In a recent talk with Vanity Fair, iconoclastic designer Jean Paul Gaultier described being punished in class at age nine for drawing girls in fishnets and feathers from the Folies Bergère. At 61, he’s still drawing girls in fishnets and feathers (and ace bandages, and fish scales, and leather harness bras), only now it's to great acclaim.
Finally making its first and only East Coast appearance, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk opened this weekend at the Brooklyn Museum. The critically lauded touring exhibition has already been seen by half a million people around the world, and it’s about time impatient New Yorkers get their turn. Among the 150 couture and ready-to-wear pieces on view are some new additions, including Beth Ditto’s corset, Beyonce’s glittery jumpsuit, and a dress modeled by the androgynous Andrej Pejic.
It’s the rare designer who gets to see his work exhibited in a museum while he’s still alive, and the very much alive Gaultier told Vanity Fair he never thought such a day would come. "It’s very flattering. . . . It’s incredible that I am still alive; normally, it’s when you are dead that you have something like that, no? . . . But, but, but, but, when I saw the team in Montreal that came and asked me, I thought, Maybe we’ll do something, but I want it not to be a funeral. I want it to be an experience, a new adventure." It's clear the show is not a swan song. Most recently, Gaultier designed an updated pointy leather bra harness for Madonna's MDNA tour.
The exhibit includes an abundance of iconic costumes from movies and MTV, including the ace-bandage getup that an alien Milla Jovovich wore while teetering on a windowsill in The Fifth Element and the cone bra that inspired shock and awe during Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour.
Perhaps more than any other high-end designer, Gaultier picked up on the sartorial trends of the punk scene in the '70s and '80s and turned counterculture into haute couture. (So haute that "Punk" was the theme of this year's Met Gala. Vogue's Grace Coddington lamented that there were no "real punks, real street punks" at the Gala, but reasoned, "I doubt they were invited.") Now posing in Brooklyn, mohawked mannequins stand before a wall of graffiti. They're clad in punk-plaid kilts, combat boots, a skull-studded sweater and a furry orange boa. In Gaultier's mermaid collection, glittering, pointy-breasted mannequins swim through gold lamé in fish-scale gowns.
Stefan Sednaoui directed a trippy black-and-white video of the designer discussing the exhibition—his voice gets chopped and screwed and auto-tuned as his body melts and morphs into fashion models dressed in his many cutting-edge creations.
Even the museum gift shop has some gems. For sale are prints of Gaultier’s Madonna sketches, sailor hats, and berets, and punk-couture teddy bears in kilts, stripes, and chains (for $150—not very punk, after all).
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through February 23.