From Sidewalk, to Catwalk, to Sidewalk again: Jean Paul Gaultier’s archive gets real.

Alexander Fury

Screen Shot 2014 04 06 at 21.25.29 237x300 From Sidewalk, to Catwalk, to Sidewalk again: Jean Paul Gaultiers archive gets real.

The precursor to Madonna's corset: Tanel Bedrossiantz wears a Gaultier dress from the Barbès prêt-à-porter collection, autumn/winter 1984. Photography by Paolo Roversi, 1992

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk opens at London’s Barbican Art gallery this Wednesday, the latest stop in a blockbuster transatlantic tour. The retrospective exhibition has the magnitude of a pop concert staged by Madonna, or Kylie, or Gaga even. That’s no random smattering of stars: they’ve all been dressed by Gaultier, at one time or another.

Madonna’s incarnation, of course, is probably the most iconic. And conic. The platinum-blonde, platinum-selling postmodern power-woman writhing her way out of a pinstripe suit to reveal a torpedo-breasted satin corset is an indelible fashion image imprinted onto pop culture. It rivals Marilyn’s billowing white skirt or Dietrich in her tuxedo. It’s emblematic of a shift in our cultural thinking. At least, I think it is.

That corset has also become one of the emblems of the house of Jean Paul Gaultier, alongside Frenchy notions like Breton stripes and the trench-coat, and less Gallic touches of tartan, bondage and sadomasochistic leather.

The latter have a root in British dress – Gaultier himself memorable sported a Scottish kilt alongside his sailor stripes, with few of us realising the dichotomy of twinning those two nations together. In fact, there’s three nations, if we count England and Scotland separately. Tartan was, of course, co-opted by punks, and while Jean Paul Gaultier is certainly brave in heart, he’s more readily associated with the anti-establishment leanings of the Kings Road of the Sex Pistols and Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s seminal boutiques SEX and Seditionaries, than with flings north of the border (although he did have the model Coco Rocha memorably perform a Highland Reel during his winter 2007 show).

Decades X Jean Paul Gaultier Off the shoulder ruched neckline stripe top ú187.00 225x300 From Sidewalk, to Catwalk, to Sidewalk again: Jean Paul Gaultiers archive gets real.

A Breton-striped ruffled sweater, by Decades X Jean Paul Gaultier at MATCHESFASHION.COM

As the subtitle of this exhibition suggests, Gaultier took his inspirations from the street, like Yves Saint Laurent before him. The two harboured a deep and mutual respect for each other’s work, especially when Gaultier launched his own haute couture house in 1997. In 1999, when asked who he thought was at the greatest couturier in Paris, the then sixty-three year old master named Gaultier. A dauphin anointed in duchesse satin.

However, there’s an interesting adjunct: taking that catwalk-elevated street style back to the pavements again. That’s the thoughts of the London retailer MATCHESFASHION.COM, who have teamed with Cameron Silver of renowned LA vintage specialist Decades to curate a selection of Gaultier’s greatest hits from the past twenty or so years, both online and in their Marylebone boutique.

Running the gamut from satin corsetry, buckles and straps, to the often overlooked excellence of Gaultier’s tailoring (he honed his crafts in haute couture, at Cardin, Patou and Jacques Esterel, before showing his first collection in 1976), it’s kind of like the world’s best ever museum gift-shop. namely because it gives you the opportunity to actually take home some shining examples of Gaultier’s craft.

Immediately apparent is the timelessness of many of the garments: Gaulter’s satin corsetry may be from the mid-nineties, but it still feels entirely revenant. There’s even a frisson of shock to the pale, lingerie pink satin number (right). It still looks underwear-y enough to feel transgressive as outerwear.

Decades X Jean Paul Gaultier Sleeveless bustier ú2336.00 225x300 From Sidewalk, to Catwalk, to Sidewalk again: Jean Paul Gaultiers archive gets real.

A mid-nineties satin corset, from the Decades X Jean Paul Gaultier selection at MATCHESFASHION.COM

That’s a striking thing about Gaultier’s finest work – it can still grab your attention. It’s still arresting, even a touch outrageous. His winter 1993 collection “Les Rabbins Chic” (Chic Rabbis) is one of my personal favourites, because Gaultier treats his source of inspiration – the clothing worn by Orthodox adherents to the Jewish faith, predominantly Hasidic Judaism – with both respect and a light hand.

You can now watch it on Youtube, the catwalk lit by menorahs and models striding in Gaultier’s reimagining of Hasidim dress, “shiksa models, flaunting their side-curls with a difference… the rigid gender separation essential to Orthodox Judaism blown sky-high,” as art historian Linda Nochlin put it in the catalogue for the Jewish Museum of New York’s exhibition Too Jewish in 1996. A Gaultier outfit was featured – incidentally, Cameron Silver also donated another example to LACMA.

It’s quite extraordinary to witness: Gaultier at his best, patently provocative but not crass. Understandably, it caused a furore and stirred considerable controversy. Many condemned it, while others applauded its questioning of cultural and gender boundaries on the one hand, and its celebration of Jewish tradition (Hasidic dress is defined to a far greater degree by sociological and cultural influenced than religious dogma) still feels pointed today. Particularly in a Europe where Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, has announced the intention to prevent schools from offering Muslim and Jewish pupils pork-free lunches in the towns where they were elected. It extends to dress, too: full face-veils were banned in public in France three years ago.

Gaultier wasn’t just showing fashion back in 1993, he was embracing tolerance and celebrating diversity – something he has done throughout his career.

You could argue it’s trite to relate that to a clutch of expensive dresses, either in an exhibition or in a boutique. But, from band t-shirts to military uniforms, there’s no more prominent place to display your cultural affiliations than via the clothing on your back. Other than, perhaps, by a tattoo. And Gaultier did those back in the early nineties, too.

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