“Mapping Gaultier in Brooklyn”


A Review of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk

Brooklyn Museum, New York, 25th October 2013 – 23rd February 2014


By Sonya Abrego

It was impossible for me, having developed my fascination with fashion in the late 1980s and 1990s, to not be impressed with Jean Paul Gaultier. The designer’s prolific career encompassing ready to wear, couture, fragrance, television, and costume design made his particular off beat and irreverent aesthetic more accessible and definitely more enduring than most. He was the “enfant terrible” when he started his first womenswear collection in 1976, and was the newest haute couture house until the recent launch of Schiaparelli for spring 2014.

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk” on view at the Brooklyn Museum debuted in Montreal in the spring of 2011, and Brooklyn is its sixth installation. It is a large and heterogeneous assemblage of close to 140 pieces spanning decades of runway collections interspersed with sketches and video installations organized around six themes. The curator, Thierry-Maxime Loriot s,  stressed that this exhibition should be viewed as a contemporary installation by a working designer, a novel Gaultier creation in itself, and not as a retrospective. Upon entering visitors can trace every move in the designer’s career by way of a very detailed, but somewhat sloppily presented, timeline on the wall. The timeline positioned at the entrance does set a slightly retrospective instructional tone, but seeing as the remainder of the exhibition does not proceed in chronological order, it was the only deviation from the curator’s thematic vision. Selections from multiple collections are recombined, and foreground Gaultier’s talent for mining an idea; deconstructing and repurposing the familiar into the avant-garde undoubtedly one of his strongest and most celebrated qualities.


The garments and imagery that Gaultier revisits and reinvents are all present; sailors and mermaids, baroque ecclesiastical garments, corsets, and circle-stitch bras.  Many of them are dressed on mannequins whose faces are animated with high-resolution projections of models blinking, speaking, and singing. There is even a talking effigy of Gaultier himself, front and centre, welcoming guests to his exhibition. With another designer this effect might seem excessive, “technology for technology’s sake.” Yet, here in the context of Gaultier’s playful showmanship and love of artifice, I didn’t find it out of place, and it failed to distract from the fantastic garments on display. 

A particularly effective theme, “The Boudoir” elegantly showcases Gaultier’s feminine and sexually defiant corsets in pink, satin quilted rooms. Gaultier reworks the iconic pale pink ribbon-trimmed corset into a kind of body armor with looped ribbon puffing away from the bustline drawing attention to the bust but distorting the shape. The jewel-box feel of the space contrasts the architecturally constructed hard-edged corsets and bustiers. Many of which rotate on turning dress forms, for a good view of all three dimensions, in dimly lit black velvet lined vitrines.


Other more spacious and visually frenetic rooms touch upon Gaultier’s love of body art and bondage, his penchant for unconventionally beautiful muses and his tireless fascination with multicultural and subcultural urban environments. “Punk CanCan” is one example highlighting Gaultier’s witty and provocative combination of Punk fashion, which he encountered firsthand on the streets of London, and the traditions of Parisian haute couture. One ensemble incorporates a classic flight jacket that has been cropped and given a lining of plush downy orange feathers instead of quilted orange nylon, and in another, pink ballet slippers are slung over the shoulder of a studded leather jacket.

I don’t take issue with Gaultier’s recontextualised Punk inspired garments, but the look and feel of this room falls flat. The mannequins’ faces blink and scowl but they are uniformly clean and pretty, save for a little extra black eyeliner, and nothing reads as edgy or exceptionally “punk” other than the clothes. Why not go further and have them curse out the audience or, better yet, spit! The black mohawk wigs felt particularly trite, especially so soon after the Metropolitan’s questionable foray into the same territory. Unlike many of the items chosen for the Met’s show, here the garments’ connection to punk aesthetics is abundantly clear, the theatrical touches look too much like costume and turn something witty into something obvious. And the graffiti panels covering the walls look   as though they were lifted from a New York subway car or a breakdancer’s sneakers in the 1980s rather than the kind of aerosol scrawl identified with Punk album graphics from groups like the Exploited or the Dead Kennedys. It’s frustrating to see this kind of sloppiness on the part of curators and exhibition designers, particularly in dealing with a subcultural moment from the recent past, and the work of a designer whose reimagining of it hinges on his very close attention to the details.


Pouring over the dizzying array of garments in this extensive exhibition brought me back to the subtitle “from Sidewalk to Catwalk” Perhaps it’s a convenient way for the curator to reference high/low influences eeees to  a general audience and clearly, Gaultier is inspired by street styles. But it’s subversive and marginal cultures that catch his creative eye. Club kids, BDSM gear, and Punks do not make up a typical “sidewalk” scene, neither do Mongolian furs, Frida Kahlo inspired skirts, and wildly beaded leopard shawls. Although I would love to walk the sidewalks of Gaultier’s imagined community, they fail to follow a straight line, and I wonder if boundaries between “sidewalk” and “catwalk” need to enter into it. His creativity does not flow neatly from one environment to the other, elevating “street” wear to “high fashion,” instead it is messy, complicated, and artfully contrived. The designs occupy multiple spaces, some of them virtual and fantastical, like film and couture, while others are simply ready to wear.

Although some themes and visual concepts hold together more strongly than others, the exhibition’s overall impact is impressive because the clothes themselves carry the show. The refined construction, the breadth of Gaultier’s inspiration, and the fun that he communicates enliven this exhibition more than the singing mannequins.


Sonya Abrego is a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center in New York specialising in twentieth century fashion, currently completing a dissertation on Westernwear in the postwar United States. Sonya is a senior editor at Worn Fashion Journal and works in the vintage clothing market.


Review – Mapping Gaultier in Brooklyn

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