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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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue