Taming a Provocateur

By Givhan, Robin | Newsweek, July 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

Taming a Provocateur


Givhan, Robin, Newsweek


Byline: Robin Givhan

A Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective spans cone bras, corsets--and feminist politics.

Fashion designers find inspiration in a variety of places: classical paintings, the beats of an audacious musician, or the eccentricities of a friend-cum-muse. Almost all designers, however, claim to have been inspired by the streets. But only Jean Paul Gaultier, who debuts his fall haute couture collection July 6 in Paris, regularly gives the messy realities of daily life unfettered access to his runway. Tattoo body art, Hasidic Jewish traditions, the noble turbans of African immigrants, and the retro-cool of Harlem have all moved the French designer.

He championed nontraditional beauties--with Modigliani faces, Cyrano de Bergerac noses, Rubenesque bodies--long before Dove's "Real Beauty" ad campaign. He put plus-size ladies on his runway before the Internet's self-proclaimed "fat-shionistas" voiced righteous indignation at being marginalized by the frock trade.

The unique and far-reaching cultural resonance of his work is on display in The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, an exhibition that opened June 17 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and runs through Oct. 2. (It later travels to the Dallas Museum of Art and San Francisco's de Young Museum.) The Gaultier exhibition follows the well-received Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And while comparison is inevitable between these two highly skilled designers, each of whom delighted in leaving an audience agitated and unnerved, it would be unfair. McQueen looked inward--guided by his own dark thoughts, painful insecurities, and obsessions. Gaultier looks outward at the swirl of life that engulfs him. And he is fully and optimistically engaged with it.

Gaultier "shows us a society in which we'd like to live--one that's tolerant in ways that go beyond fashion," said museum director Nathalie Bondil at the exhibition's opening.

Through his work, we learn less about Gaultier and more about the times and circumstances in which we all live. He delineates the place religious fervor occupies within modern cities but holds fast to the belief that religious attire, while a symbol of devotion, is ultimately just so much cotton and wool--no more and no less sacred than any other garment. Is he right? At a time when a head wrap, a robe, a veil have taken on such weighted meaning, Gaultier's Hasidic collection from 1993 is another entry point for asking difficult questions about faith, propriety, and modern life. …

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