and plastic surgery, it is extremely easy to feel outcast, outsized and out of everyone’s league. And while everyone’s digitally removing freckles and blemishes, Gaultier celebrates them. When every woman is turning to Botox and laser to go back 20 years in time, Gaultier puts spotlight on older women: 89-year old Polly Mellen and 83-year old Carmen Dell’Orefice.
I must confess that I have a problem with cultural homogeneity. It is not just fashion with the same looking smooth, slim and tall Scandinavian beauties. In interior design, it’s shiny white tops in the kitchen, a concrete wall in the living room and free standing sink units in the bathroom. It’s the omnipresence of Helvetica in advertising—when designers default to something that works and everyone likes instead of using their design skills to experiment. It’s keeping up with the Joneses, getting a lifelong mortgage, buying bestsellers and choosing popular holiday destinations.
For me, the Gaultier exhibition is not just about admiring the beauty of his clothes. (Though, admittedly, their craftsmanship is breathtaking—some of the garments take a few hundred hours to make.) The focal point of the show lies elsewhere—in an invitation to admire the beauty of our own uniqueness and to find ways to express it. “It’s the Fashion Superman side of me, who wants to make people see beauty where seemingly there is none,” said Gaultier in an interview with Thierry‐Maxime Loriot, the show’s curator. And for that I will always love him.