There are many things you might expect from an exhibition of Jean-Paul Gaultier clothing – Breton stripes, tartan, conical-shaped underwear – being greeted by a life-sized dummy with the projected face and voice of the man himself is probably not one of them. Yet this is one of the many innovations that make this new exhibition at the Barbican both bold and exciting. Covering 40 years of design from his time with the French fashion houses including a stint as Creative Director of Hermes, through the Eurotrash years, to the launch of his own fashion label in 1997, this thematically arranged collection, charts the development of Gaultier’s distinct and iconic style.
The first gallery is devoted to the Breton stripe and the various ways Gaultier has incorporated it into men and women’s fashion, from nautical association with bell bottom trousers to long evening dresses. All the dummies in this room have faces which move, talk and sing – giving more interesting presentation to clothes designed for real people. The expressive mannequins are both a dynamic way to present what could be a lifeless display of clothing, and somewhat creepy at the same time.
The next room showcases Gaultier’s work inspired by British street culture, and in particular the punk movement of the late 1970s / early 1980s. It is awash with kilts, denim, camouflage materials and studs with some repurposed as elegant ball gowns which make for an interesting contrast. There’s also a revolving cat-walk that dominates the room, allowing you to sit and watch the clothes pass by as though you were in the front row. The mechanics are little wobbly but you get the idea.
For some, the highlight will be the clothes designed for celebrities and these are in abundance –including Madonna, Kylie, Dita Von Teese, Lily Cole and Kate Moss. The Barbican always likes to give you a varied experience and I really like the way they have curated these rooms, with the clothes in the centre and high quality photography of said star wearing the outfit on the wall nearby. You’d be surprised how many fashion exhibitions fail to do this when it adds such great context to the bit of fabric you’re staring at. There’s some incredible Miles Aldridge prints in the first room, emphasising Gaultier’s collaboration with numerous photographers, models and artists. Upstairs, there’s also a number of film costumes which Gaultier designed such as The Fifth Element all displayed alongside video clips of them in action.
One of the things I really like about the Barbican is that a gallery visit is always good value and a lot of thought clearly goes into planning the best experience for the visitor. Information is well supplied, although in this case an exhibition guide is only available by app, with plenty of signs explaining the themes, as well as the individual pieces. Several of these tell you exactly how many hours the outfit took to create, a fascinating insight into the haute couture process – in some instances it was over a hundred hours and for the more stunning evening wear this topped 1000. Sometimes exhibited clothes can look a little warn close up, but here the workmanship and presumably a careful preservation process makes them look like new. The Barbican has also lavishly redesigned its grey concrete walls, adding plush velvet display cases and lighting to create an effect that enhances the clothes on display.
In addition to the clothes and a really good insight into the Gaultier aesthetic, you also get an interesting sense of how fashion ties into many other cultural forms, including music, film and photography. He’s worked with some of the world’s most famous people and, rather like the David Bailey retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, this is a rare chance to see the culmination of forty years of collaboration and impact. Even better, the Barbican, unlike several other galleries, offers a range of ticket prices, some for less than £10, which will help to engage new audiences for which they should be applauded! The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier is certainly very stripy and this good value exhibition is a great place to meet the man himself, even if it is just a projected version.
The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is at the Barbican until 25 August. Tickets are £14.50 as standard, with variously priced concessions including under £10 for students and schools.