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

Caterina Tiezzi


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On my way to The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Barbican Centre’s Art Gallery. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2014.

Mermaids and Punks, Sailors and Madonna’s, neon signs and photographs, voices and projected faces, static and rotating mannequins: these are a few ingredients that make up The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From The Sidewalk to The Catwalk. Introduced as ‘the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to the celebrated French couturier’, this traveling display is a further recognition of Gaultier’s talent and an elevation of this enfant terrible from designer to icon.[1] But is this really a comprehensive depiction of Gaultier’s world? This article will walk you along the exhibition while pondering on this.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), via its Director and Curator Nathalie Bondil and Curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot collaborated in 2011 with Maison Jean Paul Gaultier to organise this show. Since those early days when that exhibit was first presented at MMFA, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier has travelled to eight museums across the United States and Europe, collecting enthusiastic reviews. [Its next tests will be held in Melbourne (Australia), and Paris, home of Gaultier himself.] I had the good fortune of seeing this exhibition twice: in its incarnation at the De Young, the Fine Art Museum of San Francisco , and in its current state at the Barbican Art Gallery  in London, where it will remain until the 25th August, 2014. Even with this double take, overwhelming marvel was my emotional response to an exhibition that packs a lot in and continues to add new features to its original display. More than 150 garments from both Gaultier’s couture and prêt-à-porter collections have been carefully selected along with photographs, videos, artworks, furniture, perfume bottles and sentimental objects, to reveal the story of the designer.[2] In addition, the London display adds a free app  to the packet where interviews, text and photographs provide other key insights into the already rich exhibition. This addition speaks of the trend to incorporate interactivity within museum displays, but it is not the only added feature to the London exhibit. In fact, new garments have been incorporated into the original display, as a testimony of the fast-paced nature of fashion and of the fact that Gaultier is still alive, creating and evolving. It is also interesting to see that portraits and artistic productions made by other artists on the subject of Gaultier – the man himself – have also been included in the show, indicating the further popularisation of the designer/artist who has become a subject of idolisation in his own right.

Despite the various mediums and objects on display, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is a carefully narrated show composed of eight themes that according to the organisers of the exhibition manifest ‘the influences that have marked Gaultier’s creative development.’ [3]

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A view of the Odyssey, Barbican Centre’s Art Gallery. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2014.

An odyssey welcomes you to the world of the famous French designer. First of the eight sections mentioned earlier, “The Odyssey” serves as an introduction for the viewer to learn that Gaultier is a self-taught designer with a vision and remarkable professional experiences, having began his career working for the fashion houses of Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou. Gaultier, however, soon tried it on his own, in fact, in 1976 aged just 24:

‘He set up his own company[…] starting with a women’s prêt-à-porter line, and added a menswear collection in 1983. In 1997, Gaultier opened his own couture house showing two collections a year. From 2004 until 2010, in addition to producing four collections a year for his prêt-à-porter lines, he designed two other for Hermès.’[4]

 Mesmerised by what seems to be sheer talent packaged in a success story, “The Odyssey” presents key features of Gaultier’s work and his flair for the unexpected, displayed through talking mannequins. The designer’s fascination with a-typical women is revealed along with his wish to break the established rules of clothing, for example by designing skirts for men. Moreover, reading the labels, it becomes apparent that Gaultier is appreciated by different publics, for some of his designs have been favoured by famous pop-music icons, while others are the approved product of the exclusive world of haute couture.

After this initial introduction, the exhibition continues on to explore other key themes that are woven through Gaultier’s collections season after season. In the next room “Punk Cancan” presents a dance of alluring and cheeky parisian-inspired creations rotating on a catwalk, surrounded by punk influences, warriors in denim, tartan, and military flavoured ensembles some of which have taken more than a hundred hours to be completed.

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Punk Cancan Catwalk, Barbican Centre’s Art Gallery. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2014.

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A new addition on the left: ‘Vintage denim jacket embellished with Swarovski crystals, from the Butterfly Show Girls collection, Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014, Barbican Centre’s Art Gallery. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2014.

In the adjacent section of the show, “Muses” are presented. From Naomi Campbell to Kylie Minogue, women and men with distinct character have piqued Gaultier’s imagination. Yet the designer’s interest and take on women’s garment is perhaps best remembered in his cone-bra corset creations for Madonna’s tour, which are exhibited in “The Bourdoir”. Along with those iconic stage costumes, other garments are displayed that show the evolution of this scandalous-turned-iconic idea and its translation into the characteristically shaped bottles of Gaultier’s perfume line.

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In the Muses’ room, Barbican Centre’s Art Gallery. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2014.

The next section of the exhibition, “Metropolis”, is an amalgamation of garments from separate lines that explores how different aspects of the fantastical worlds of the television screen, film and theatrical productions have often inspired Gaultier in his own fashion spectacles. After comes “Eurotrash”, which is a nod to Gaultier’s appreciation of London, and to his co-hosting of the TV-programme that in the 90s ‘explored the underbelly of European culture.’ [5]

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Jean Paul Gaultier puppet created for the television programme Spitting Image, 1993, made by Roger Law, Barbican Centre’s Art Gallery. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2014.

“Skin Deep” demonstrates the many ways in which the body has inspired Gaultier. From prints of muscles and embroidered veins to ideas of the hyper-sexualised and the transgender body, the French designer has often explored these concepts with his creations challenging ideas of difference. Yet difference is something that is not only body specific, but which can be seen more broadly in people and countries. In “Urban jungle”, the last chapter of the show, different cultures and traditions are explored in a curated collection which showcases how a number of influences can coexist within the Gaultier’s

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Urban Jungle, garments from the China and Spain Haute Couture collection, 2001-2002, Barbican Centre’s Art Gallery. Image © Caterina Tiezzi, 2014.

Having reached the end of the show, it is clear that personalities, people and bodies all hold a special place in Gaultier’s world, as they have inspired many of his collections throughout the years. In this light the many references to specific celebrities whom have worn Gaultier’s clothes along with the projected faces on the mannequins can be interpreted as a reminder that different kinds of people – some mythical, some divine, but all celebrated in their own right and not static and anonymous standard mannequins – are supposed to embody Gaultier’s designs. With a touch of whimsy, Gaultier’s fashion world is one of enchantment, leather, sequins and extravagance that is alive, boundary-pushing, and still in the making. However, within this celebration of genius and personalities, one critical body has been largely left out from the show. Apart from a few mentions in the app little is know of all the different makers that are responsible for the couture creations and the ready-to-wear confections on display. In fact, it is fair to say that without the work of the plethora of people necessary to complete the garments on show, we would be staring at remarkable sketches rather than beautifully crafted garments. Therefore, while The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is in keeping with many other exhibitions which shine the spotlight on the designer promoting a celebratory portrait of this visionary artist, it fails to fully portrait Gaultier’s world in its entirety for he is necessarily co-dependent on specific production systems. This is unfortunately a common fault of designer exhibitions, but one which given recent tragedies and scandals on the production-side of fashion seems to be too dangerous to simply keep dismissing. Especially in the case of Gaultier and his haute couture creations, a further focus on the making of those clothes which have to follow the prescriptions of this discipline, could have provided for an indeed rare point of contact between this Parisian art and the public.

I still hold hope that this aspect of Gaultier’s world might make a stronger appearance as the exhibition moves to new venues, eventually becoming the truly comprehensive display it calls itself. Nevertheless this sensory-overloading display remains a captivating portrait of a phenomenal contemporary fashion designer and one worth viewing and reviewing.


[1] Introductory Wall Label, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2014.

[2]  To clarify, while ‘prêt-a-porter’ is the equivalent of ready-to-wear ‘lines which are industrially produced, each couture garment is individually made by hand by highly skilled seamstresses. It is regulated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, and is only shown in Paris.’

_Definition provided by the Barbican’s app for The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, in The Couture House section, accessed Tuesday 24th July 2014.

 [3] Introductory Wall Label, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2014.

[4] The Odyssey’s Wall Label, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2014.

[5] Eurotrash’s Wall Label, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2014.


Caterina Tiezzi –

Caterina graduated with a BA in Visual Studies from the California College of the Arts, in 2012. Having left the Bay Area, she’s been wandering through the land of History of Design, researching export sewing tables, and the design of payment cards. For her (now completed) MA dissertation she has analysed how elite women dressed for Royal Ascot, between 1895 and 1914, further enquiring on the social and economical importance of that act. Still, her interests in fashions, technology and advertising are ever present.


 © Caterina Tiezzi, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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