From the Sidewalk

to the Catwalk


The first international retrospective of the French designer 35years long career, opened at the de Young museum, in San Francisco, on March the 23rd. The harbor city of San Francisco with its multicultural heritage and its contribution to civil rights provides a fitting backdrop.

Organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in partnership with the Maison Jean-Paul Gaultier, the exhibition has already been a critical and popular success in Montreal and Dallas. Indeed it is difficult not to like it; 140 outfits, mainly couture, selected amongst 8000  archived by the house since the mid 70s are presented alongside multimedia collaborations involving the best creative talents of the last 30 years in films (Pedro Almodóvar, Peter Greenaway, Luc Besson, Caro and Jeunet), contemporary dance (Angelin Preljocaj, Régine Chopinot and Maurice Béjart), popular music (Mylène Farmer, Rita Mitsouko, Kylie Minogue and of course Madonna) and photography (a long list from Andy Warhol to David LaChapelle).

This great body of work impresses not only by its technical mastery and restless creativity but also by the humanity expressed. As relevant today as when first created, its influence extends well beyond the runway.

To better illustrate the designer various influences, his work is not presented chronologically but organised around 6 themes. Efforts have been made to impulse life in the presentation: some mannequins are turned into automats; others have videos of human faces projected onto theirs. The results are uneven.

Read the full review below….

The Odyssey

The journey starts on water: sailors keep company with mermaids and are overseen by madonnas. Gaultier himself, through the ‘animated’ face of a mannequin, dressed as a sailor, welcome the visitors to his world.

Sailors are ever present in Gaultier’s work. As a child Jean-Paul Gaultier wore sailor stripped sweaters. They go with everything, never go out of style and probably never will. Their blue and white stripes are present in every collection, reworked using different techniques and materials. The bottle of Le Male, Gaultier’s first and Europe best selling fragrance for men, packaged in a tin can, borrows its shape from that of a sailor torso wearing the famous stripped sweatshirt.

Hyper-sexualised sailors, turned into gay symbol by the writing of Genet (and Fassbinder’s film Querelle) and the drawings of Tom of Finland represent a form of virility that could be ambiguous. . . . With their tattoos, sailors are also associated with the bad boy image which Jean-Paul Gaultier happily admits he loves.

Jean-Paul Gaultier is also inspired by apparel traditions linked to a religion, that of Buddhist monks or Hassidic Jews for example. In this installation mermaids and virgins are associated with sailors, as they are traditionally represented both a source of torment and comfort to them. The soft image of femininity they represent is in stark contrast with that, more assertive, of the following section.

Related movie: Querelle Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982

Punk Cancan

Jean-Paul Gaultier launched his first Haute Couture collection in 1997, in part because he lost the job of artistic director at Dior to John Galliano. Many pieces presented in this exhibition, are in fact couture; they count amongst the most sophisticated and luxurious garments made in the last 15 years. Their origin, the inspiration for their design is however, often humble and to be found on the sidewalks, those timeless of Paris, but also those effervescent of London in from early 70s to mid 80s.

Indeed in those days Jean-Paul Gaultier often visited London, soaking the energy of Camden Town and the King’s Road and led him to mix punk influences with more Gallic ones. Less known and unfortunately not clearly acknowledged here was his collaboration with Ray Petrie and the Buffalo collective who revolutionised styling and photography through their work for the Face and I-D Magazines. Alongside singers Nick Kamen and Neneh Cherry and a teenaged Naomi Campbell, the collective also included French photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino who has worked with Jean-Paul Gaultier throughout his career and who directed the videos included in this article.

The Boudoir

Historically the Boudoir is a private room, adjacent to the bedroom, where a lady would dress and be made-up. Jean-Paul Gaultier often and fondly refers to his maternal grandmother, a holistic practitioner of sorts, as the person who has most helped develop his creativity. As a child he often stayed with her, was allowed as much TV as he wanted, including burlesque shows better suited to an adult audience, and was present when his grand mother provided ‘couple counselling’ to the ladies who consulted her. At a young age, the designer formed the notion that women should not be passive.

Gaultier’s most iconic garment probably is the golden conic bra corset designed – alongside 358 other pieces – for Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour. Many more corsets are displayed here, some created in collaboration with Mark Pullin, alias Mr Pearl, a corset maker known to wear the garment himself. Heralded for creativity and subversion Jean-Paul Gaultier’s work is also rooted in traditions.

Jean-Paul Gaultier use of underwear as outerwear could be seen as erotic but it is also rather majestic. Erotic themes and the idea of ‘inside out’ are used further in the following section of the installation where skin itself becomes the ultimate clothing.

Related movie: Falbalas, Jacques Becker, 1944

Urban Jungle

Beyond Paris and London, or rather through those two cities, Jean-Paul Gaultier has also been influenced by traditions to be found further afield, from China and Mongolia to Mexico.,

The idea of jungle refers to the medley of those influences but also the use of unusual and rare materials often animal such as leathers and feathers characteristic of Haute couture. These materials are not only expensive to procure but also to manipulate and require complex skills only available in very few studios.

Skin Deep

Jean-Paul Gaultier, like any good designer, questions our aesthetic expectations, our ideas about beauty. Scouting for models, the designer famously ran a classified ad in the French daily Libération that read: Nonconformist designer seeks unusual models—the conventionally pretty need not apply.

Jean-Paul Gaultier declares: In life, I like the blemishes, scars, emotions of the skin, of the flesh, of movement—everything that is human. This section addresses Jean-Paul Gaultier exploration of human externalities: skin, gender, sexuality, and justifies the designer’s reputation for subversion.

Body art and tattoos have been brought from the pacific rims to the western world by sailors. Naturally Jean-Paul Gaultier was fascinated by them long before they were fashionable; the first menswear garments he designed were tattoo skins: stretch-nylon tops printed with patterns emulating body art.

The idea that flesh and skin may be garments is twisted and reversed, asking in turn to which extent garments contribute to our person. Stepping further Jean-Paul Gaultier does not believe that fabrics have a gender, anymore than certain garments do.

He feels free to play with gender, offering skirts, lace-corset bustiers and Haute Couture fashion to men and address sexual transgressions in the same playful fashion. Be warned: many of these garments like the dominatrix costume of Madonna 2006 Confession tour are inspired by bondage and SM fetish.

Related movie: The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), 2011 and Kika, 1993, both by Pedro Almodóvar, Costume by Jean-Paul Gaultier


Metropolis refers to a very large city and implies the idea of modernity, as illustrated in the 1927 Film of the same name, directed by Fritz land.

This section includes garments noticeable for the creative use of modern and advance material and techniques but also covers many of Jean-Paul Gaultier collaborative work for films and music. The two collide in a stunning dress made of celluloid film stock.

Related movie: The City of Lost Children, Marc Caro and Jean‐Pierre Jeunet, 1995, The Fifth Element, Luc Besson, 1996, Costume by Jean-Paul Gaultier

I respect individualities and I like particularities

Over 35 years Jean-Paul Gaultier has both captured and enriched the spirit of our times. The designer explains: I respect individualities and I like particularities. I mix and match, collect, twist and crossbreed codes. Past, present, here, elsewhere, masculine, feminine, distinguished, ordinary—it all coexists. It is Jean-Paul Gaultier’s world.

Credits & References

More San Francisco Features

Written by Pierre Delarue