You arrive at the first room of the Gaultier installation in a room full of mannequins under blue light. They’re grouped into visual themes that echo the key motifs in his work: the sailor stripe, the mermaid, the Virgin Mary. Seeing the detail of the designs, is mesmerising enough – but then you realise the faces of the mannequins are moving, their lips are pursing, and their eyes are darting. That strange siren soundtrack? It’s being mimed by the collection of Virgin Marys on the left. Centre among them is a mannequin of Gaultier himself, riffing in English and then French about his work. It’s unearthly and entirely hypnotic. (I uploaded a ten-second video here. I don’t want to sound like Upworthy, but you won’t believe she isn’t real.)
Jean Paul Gaultier grew up in a dingy Parisian suburb, but the sea looms large in his creative vocabulary. Well, not the sea per se – he’s not exactly big on boats or starfishes – but the liminality of those associated with it, since the sea has always allowed for reinvention of identity. Gaultier’s sailor stripe is inspired by Fassbinder’s Querelle of Brest, itself based on Jean Genet’s novel, a celebration of an aesthetic of homosexuality and criminality, in which ports are full of outcasts and improvisers. The mermaid is half-woman, half-fish, and Mary, star of the sea, is both mother and virgin.
The Barbican exhibition, which features photography and video as well as 140 designs, is a theatrical staging that underlines the extent of his collaboration with unconventional models and muses and how how street fashion has informed his couture. You’re reminded of his creative partnerships with Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodovar and Luc Besson; there are works by Cindy Sherman and Richard Avedon. In this context, Madonna is merely a bit player. Gaultier has always acknowledged his debt to London street fashion, but the parade of mannequins in tartan bondage don’t, I think, represent the best of his work; it feels more like tourism. Neither, I think, do his raiding of ethnic motifs.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s celebrity, via appearances on Eurotrash or as a prepackaged caricature on Absolutely Fabulous , can obscure the extent of his influence. But his alliances with Madonna, or Marilyn Manson, or Kylie Minogue, with their global distribution, have changed our visual language. As an enduring image, the conical bra takes some beating, though the exhibition quietly points out that Madonna wasn’t the first to wear his cone design. That prize goes to Catherine Ringer, the lead singer of left-field French band Les Rita Mitsouko, who wore a Gaultier cone dress in the video of Marcia Baila, easily my favourite French song of the 1980s – not that there’s a whole lot of competition (click here for the song and video: it’s insanely catchy, and Ringer looks fabulous).
But Gaultier’s more than a dressmaker to pop stars. His mantra is simple, but challenging: “Les vêtements n’ont pas de sexe.” It’s hard to credit this happened, but when he first showed the man skirt in the 1980s, the Vogue team got up and walked out of his collection.
Over the years, Gaultier has always been pushing gender boundaries, but there are other instances where the playful meshes with the uncanny. His work with milliner Stephen Jones on reinventing a fez is particularly arresting, taking an etiolated Western cliché of the other into something genuinely disturbing by using fetish imagery. Those fez tails pouring out of eyeholes inevitably remind you of Stephen Jones’s Blitz club mate Leigh Bowery and underline Gaultier’s affinity not with punk but with the gender and performance experimentations of David Bowie and his New Romantic descendants.
Most striking throughout the Barbican installation is his rethinking of the dress back into its basic principles. This stunning version below looks like an abstract, a sketch, the bare bones of a design.
It is a red-carpet evening dress reduced to its constituent parts, a dress made not of yielding silk but consisting of rods and joists. Like a skeleton, it’s a dress that has to be filled with flesh to be worn, but it also nods towards the industrial construction of the crinoline, a structure that simultaneously constricted women but which also gave them physical heft to dominate a male-centred space. It’s a contradiction that Gaultier revels in.