Known as one of the world’s best couturiers, Jean Paul Gaultier has teamed up with the Brooklyn Museum for its latest exhibition, “From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.” For more than 40 years, the French designer has produced hundreds of couture garments that are all transformative, storytelling, playful and poetic. The exhibition itself is also the first international exhibition to exclusively celebrate Gaultier.
To show Gaultier’s detailed craftsmanship and inspirations, “From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” features seven themes, outlining the different subjects by which he was heavily inspired. These included the London punk rock scene, eroticism and the sexual revolution, ethnic diversity, mermaids, virgins, and more. In addition, Gaultier installed multiple projectors to project a moving, talking and singing face on every mannequin. By doing this, he is able to bring his garments to life for his audience to experience.
Gaultier is known as a designer who is not afraid to cross boundaries in the fashion world. Lisa Small, the curator of exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, described Gaultier as someone who “has been an iconoclastic designer from the beginning of his career, setting trends rather than following them,” and how “he’s challenged established societal and aesthetic conventions, disrupted gendered fashion by designing skirts for men, creating garments that freely mix elements and materials from women’s and men’s fashions.” Small’s description of Gaultier is clearly shown through the exhibition itself, with one example of a light peach corset designed for a male figure. Another example would be the different muses whom the designer highly appreciated, one of which includes Andrej Pejic, an androgynous model who wore an intricately embroidered couture dress for Gaultier’s January 2011 show.
Corsetry and coned bras were pieces Gaultier designed exclusively for Madonna for her Blond Ambition Tour in 1990 as well as for her “MDNA” Tour in 2012. One of the seven sections in the exhibition is dedicated to the various corsets the singer-songwriter wore during her performances. In addition, Gaultier’s original sketches of the corsets are on display.
I had the chance to experience “From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” firsthand. I have always been intrigued by how Gaultier is able to translate his inspiration through his designs, and the exhibition allowed me to physically perceive his work. A highlight of the exhibition is his “Virgins” collection from 2007, where Gaultier was inspired by the imagery and symbolism of Christianity and religious art. This section includes mannequins wearing rich-colored loose gowns that echo old Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary. All the mannequins also wear headdresses, and they each have a teardrop painted on its face.
Another section from the exhibition that I appreciated was “Punk Cancan,” where Gaultier displays his inspiration from London’s punk rock scene. When I first walked into this section, I was immediately struck by its setting — the walls are covered in heavy graffiti designs, and there is a runway set in the middle of the room where several mannequins are mechanically moved to mimic a real runway show. One corner of this section is dedicated to Gaultier’s use of denim; he created an intricate corset with denim wires overlapping each other and a tight-fitted denim gown with individually stitched feathers on the bottom to name a few. Another corner is dedicated to the camouflage pattern, as it is seen on shoulder-to-finger gloves and long flowing gowns. Furthermore, every mannequin in this section is styled with a deep-black-colored mohawk in order to evoke the punk rock scene.
Lastly, another section of the exhibition that I highly admired centers on the subjects of eroticism, sexual revolution and transgender individuals. Gaultier was able to build a two-story-high red-light district similar to the one in Amsterdam for this section. One or two mannequins are situated in each cubicle, while three mannequins are placed in the center of the section. Couture pieces that were shown here are primarily made out of leather and lace and invoke Gaultier’s regard to the erotic dominance and submission culture.
After spending an hour and a half enjoying and observing Gaultier’s design process, I have to say that this exhibition is positively overwhelming, stunningly beautiful and highly intricate.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s “From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” will be shown until Feb. 23 at the Brooklyn Museum. I greatly encourage anyone to take the time to travel to Brooklyn for this exhibition — it’s worth it.