The first international exhibition devoted to
Jean Paul Gaultier is currently on view at the Montreal Museum
of Fine Arts, with future venues planned for Dallas and
San Francisco. Call it far-out or fabulous, just don’t call
it a retrospective. For the rebellious couturier,
it’s a creation in its own right.
IT’S BEEN 35 YEARS SINCE JEAN PAUL GAULTIER launched his fashion house, and in that time his ready-to-wear business has swelled to include bestselling fragrances, couture (in 1997), children’s wear, home décor and the occasional foray into makeup (cleverly marketed for men). Yet at 59, the accomplished designer is still known as fashion’s enfant terrible, a reputation he cultivates with gusto and his trademark cheeky humor. A recent example was his Spring 2011 haute couture show, which melded 19th-century French cancan dancers with a London punk inspiration. He dubbed the collection “Punk Cancan,” and the audience loved it. Per tradition, the défilé closed with a ravishing bride—who turned out to be the androgynous male model Andrej Pejic.
Gaultier reckons the moniker endures because he still dares to dream. “Since the age of six, fashion has been my dream,” he says. “Forty-one years ago, I started living that dream at Pierre Cardin. And once I started living my dream, it occurred to me that I had no reason to lie.”
He notes that he was a proficient fibber in his youth, perhaps in order to make himself more interesting to others. As if to prove that he truly has been rehabilitated, he is brutally honest about his dim view of retrospectives: “To me, retrospectives are for dead people. That’s why I have always refused to do them.”
So what made the designer agree to “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk,” now on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts? In large part, the answer lies in his lifelong passion for theater. Denis Marleau and Stéphanie Jasmin of Montreal’s UBU theater company helped stage the event, turning what might have been a garden-variety fashion exhibition into an iconoclastic event à la Gaultier.
The designer discovered Marleau at the 2002 Festival d’Avignon, where he was putting on a production of Maeterlinck’s The Blind. The staging relied on sophisticated, hyper-realistic projection technology to create visual surprise and explore what is and what isn’t. For Gaultier’s exhibition, Marleau has recast his technique as a reflection on individuality. Thirty mannequins with animated faces created by audiovisual projections on specially modeled heads crop up in unexpected places throughout the show, the intent being to surprise visitors with their lifelike presence. In addition to Gaultier himself, visitors will encounter models Eve Salvail and Francisco Randez, Quebecoise TV personality Virginie Coossa, soprano Suzie Leblanc and musician Melissa Auf der Maur. In a very real sense, the exhibition was designed to take on a life of its own, to exist as a creation in its own right.