Okay so before we begin let’s set the story straight here and lay down the fact that I know very little about fashion. That’s kind of the reason why I was so curious about going along to the Barbican to see the preview of their latest show that everyone is talking about: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.
As a total noob, I’d say that going along to this show unaware of Gaultier’s historic clout was a totally good move. The show is a visual feast for anyone that likes the following: learning, clothes, history, photography, and pop culture. You are led through glowing areas of the Barbican’s cavernous exhibition space into different segments of Gaultier’s career from his boudoir collection (silky, sexy corsets) to his punk era (metre-high mohicans) surrounded at all times by some seriously impressive mannequins with creepy, speaking face projections.
Little cheeky touches have been put in place to reassure you of Jean Paul’s trademark personality: most of the mannequins are holding a cigarette between their thin fingers and there’s a chatter of French voices coming from all angles which gives the impression that you’re in some kind of chic, Parisian, bitchy studio or cafe. In fact, there are so many fun little touches here and there that you kind of forget why you’re there, and that’s to marvel at the sheer level of craftsmanship that’s being displayed.
Jean Paul Gaultier is very, very good at making clothes, sure, but there’s a whole other level to it – he’s literally inspired by EVERYTHING. From Roman Catholic visual knick-knacks, to leopard’s heads, and from Frida Kahlo to the streets of London – his clothes (if you can merely call them “clothes”) are like mood boards that have splurged out of his brain in waves of sequins on to a dressmaking dummy, or Kylie Minogue.
A lot of designers take inspiration from sources and feed them directly into their work – but how many of those designers would devote an enormous amount of their own retrospective to them? That’s what’s great about Gaultier’s show – everywhere you look is a David LaChapelle, a Pierre et Gilles, a portrait of Madonna, of Kylie, or even a series of paintings by a totally different artist (Annie Kevans) studying his muses through the ages. It would be easy to forget that this show is not about one guy, but a whole list of cultural influencers from the past 40 years.
It’s not though. As you go down the stairs towards the exit you catch sight of a little photo in a black frame, in a dark corner. It’s an utterly beautiful, rather modest photograph of the back of Gaultier’s head taken by the legend that was Herb Ritts. Just to serve as a reminder of who’s boss.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is on show at the Barbican from 10 April to 24 August 2014
You can have a look at our curated look at London’s best shows over on This at There.