Jean Paul Gaultier is “Frenchier Than French”

A conversation with Tim Gunn followed by “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” at the Brooklyn Museum

After an one hour of listening to the conversation between Tim Gunn of “Project Runway” and Valerie Steele, who is the director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), it seemed that the two masters of fashion history were enjoying a pleasant conversation over a cup of coffee, like two friends who had not seen each other for some time.

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During their light banter, Tim shared with us that he is currently working on the “Project Runway” spin off – “Under The Gunn”. Initially they thought they were going to shoot another season for “Runway”, which they held auditions for. However when the prevailing circumstances changed, to Tim’s utter surprise the selected designers chose not drop out and agreed to work with him on the spin off project. Valerie Steele for her part, shared that she is at the moment working on putting together an exhibition for the FIT museum about the history of scenic costume design.

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Both agreed on the importance of the preservation and exhibition of fashion history, especially in modern times. They tied this to Tim Gunn’s enormous contributions during his tenure as a member of the faculty at Parsons New School of Design. He was given credit for his pivotal role in the revitalization of the curriculum that had not “suffered” any changes since 1953. At the time, the school lacked subjects like the history of fashion, which Tim considers of primary importance in the education of future designers.

The conversing pair then forayed into the present, and chimed in on how boring fashion shows have become nowadays. Every time Valerie sees one she finds herself thinking “Wait…did I see that last season already?” While Tim mentioned that the “presentation of fashion is poor”.

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What was definitely not poor was the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition. But before getting to that, the Q&A session from the audience followed Tim and Valerie’s conversation. Tim expressed, while answering a question, “I am very budget minded. When I buy something I want to wear it for 3-4 years.” That day he confessed he was wearing a suite from Suit Supply (a brand from Netherland that opened in New York Soho 2 years ago). He also thinks that the customer is looking for deals and bargains, for cheaper than usual products. And, that this is highly detrimental for the fashion industry. Tim Gunn predicted that department stores, specifically calling out Macy’s, will disappear and instead will start renting space to innovative and talented new designers. His timeframe of this is unknown.

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But what is certain for him and his host is that at the present moment, Paris is the epicenter of fashion. Sadly however, by Tim’s observation this is not a result of French people presenting themselves fashionably dressed in the streets of Paris, but rather the multitude of designers whose work merge into a constant atmosphere of high-end fashion ideology.

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Afterwards, the audience made their way into the darkened room containing the Gaultier Exhibit, which starkly contrasted Tim and Valerie’s take on contemporary fashion. It is a visualization of originality in fashion ideology. As you approach, subconsciously you expect to hear music in the background or silence. But because Gaultier is surprising us yet again, you see faces projected unto mannequins that are winking, laughing and even crying. One of the mannequins is Gaultier himself, with a projected face-monogram speaking French.

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The exhibition is divided into seven sections, separated by theme rather than chronologically. The Odyssey Collection greets you first, where one of the designer’s greatest trademarks are situated.

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Then, follows The Boudoir where you discover Jean Paul’s obsession with lingerie. His first designed bra was as a child, for his teddy bear “Nana”. And, his most famous is the cone corset for Madonna, which she wore at the Blonde Ambition Tour in the 90’s.

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Skin and body were inexhaustible sources of inspiration for Gaultier, and were artfully used in his Skin Deep Collection. This is where clothing is used as an illusion of a second skin and nudity.

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A little further wandering among the exhibit brings the Punk Cancan section into view. This is where seemingly discordant items are paired, and the unfashionable is transformed into the magnificent. Motorcycle jackets are paired with ballet slippers, distressed denim find a partner in garbage bags or recycled objects, camouflage print fabrics transform into an evening gown. The camo-gown became the talk of the town, when Sarah Jessica Parker wore it to the MTV Video Music Awards in 2000. It was worn only once.

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For the Urban Jungle section of the exhibit, the designer was inspired by Paris and its neighborhoods where he sees ”a melting pot of people. This intermixing, this splendid vibrancy symbolized in his eyes the new Paris.” This is where pieces from his Samurai Collection, the controversial Chic Rabbis and his Tribute to Africa Collection can be found.

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When asked how he defines beauty during the opening of the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Gaultier stated he is attracted to “people who are different”. He works with unconventional models, like women commonly referred to as “full-size”, and heavily tattooed models. He may as well be known for dressing a man in skirts, reviving the corset and inventing the cone bras. For me, his crowning merit is his brilliance in finding beauty everywhere, in every woman, regardless of shape and height, and opposed to the rule of thin. The designer chooses models with character. For his runway shows, he started to hold open casting calls, with the following added:

 “Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models-the conventionally pretty need not apply.”

Some of Gaultier craftsmanship is easily missed from the remoteness of the catwalk and pictures captured at a distance. Here are some inspiring details that beg to be touch.

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It’s interesting that as I meandered towards the end of the exhibition, I found a “seasoned” lady exclaiming to her friend

“Why did he make this hat? It is so big, nobody would ever wear this!”

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Gaultier himself said “It is hard to make something nice and interesting and beautiful that is also wearable. Of course, the purpose is to be worn and to sell the clothes. But that’s not what I was about in the beginning…It is best to do something that you feel, that makes you do something interesting. After that, you can make it more commercial.”

By Zina Codita

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