Corsets meet pop culture in Jean Paul Gaultier show 

If the de Young Museum’s “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to Catwalk” proves anything, it’s that Jean Paul Gaultier is the Andy Warhol of the fashion world.

Madonna’s cone bras, as ubiquitous as Warhol’s soup cans, are on view with Gaultier’s costume illustrations for the film “The Fifth Element”; a cubic corset for Kylie Minogue; and photographs of Nirvana, Depeche Mode and Lady Gaga in Gaultier gear.

Organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibit — which runs through August — screams pop. Like Warhol, the French designer has absorbed pop culture as much as he influences it. His unique alchemy resonates equally with pop stars, fashionistas and the public.

The well-designed exhibition features more than 100 Gaultier creations, many on animated, talking mannequins whose vocals fall into the background. Corseted dress forms rotate inside a large, pink, quilted satin cube, and mannequins on a conveyor belt rotate on a catwalk. The movement transforms the clothes from static, dust-collecting museum pieces to live participants in a cultural dialogue.

Gaultier’s first-ever bra is on view, and its model, his childhood teddy bear, is an endearing insight to his creativity.

In town for the exhibition’s opening last week, Gaultier said when he discovered his grandmother’s corset as a young boy, he asked questions. After she explained how it worked, he followed his curiosity by making his first bra out of paper and pinning it to the bear. The obsession would become distinctive to his oeuvre.

The exhibit’s plentiful corsetry is reptilian, metallic, anatomical, exoskeletal, crocheted, balletic, bedazzled, sculptural, aquatic and bionic — but the underwear-as-outerwear motif is not repetitious. Gaultier’s immense imagination takes him to unprecedented places as a couturier. He crafts the impossible out of the improbable.

More than a dozen flat-screen televisions showcase footage from Gaultier’s career, from his earliest atelier assignment with Pierre Cardin to the present. Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Erin O’Connor and Madonna sashay down the catwalk in his designs, capturing the immediate buzz of his fashion show extravaganzas.

Costume designs for films, including Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “The City of Lost Children,” are also on view.

If nothing else, the show is worth seeing for the astounding variety of its fashion photography, from large chromogenic prints to personal Polaroids of Madonna. Artists including Richard Avedon, Gilbert and George, David LaChapelle, Peter Linbergh, Steven Meisel and Cindy Sherman are represented.

Despite his exotic creations, Gaultier has remained culturally relevant since his first catwalk show in 1976. His inspirations — punk, Frida Kahlo, sailors, Catholicism and ethnocentric fascinations — are broad. He has even sent “real” people instead of models down his runway.

“I am inspired by people that are different, that have an interesting character,” Gaultier said at the de Young. “There is no one type of beauty. You can find beauty everywhere.”

 

IF YOU GO

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier


Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 9:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Fridays after March 30; closed Mondays; show closes Aug. 19
Tickets: $16 to $20
Contact: (415) 750-3600, http://deyoung.famsf.org

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Lauren Gallagher

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