The new exhibition The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Dallas Museum of Art opened last weekend. After the huge success of Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American museums have found a new domain, neglected mostly in the past, to engage and enlarge their audience, especially the younger crowd. (The exhibition tickets we bought were time-stamped, but we didn’t have to wait to get in.) It is interesting to notice that while the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth went high-brow with its current exhibition Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, the art brought in by the institute in the big D makes sure that looking and looks can be interchangeable. You might call it pedestrian, except you won’t see too much of this stuff on the street.
In fact, the concept of branding and proprietary values hovered around in my head when I walked through the exhibition rooms. One of my friends commented that you can spend as little as forty bucks to get a piece of Jean Paul Gaultier. To counter such skeptics about the overly-stated commercialism, the exhibition labels often put down the number of labor hours spent on a single piece of garment; as if the increased manual labor covers merchandise with a coat of high-brow art.
The installation should have no worry that visitors would confuse these special pieces with some main-line products. Most of them, if there are any, are not publicly presentable (with the exception of the cocktail preview party). Jean Paul Gaultier’s fashion world is rebellious, revolutional, and to some extent, revolting. These flashy, funky, decadent garments, by eliciting comments from viewers, annotate and challenge our societal views of self-expression through fashion – whether it is about injecting feminism into masculinity for boy toys with kilts, skirts or bra cups, or fetish leather suit with suggestive bondage and sex staging, or print patches of religious iconography/the Eiffel Tower or tattoo-like; loom large his personal statements. And his idiosyncrasy overwhelms both visual elements and sartorial achievements such as textural layers of plain or graphic or seamless assembly of different material as if they were organically grown together.
It is no wonder that Gaultier found his most support from MTV, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and movies where unconventionality is the norm. Some costumes are used for movies such as Pedro Almodóvar’s Kika or Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. If the sci-fi nature of Bresson’s movie justifies the avant-garde of Gautlier designs, Kika, which remains one of my favorite Almodóvar’s movies, matches perfectly with Gaultier’s underlying sexism.
Two particular garments on display attracted me the most. One is a seemingly ordinary man tartan mohair coat. The strong tartan pattern of dark green and bleeding red reminds viewers of their original usage– Scottish kilts. Yet it is the soft mohair texture that makes it unforgettable. The hair, shuttering in the air flows created by walk-by visitors, breaks the distinctive square patterns into Rothkoish continuity and blurring of two contrasting colors.
The other one showcases how genius designs are best achieved through consummate craftsmanship. I was actually first scared by the sight of an evening gown with leopard skin and wondered where the animal rights groups were. Then after realizing the whole gown is made of bead embroidery, fastidiously sewn together to create Trompe L’Oeil effect, I looked closely at each rosette patterns on the “coat” through a mosaic assembly of tiny beads, and that self-conscious awareness of the process added another dimension of appreciation by mentally getting me involved in that laborious adventure. — It is a state of wonder to be able to decipher how it is made and comprehend what it has achieved. (It took more than 1,000 hours to complete the dress.) The rhinestone claws that the mannequin is holding are also astonishing but also serve as the punch line: The most treacherous is often the most precious. It is a fashion reinterpretation of beauty and beast.
The exhibition features a sensational installation and in some way the multi-media installation almost steals the show. The Montreal-based Denis Marleau and Stéphanie Jasmin team created video clips from live models, which are projected onto bland mannequin heads. With their eyes moving and lips in sync with accompanying songs and messages, they look full of life.
But it does not take one long to realize that they reside in their own world. They may have seductive smiles, yet they are aloof and allusive; as much as the clothes that cover their plastic bodies.