French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier talks one-on-one about his Dallas exhibition, celebrities and the most beautiful clothing a gay man can wear (hint: it’s not couture)
RICHARD BURNETT | Contributing Writer
Jean Paul Gaultier loves a fabulous rack. While he was in Montreal, he let slip that one artifact scheduled for display in The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk — about to wrap up its run at the Dallas Museum of Art — was his 1960 teddy bear, Nana. The piece is complete with the cone bra Gaultier crafted when he was just 8 years old.
“You see, I designed the cone bra 30 years before I made one for Madonna,” Gaultier laughs.
The iconic body corset he created for Miss Ciccone’s 1990 Blond Ambition Tour is also included in this multimedia exhibition, the first international showing devoted to the celebrated French couturier and, featuring 140 ensembles from 40 years of his couture and prêt-à-porter collections. Gaultier gave the curators exclusive access to his label’s archives in putting together the exhibition. Still, the fabulous gay designer, in a rare one-on-one interview, goes out of his way to emphasize that this is not a retrospective.
“It is more a contemporary installation,” Gaultier says. “When the director of the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Nathalie Bondil, asked me to participate on this project, I did not want to have a retrospective that would be like a funeral, a chronological presentation. I worked closely two years with the team and curator, Thierry-Maxime Loriot, on the selection of the pieces, on developing the themes that have obsessed me — corsets, skin, cultures, genders, Parisiennes, etc. — since I started in the fashion world. It is my story [told] through my clothes.”
This is not your ordinary fashion show … nor ordinary museum piece. As extraordinarily well-constructed as Gaultier’s clothing, it boasts dazzling layouts, colors, lighting and projections that animate the faces of mannequins that make them seem to come alive.
Gaultier has always prided himself on being avant-garde and over-the-top, from the designs themselves to the models who show them off.
“The fashion world can be very formatted when it comes to casting choices and the way models should look,” he explains. “I don’t follow trends. From my very first shows, I did street castings, [using] friends and anybody I thought was interesting. I sell my clothes to real people, not only models. Women are very powerful now, and they can [take responsibility for] what they wear. It is like when Madonna decides to wear a corset; it is like a political statement because she decides to do so. It then becomes a symbol of power and femininity. We dress first for ourselves.”
Gaultier has also been inspired by and worked with many other celebrities from Pedro Almodóvar to Leslie Cheung. What, in his estimation, is the common denominator of great stars?
“All the stars I have worked with are very different,” Gaultier says. “I guess the thing that successful stars have in common is that they work very hard. There is no secret to success, even if you are not a pop singer. Madonna still fascinates me. She has been of great help for this exhibition and the [accompanying] book, loaning pieces from her Blond Ambition Tour and Confessions Tour.”
Another adored Gaultier muse is plus-size pop singer Beth Ditto, of the band The Gossip. Ditto once notoriously complained to London’s NME magazine, “If there’s anyone to blame for size zero, it’s not women. Blame gay men who work in the fashion industry and want these women as dolls. Men don’t know what it feels like to be a woman and be expected to look a particular way.”
“I think everybody is beautiful and has a different kind of beauty,” says Gaultier. “It is always a question of perception and of presentation. Beth Ditto is fascinating by the way she moves and assumes her body. She represents freedom. She comes from a small town in the U.S., is voluptuous and openly gay. She is very sexy. I have used a lot of plus-size models in my show. They are part of the society, so why not of the fashion world?”
While Gaultier believes women are dressing more for themselves these days rather than for men, he says straight men are also becoming much more style-savvy.
“I think all men should show more their sensitive side, to show more their bodies and shapes,” he explains. “It is not a question of gay or straight. Both can have good and bad taste! I think straight men are getting better with their style. [But] gay men are [still] more aware of what suits them best in some cases, because they have this sensitivity.”
As for his own wardrobe, Gaultier insists he owns nothing that approaches the kind of clothes he designs.
“I am not extravagant; I like to dress others,” he explains. “I am more conventional now, but in my personal archives I have a lot [of extravagant outfits], like when I hosted the MTV Europe Awards in 1995 and did 16 costume changes during the show, from a see-through gown with platform boots to a leopard-print Speedo with matching thigh-high boots and maxi fake fur coat. Actually, you can see excerpts of it in the exhibition.”
Gaultier — whose atelier has lost many employees to AIDS over the last quarter century — says somberly, “Condoms are the most beautiful clothes to wear. AIDS affected a lot my entourage, close friends, co-workers and my partner, who died from it in 1990. I started being involved with AmFar in 1992 when I did a benefit fashion show in LA to fight against this terrible disease. People need to be educated about safer sex. Because even if you can take medications and [can] control it, you still cannot cure it. So awareness is very important.”
”The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier”, at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 Harwood St., through Sunday. DallasMuseumofArt.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 10, 2012.