PARIS — Wooden shoes and sky-high platforms are hardly ideal for dancing. Nor is a sweater dress sprouting giant panniers, nor a corset dress with boning that stretches up the spine to the top of the head. Unless you're Jean Paul Gaultier and you're designing costumes for Régine Chopinot, one of France's most daring and celebrated contemporary choreographers.
Their collaborations in the Eighties produced some of the most outlandish looks to ever leap across a stage — reflecting both the maximal fashions of that era and crystallizing the rich fashion references that have pulsed through Gaultier's career, from sailors and gypsies to corsetry and tattoo prints.
All are on display at the Museum of Fashion and Textiles here, along with some technical wizardry that brings movement and surprise to normally static fashion exhibitions. Called "Jean Paul Gaultier/Régine Chopinot: Le Défilé," it opens to the public Thursday and runs through Sept. 23.
Gaultier gave WWD a tour of the exhibition on Tuesday, pointing out the lighting and mechanical tricks that make mannequins suddenly vanish, or mysteriously levitate. "There's always a bit of magic when you go to the theater," Gaultier reasoned.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, occupying an entire floor, is "Le Défilé" or "Fashion Show," Chopinot's seminal 1985 work: a choreographed piece for 16 dancers, actors and models that both glorified, and stuck a thumb in the eye, of the runway routine. Camp and irreverent, it caused a sensation in Paris, and later traveled for performances in New York, London, Tokyo and Barcelona.
Born in La Rochelle in 1952, the same year as Gaultier, Chopinot is now director of the National Center for Choreography in Poitou-Charentes.
The costumes on display range from geometric outfits carved from dense layers of tulle — some with Gaultier's torpedo-breast shapes that Madonna would later make famous — to gigantic versions of men's Y-fronts worn as droopy skirts or wacky off-the-shoulder dresses. "Of course, for a fashion show, I never did a big underwear like that," Gaultier said with a laugh. Yet the designer's mad multicultural mixes, unusual tailoring and winks of surrealism and humor straddled both the stage and the runway, as a suite of couture dresses at the end of the exhibition illustrate.Gaultier confessed he has never been much of a fan of ballet and classical dance. "I was bored with it," he said. "I prefer Michael Jackson or something like that!" But he accepted an invitation to design costumes for Chopinot, attracted by her use of contemporary music, and her daring, unorthodox approach to choreography. Once, she suspended her dancers from the ceiling with elastics; another time, she incorporated robots into her show. "She has clever ideas. Even some movements which could be considered bad she was able to make interesting," Gaultier explained. "I love that she was rebellious."
Given his own penchant for provocation, Gaultier proved a good match in the costume department. He carved tutus into cubical shapes, arranged tasseled pillows into elegant, if lumpy skirts and transformed flexible light reflectors (typically used on fashion shoots) into dramatic hats, decorated with passementerie and old Cointreau labels.
Many of Gaultier's fashion innovations, especially the shrub-like forms he carved on bodies with dense tulle, predate by more than a decade their appearance on the runways of younger designers. Why there's even an early wink to Hermès, where Gaultier now designs the women's ready-to-wear: One of the dancers in "Le Défilé" toted a giant crocodile Kelly bag, around which is tied a big silk print scarf. "It's a knockoff," Gaultier noted, exploding into laughter.
If today's costumes for contemporary dance seem relatively tame by comparison, Gaultier said it's because they reflect the fashions of the times. "But I think it's going to go back to something more extravagant," he predicted. "In dance, people want to dream."
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