The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk

by Ingrid Mida

When Jean Paul Gaultier was first approached by Nathalie Bondil, the director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, about doing an exhibition of his work, he said no. “For me, it would be a funeral,” said Gaultier. But Ms. Bondil persisted, because she considered Gaultier to be a contemporary artist with a subtle but important message about beauty having no singular shape, age or sexual orientation. “He offers an open-minded vision of society, a crazy, sensitive, funny, sassy world in which everyone can assert his or her own identity, a world without discrimination, a unique 'fusion couture'”. The result of her vision and the collaborative efforts of her creative team is the exhibition “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk”.

“Fashion exhibitions can be really dead,” said Ms. Bondil and “Jean Paul Gaultier said it should be really alive”. To this end, exhibition curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot collaborated with a Quebec theatre producers Denis Marleau and Stephanie Jasmin to create a new type of mannequin with animated faces. Bought to life by video projection onto a three-dimensional sculpted mask, these mannequins stare into space, blink, look away, sing, and speak in both French and English. In scripts that evoke the sentiments of Gaultier, they say things like:  “ I am what I am;” “Je suis que je suis”;  “I am the woman I want to be”.

Animated Mannequin from The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

This innovative presentation of clothing highlights Gaultier’s belief that “there is not only one type of beauty.” The models are based on real people, including one of Gaultier that greets visitors at the top of the stairs. Their subtle but real flaws, such as moles and not so perfect teeth, are replicated exactly and their life-like presence adds a sense of surreal whimsy to the installation.

Instead of a chronological survey of Gaultier’s thirty-five year career, the exhibition is presented thematically. The six parts include The Odyssey (the world of sailors, mermaids and virgins); The Boudoir (the influence of the corset); Skin Deep (Gaultier’s fascination with sex and skin), Eurostar (elegant women surrounded by fashionable punks), Urban Jungle (the blending of ethnic influences and global inspiration), and Metropolis (collaborations with artists of film, theatre, music and dance and futuristic designs).

There are about 120 ensembles for both men and women mainly from the couture collections and also from the pret-a-porter line. There also are photographs, sketches, runway videos and film clips that add up to a bold and vibrant presentation of the designer’s work. This is not an elegant refined presentation like the MMFA’s 2008 Yves Saint Laurent exhibition; rather, it is a colorful, lively and, at times, chaotic trip through thirty-five years of Gaultier’s work. It is fun, fresh and filled with joie de vivre – like Jean Paul Gaultier himself.

Urban Jungle Gallery at The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

Considerable effort has gone into often over-looked details like labeling, which is bilingual and comprehensive. The gallery labels clearly explain the thematic precepts of each section.  As well, some labels for garments include information on how many hours the ensemble took to create. For example, in the first gallery, called Odyssey, there is a chiffon and lame lace gown with matching top with appliques. This particular gown (shown in the photo below), which was from Gaultier’s haute couture spring summer collection of 2007, took 315 hours to create. Such information adds another dimension of appreciation for the artistry and dedication demanded of couture.

Virgins Collection from The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

Although a few items are behind glass (including Madonna’s Blonde Ambition corsets which are on loan), most are not and it is possible to get close enough to see the level of craftsmanship involved. Curator Nathalie Bondlin said “It is not possible to understand the excellence of haute couture unless you can see it up close. As a museum, we should show objects that are not otherwise accessible.”


An enormous 424 page exhibition catalogue was compiled by curator Thierry Maxime Loriot and includes over 500 illustrations and many interviews with Gaultier’s mentors, muses and colleagues. Essays by Suzie Menkes and Valerie Steele as well as a timeline of Gaultier’s career and a complete bibliography are included in this weighty tome.

Cage Collection from The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

As groundbreaking as this installation is, it wasn’t until I heard Jean Paul Gaultier speak about his vision of beauty that I really appreciated what drives this designer.  To Gaultier, beauty has no singular standard and is not defined by size, age, gender or sexual orientation. His passionate commitment to be inclusive, to find the beauty within each person and not be limited by the seemingly skeletal standard of a tall, blonde clothes hanger was refreshing to my ears. “Fashion is for everybody”.

And yet, I am not confident that this important premise will reveal itself to most visitors to the exhibition. The title of the installation “From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” does not reference beauty or inclusion, nor does it suggest any deeper level of meaning. Because the exhibition itself is so whimsical and fun with its cacophony of sounds and visual delights, I suspect only a few will understand the subtle conceptual premise.  That is a shame because everyone could benefit from hearing Jean Paul Gaultier say: “Be yourself. Have confidence in yourself. Live your dream.”

This exhibition continues at the MMFA in Montreal until October 2, 2011. Thereafter it will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art (November 13, 2011 - February 12, 2012), The  Fine Art Museum of San Francisco, de Young (March 24 - August 19, 2012), Fundacion Mapfre in Madrid (September 26 - November 18, 2012) and Kunsthal Rotterdam in the Netherlands (February 9 - May 12, 2013).

Photo credits: Ingrid Mida, copyright 2011

Ingrid Mida is an artist, writer and researcher based in Toronto. She is represented by Loop Gallery in Toronto and also  lectures about the intersection of art and fashion.