Jean Paul Gaultier poses with a metre high mohican in the Punk Cancan section of 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk' at the Barbican Art Gallery on April 7, 2014 in London, England. Photo: Getty Images
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The exquisite craftsmanship and healthy ridiculousness of Jean Paul Gaultier

A major new retrospective does justice to the shocking elements of Gaultier’s work, yet also celebrates his embrace of bad taste.

The first time Jean Paul Gaultier showed a collection that included men’s skirts, the staff of Vogue walked out, swiftly followed by those of Marie Claire and French Elle. In his notes for the Barbican’s retrospective, Gaultier archly observes: “I was slated by the French press for designing clothes for hairdressers and homosexuals! It took them two years to accept my statement that Prince Charles is not the only real man to wear a skirt!”

That was 1984, three decades ago. And yet the idea that a bloke might wander around wearing an ankle-length garment that is not bifurcated to the crotch would still make many people feel vaguely uneasy; this even though men are clearly gagging to wear skirts. (Have you ever been to a wedding attended by Scottish people or to an undergraduate fancy-dress party? Or watched Mrs Brown’s Boys?)

Because Jean Paul Gaultier likes teasing at exactly these kinds of cultural taboos, it’s easy to regard him simply as fashion’s court jester. He seems to encourage it, hamming up his Frenchness at every possible opportunity. (Exhibit A: a collection entitled “Ze Parisienne”. Exhibit B: a T-shirt in the gift shop with a huge picture of his grinning mug, accompanied by the words “Froggy designer”.) It has long been my suspicion that he can speak English with a perfect, cut-glass RP accent; he just knows the marketing value of cooing about “un adventure marvellous” to the fashion press.

This retrospective, developed in Canada and midway through a global tour, certainly does justice to the shocking elements of Gaultier’s work. There’s a section dedicated to his corsets, with an eerily animated mannequin of him breathlessly recounting how he first made one for his teddy bear. Some pieces are outrageous – Madonna’s pointy effort is here and an even more exaggerated version on a male model – but all are united by an innate sense of proportion (what should be exaggerated – and how – to create the right effect) and exquisite construction. Although Gaultier never had formal training, the designer Pierre Cardin hired him as an assistant when he was aged just 18, after the young JP bombarded him with sketches.

Tucked away in red-light-district-style windows are his S&M-themed clothes: all lace masks, riding crops and peephole cut-outs. Around the corner (and probably more upsetting to an impeccable liberal like you, dear New Statesman reader) are his riffs on the clothes of cultures around the world. There’s a couture wedding dress from 2003 with an alabaster-white-feather Native American headdress and an Inuit-style hooded coat, lined with embroidery and fur. Most astonishingly – I still struggle to believe that this happened – there are pieces from his 1993-94 women’s ready-to-wear collection “Chic Rabbis”. Its inspiration was a group of Hasidic Jews he saw outside the New York Public Library, “with their hats and their huge coats flapping in the wind”. The collection featured jewelled yarmulkes and furry sidelocks. The fashion press, which had thought men in skirts were an abomination a few years earlier, loved it.

There is no other designer today who is quite so gleeful about embracing bad taste. Think how dull, how correct, how orderly a retrospective of, say, Prada’s clothes would be. Even Chanel couldn’t compete – although its current head designer, Karl Lagerfeld, knows a thing or two about hamming up the Zoolander elements of his personality, given that he employs a “soda serf” to follow him around at parties with a Pepsi Max on a silver platter and recently said he would like to marry his cat, a white Siamese called Choupette.

Gaultier’s mischief is infectious. “Oui, ze fashion industry ees bonkers, but ’ow wonderfully so,” these clothes scream. Very few people are rich and thin enough to buy and wear couture, so these designs exist for two reasons: as works of art and as marketing for the designer’s perfume collections. Under these circumstances, spending a hundred hours making a sheer bodysuit with integral beaded merkin begins to make a certain sort of sense.

I have no hesitation in describing these clothes as works of art. Gaultier’s atelier spends up to a thousand hours on a couture piece; if you appreciate the brushwork of a Monet, you should have as much respect for the craftsmanship needed to embroider hundreds upon hundreds of semi-circles of overlapping chiffon to make it look like glittering fish scales. Many of his signatures – Breton stripes, equestrian themes, punk tartan and denim, a particular combination of blush pink and black denoting “sexy” – have trickled down to the high street.

Fashion is routinely derided for its emphasis on conformity – tall, thin, white, unblemished, beautiful – but Gaultier has done more than most to demolish the stereotypes. He was an early champion of the French-Algerian model Farida Khelfa and Sudan’s Alek Wek, at a time when the industry was dominated by Nordic blondes. He cast the androgynous Andrej Pejic as a bride in 2011 and his last show featured an old punk with a grey Mohawk. This retrospective features perhaps the rarest fashion item of all: a couture dress in size 16.

This funny, affectionate and only occa­sionally luvvie-ish show does justice to its subject. You get the sense that Gaultier can’t see a taboo without wanting to charge through it like a rhino – a rhino in an 18th-century periwig, a Breton jumper and an amazing sequinned skirt. Sacré bleu!

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier” runs until 25 August (barbican.org.uk)

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era