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)