A few weeks ago, I realized I hadn’t taken a proper vacation since joining TheGloss back in October. As much as I love New York City, it has a way of tiring you out and that’s as much as I’ll say about that. I figured it might be a cool opportunity to take a train to Montreal for the long weekend, as I’d never been to Canada, the exchange rate was painless and I’ve always heard Canadians are like people, but nice. I also figured this would be an excellent excuse to visit The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, a career retrospective of haute couture’s most beloved enfant terrible, showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. To make an obvious story short, I did exactly that.
Before we continue this brief rundown, a note on curation: the exhibit seems to favor Gaultier’s later work, especially with (/because of) the advent of his couture collection. Depending on where you fall in fandom, it may leave you wanting more of his earlier stuff. That being said, Gaultier’s career has made for one of the most consistently imaginative in fashion and even when his clothes get ugly–distressed denim ballgowns, camo anything–or cultural appropriation rears its unwelcome headdress, they are never not exciting to behold.
Visitors enter the exhibit by ascending a darkened staircase and come immediately upon a wall of living mannequins. They talk, they frown, they mug, crinkle noses and grin, their expressions projected on plain white heads. Some speak French, some English, some sing, some reinterpret Madonna’s “Material Girl” as a breathy hymn. Having seen enough glossy press shots of the exhibition, I knew what I was in for and wondered if it would annoy me: it didn’t. The mannequins–bizarre, playful, almost macabre–seemed so appropriately Gaultier that it didn’t matter. They didn’t augment the viewing experience, neither did they detract. In other words: yes, it was gimmicky but so is our designer.
The show breaks down like this: before entering the individual exhibit rooms, we are invited to view how photographers and fashion luminaries have engaged with Gaultier–that Pierre et Gilles portrait, some editorial stuff, that iconic Steven Klein shot of Kate Moss in the fur hat–then onto several expansive rooms full of mannequins (some with moving faces, most without), one featuring a runway with mannequins in file. In the final room, we’re presented with a big screen and a reel of film and television clips featuring his costumes: the nude dress in Bad Education, looks from The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover, etc and perhaps his most absurdly wonderful contribution to film: the outlandish, unforgettable wardrobe of The Fifth Element. As for supplementary material (if we are to marginalize his costume work), that was it. Some photography featuring his designs and a bit of historical positioning, then his costumes for film and television… with little but his fashion in between. Straight-forward but not without humor.
Walking through the exhibit, it was impossible not to think about this show in terms of Savage Beauty–the Met’s Alexander McQueen retrospective–that recent major museum juggernaut/elephant in the room to which I had so many objections. That show with its leaden certainty of its own cultural significance hinged on the pointless assumption that Alexander McQueen should be shown at the Met as an artist and not just some fashion designer. The Gaultier exhibit–while not mired in any sort of tragic hero mythology–doesn’t seem particularly concerned with seriousness or artistic legitimacy or any such bullshit. The only statement the Gaultier exhibit seems to be making is Jean Paul Gaultier is awesome.
Where Savage Beauty’s incoherent confluence of pseudo-intellectualism and shitty techno was infuriating and intrusive, the bells and whistles at Gaultier are only bright, funny flourishes on top of a body of supremely creative work. Happily, visitors endure no ponderous copy about Romanticism and Blake and, more important, the exhibit succeeds where Savage Beauty most poignantly failed: you could really see the clothes. Not just see them, mind you, but every visitor (press or no) is invited to inspect them in as much close-up as you like. Photography is welcome to all. Yes, a few mannequins spun behind a glass case (fashion curators of the world, no more spinning in glass cases!) otherwise the work is simply on display in good light.
Both Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier are talked about in terms of imagination and iconoclasm, while neither need any help from mechanical whirrings amid tricky displays in shadowed cabinets to make their work interesting. At the The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, the clothes are allowed to speak for themselves. If you are interested in fashion, they are a pleasure. If you are not, you simply represent one less $80 exhibition book sold. Why ruin it for the people who care?
Anyway. You can Google all the fancy high-res photos you like of the exhibit, but here are the details I really enjoyed.
-Photo Credit: Jeremy Hunt Schoenherr
-Here’s a video of the exhibit, featuring a chat with JPG himself.
-While planning my visit, I was introduced to a great non-profit organization called Tourisme Montreal, and if you’d like to visit the city, you should seek them out also.