Every address in Paris resounds with some note of the city’s history as an artistic and cultural capital of Europe, but this week one address in particular, on rue Saint-Martin, echoed with cancan music and vibrant images of haute couture crafted by one of the enduring figures of the fashion world, Jean Paul Gaultier.
Two weeks ago I had the good fortune to visit the city and experience the premiere of Gaultier’s new spring and summer couture line, a selection of forty-six works evocative of not only the world of that most recognizable of dances but with punk culture of the 1970s. As he is known to do so well, Gaultier fused disparate influences into a richly charged whole—with dresses winkingly titled “The Clash,” “Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die,” and “Toulouse Lautrec.” While sophisticated in the materials, articulated forms, and elegant profiles, the line was anything but aloof, sedate, or boring—and proved that, in his fourth decade as an independent designer, the enfant terrible of the fashion world could still thrill and titillate while exhibiting the mastery gained in his years of work. To me, Gaultier’s best work is when his inspirations, from street fashion to various world cultures, just begin to fuse in his designs yet remain disparate enough to create a frisson that truly electrifies the viewer. Indeed, as fashion is articulated design for the human body, motion is implied; to excite, good design should have a restless and somewhat unexpected side.
My visit was in anticipation of the DMA’s forthcoming presentation of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, opening on November 13, 2011, following its international premiere at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in June. The first dedicated fashion exhibition hosted by the DMA under the aegis of the Museum’s Decorative Arts and Design program, this multisensory exploration of the career of Gaultier will include about 120 examples of his designs dating from the 1970s to works created in just the last year. Given the excellence of his work as one of the foremost fashion designers of recent decades, we are exceptionally thrilled to be the first venue in the United States for this landmark exhibition.
After the show, I enjoyed the exceptionally rare opportunity to not merely review the works in his salon but visit the atelier on the top floor. Here, within this hive of alternately small and large workrooms, great bolts of fabric and endless tubs of beads, feathers, and trimwork rested neatly upon shelves, seemingly with no space unused. On any walls that had somehow managed to escape a shelving unit, photographs, Gaultier’s sketches, and notes were tacked. Staff diligently and carefully stitched, examined, and checked pieces, while fragments of prototypes—sections of dress with sample materials, alternate patterns, and differing techniques—hung from racks. While each of these vignettes might seem otherwise unremarkable to anyone familiar with the art of costume, the entire workshop reverberated with the energy of rapid preparations that had paused for but a moment as the forty-six works were presented to the eager crowd on the third floor of the building the prior afternoon. Before that day was done, the work began anew, plotting a course toward the next line of works that Gaultier had envisioned.
This November, Texans won’t have to go to France to experience the visual sophistication and boundless energy within Gaultier’s creations—they will just have to visit the DMA.
Kevin W. Tucker is The Margot B. Perot Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Dallas Museum of Art.