Jean Paul Gaultier added a personal twist to his big retrospective that opens at the Grand Palais in Paris Wednesday — laying out scores of family snapshots and even his beloved teddy bear, Nana, looking a bit worse for wear.
During a preview, the designer explained that as a six-year-old, he performed innumerable hair and makeup tests on the plush toy — as its stained face and shriveled head fur attests — and also fashioned from newsprint some pointy pasties for its chest.
“It’s a cone bra before Madonna,” he said, erupting in laughter that echoed through the vast exhibition spaces.
The Paris showcase comes four years after the exhibition debuted at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts — nine cities and 1.5 million visitors later — to find Gaultier embarking on a new career chapter, having halted ready-to-wear and focusing on couture, fragrances and special projects.
“Excellent,” he replied, when asked about the timing for his hometown spotlight. “Now I know more what I want in the exhibition: I wanted to show about my family, and a little bit more about myself.”
Slightly more chronological and autobiographical than previous iterations, the vast showcase unfurls over two floors, spanning some 175 outfits along with scores of fashion photographs, sketches, backstage videos and clips documenting several decades of movies, music videos and stage performances.
Alighting on the new Pierre et Gilles portrait used for the exhibition poster, the 62-year-old designer practically blushed gazing up at his youthful likeness: “The best plastic surgery I ever had — without any anesthetic,” he said, letting rip another peal of laughter.
While painting the French couturier as an innovator and rebel — proposing punk, bondage, androgyny, tattoo prints and piercings years ahead of their time — the exhibition also highlights the personal relationships Gaultier forged with models, musicians, filmmakers and other pop culture figures.
For example, it was photographer Ellen von Unwerth who originally modeled Gaultier’s garbage bag dress from 1980, accessorized with tin-can bracelets and pot-scrubber necklaces — plus a handbag topped with a Spin-o-Matic ashtray.
The designer also displayed the first dress he ever made — in 1971 for Aitize Hanson to wear in a modeling contest — and mimicked how she twirled in the hooded gown, ultimately exposing her breasts and foreshadowing Gaultier’s career-long exploration of the female body’s topography. Daring men’s wear, including pinup, hobo and Hasidic styles, are also on view.
During a walk-through last Thursday, as workers shredded fishnet hose, fine-tuned lighting and dressed mannequins, Gaultier demonstrated his hands-on approach — fiddling with the drape of garments, and the volume of hairstyles, each custom-designed by Odile Gilbert to the designer’s exacting specifications — and his encyclopedic memory, recounting in intimate detail the backstory behind various artifacts.
For example, one photo depicts Gaultier and his late partner Francis Menuge at the Élysée Palace in 1985, the latter gentleman dressed in a pin-striped “trouser skirt.” Describing the receiving line that day, the designer recounted then-French President François Mitterrand first meeting Louis Féraud and exclaiming: “I love your neckties.” Casting his eyes on Gaultier and Menuge in his gender-bending designs, Mitterand fumbled: “Ah, OK, bonjour,” the designer recalled. “He was not so much into it.”
Dresses are displayed on mannequins without glass partitions, allowing close inspection of the makeshift creations from Gaultier’s debut 1976 collection — employing a repurposed bustier, straw place mats and panels of cross-stitch fabric — to the intricate couture creations of his later career.
The display climaxes, like a couture show, with wedding dresses, including the spunky tube-top style Anna Cleveland wore in the spring 2015 show last January.
Throughout are landmark styles popularized by their famous wearers, including the breast-baring jumpsuit Madonna wore on the catwalk in 1992 during an amfAR event, along with costumes Kylie Minogue, Mylène Farmer and Beth Ditto donned for the stage.
“That’s my dress,” Minogue said Monday night as she alighted upon the cage-like Guipure lace dress she wore on her 2009 “X” tour.
The Australian pop star, who did a concert in Dubai only two nights prior, said she debuted a new Gaultier costume there: a jumpsuit done up in the style of a Mexican wrestler, complete with a face covering. “It’s amazing how the different feeling of an outfit changes your performance,” she mused.
Inès de la Fressange, Rossy da Palma, Christian Louboutin, Victoria Abril and Catherine Deneuve were among the throngs who attended a VIP preview. Da Palma snapped photos with her iPhone of some cabaret numbers as they rotated on a podium, with Deneuve’s narration of a 2011 show piped into the room. “I love all these fashion editors,” the Spanish actress said, referring to a row of seated mannequins resembling Grace Coddington, Carine Roitfeld and Suzy Menkes.
“So thrilled to see it in Paris at last,” said milliner Stephen Jones, who recounted that Gaultier gave him his big break in Paris, enlisting him for a 1984 show — also deciding last minute to send him out on the runway to collect the hats on a tray. “He literally pushed me through the curtains,” he recalled. “It’s just magical when you see the repertoire and the breadth of what he’s done.”
“He’s a genius,” said ballet dancer Marie-Agnès Gillot, who was chatting with iconic Gaultier model Christine Bergstrom, who once wore one of the designer’s anatomically correct nude dresses. “We did the fittings with embroiderer François Lesage, including a special one where we had to make sure he got everything the right color,” she explained delicately.
The exhibition, curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot and designed by Agence Projectiles, runs through Aug. 3, reprising the animated faces that are projected onto mannequin heads and blink, glance around at visitors and speak every so often. Its next stop is Munich in September.