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The fashion world of Jean Paul Gaultier opens at the de Young Museum

Created by the Montreal-based theater company Ubu Compagnie de Création
Created by the Montreal-based theater company Ubu Compagnie de Création
@FAMSF/Andrew Fox

The de Young Museum (FAMSF) opens another chapter in their continuing series of tributes to the fashion world with the first exhibition devoted to Jean Paul Gaultier, a primal force in the fashion world since his first show in 1975.

Pierre et Gilles, Jean Paul Gaultier, 1990 Designed specially to illustrate the cover of the autobiographical photonovel À Nous Deux la mode
Private collection, Paris © Pierre et Gilles/Rainer Torrado/courtesy FAMSF/Andrew Fox

Jean Paul Gaultier, whose early work in the 1970s earned him the nickname “enfant terrible" of fashion, is unquestionably one of the most important fashion designers in recent decades.

He is famous for his weird, funny, sexually provocative fashions, such as his costumes for Madonna's 1990 "Blond Ambition" tour - gold bustiers and cone bras.

The multimedia exhibition includes 140 haute couture and prêt-à-porter designs created between the mid-1970s and 2010, along with numerous sketches, archival documents, fashion photographs, and video clips that spotlight Gaultier’s collaborations with filmmakers, choreographers, and musicians.

The multimedia installation is organized along six different thematic sections tracing the influences, from the streets of Paris to the world of science fiction, that have marked the couturier’s creative development.

For this presentation, Gaultier partnered with the Montreal-based theater company Ubu Compagnie de Création in the design of 30 realistic looking mannequins.

Jolicoeur International produced the extraordinary mannequins and took them one amazing step further by joining creative forces with a company to produce animation on the mannequins. They speak, blink, and even sing to the audience.

The designs fill the themed rooms–Boudoir, Skin Deep, Punk Can Can, Metropolis, and Urban Jungle, and they add a unique, if slightly creepy, quality to the entire exhibition.

To understand Jean Paul Gaultier, you have to understand his childhood, when he dressed up his teddy bear with a little bra.

His indulgent, loving grandmother, Nana was his first muse. An only child, he spent a lot of time with her, while his parents were at work. It was in her closet he made a significant discovery

"I said, 'What is that instrument?' She told me, 'It's a corset.' So from that it stay in my memory, and I loved it, you know?"

The corseted bottles of a perfume launched in 1993 - Classique by Jean Paul Gaultier - have sold 60 million.

"It was inspired by the body of the grandmother, and the grandmother is always coming back in this story with Jean Paul Gaultier," he told the assembled press this morning.

Not being typically masculine or good at games, he felt like an outsider in school. But one day, one of his teachers punished him for a drawing by pinning the offending drawing on his back and making him walk through all the classes. His classmates loved the drawing and wanted him to make more for them. Gaultier said that is when he realized that he could be unique and still be accepted.

It is possibly this early experience of rejection that has led to his interest in shaking up the aesthetic codes of high fashion.

By the time he began showing haute couture in 1997, Gaultier had a reputation as fashion's wild child, a rebel. The openly gay Gaultier uses his designs to tackle gender and transgender issues through androgynous, gender-bending styles, meanwhile delving even further into some of the darker areas of the sexual revolution.

He insists all he's ever done is look at the conventional in unconventional ways: "Like a child, you know? Which is like an innocent eye that make you see beauty in someplace that are not expected to be."

At 60, Jean Paul Gaultier still has the enthusiasm of a kid. After 35 years in the business, he still looks at the world with that "innocent eye" he talks about . . . seeing beauty in unexpected place.

The Gaultier exhibition took more than two years to organize, owing to the massive number of loans required. The show features the cone-shaped bra made for Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” tour as well as outfits worn by the late Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana.

“Jean Paul Gaultier,” notes Thierry-Maxime Loriot, originating curator, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, “initiates trends rather than following them, which explains why he is still relevant after more than 35 years of creation."

Is fashion art and does it belong in museums? You will have the chance to decide for yourself when the exhibit opens at the de Young on March 24 (through August 18, 2012).

There is a $10 surcharge for The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk

Tickets can be purchased on the de Young’s website: Reservations for group tickets are available at

This exhibition contains adult themes.

de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118


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