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April 19 2014

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Jean Paul Gaultier: “My Purpose Is Not To Shock”

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Jean Paul Gaultier by Andy WarholThough perhaps an enfant no more, Jean Paul Gaultier’s long-standing reputation as one of fashion’s enfants terribles hardly jives with the concept of a traditional museum retrospective. In fact, Gaultier himself finds it hard to imagine his designs in such a setting. “I am from the generation where, when I saw an exhibition of someone’s work, they were dead!” he told us. “I think I am still alive, and I never in my dreams thought that a museum could be interested in the work I’m doing.”

However, judging by the buzz around The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, both museums and the masses are keen on a comprehensive showcase of the designer’s work. And, having bowed in 2011 at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, this traveling exhibition is, of course, anything but ordinary. Set to make its East Coast debut at the Brooklyn Museum this Friday, the Thierry-Maxime Loriot-curated show offers a look at Gaultier’s career through the lens of his fixations, from punk rock to corsetry to his many muses. Animated faces (including the visage of Gaultier himself, which is paired with his signature Breton shirt) are projected on many of the show’s mannequins. Elsewhere, S&M-inspired gear is shown in stacked booths reminiscent of a red light district. Ahead of the New York opening, Style.com caught up with the master himself to talk reality television, haute couture, and his career as an accidental provocateur.

When you were initially approached about having an exhibition, did you ever feel any reluctance?
At the beginning, yes. I refused. For me, it was truly for dead people. But after meeting the team at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, I thought, “Ah! Maybe we can do something that is not dead.” It’s nice because it’s a new adventure and it’s not one fixed, chronological exhibition. I did not want it by color or year. I prefer to group the clothes by the things that I’m obsessed with, or the things that are important to me, with different periods mixed together.

Your Spring ’14 runway show took inspiration from both Dancing With the Stars and Grease. Has your relationship with pop culture changed over the years?
I have always been impressed by rock culture, rock shows, people like Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and the New York Dolls—all that influenced me. I look a lot at TV, even trashy programs, reality TV sometimes, and love the contests like Dancing With the Stars. I think I am a little American that way! It’s super interesting, psychologically, and I love performance.

Designs by Jean Paul Gaultier

Do you think that with the rise of the Internet and how quickly everything is consumed, it’s harder to do things that shock or surprise?
Is the purpose to shock? Maybe there are some who do that and think it is important to do that. Miley Cyrus, for example, is doing a lot of that. But I think in general I never tried to be shocking. I only did what I sincerely felt, what I was seeing. The spirit of what was going on, I wanted to reflect that. I think it can be shocking to see how conservative we are now, how politically correct. Things that are shocking now were not shocking maybe thirty years ago.

Who is doing work or taking risks that you find exciting today?
I love Rick Owens. This last collection was fabulous. Honestly, I thought, “Wow.” He did it superbly. All the girls with physiques that were strong—I loved it. It showed a view of a different kind of beauty that’s fabulous. Another that I truly love is Hedi Slimane. I think it’s not easy to take the reigns of a house like Yves Saint Laurent, which, a long time ago, was an enfant terrible. I think what he did is truly a new Saint Laurent, and it was very risqué to do that, very courageous. He had some critics that were terrible. But it corresponds to something—there are young girls who want to be dressed like that, and it was quite right for the moment.

Is couture relevant in the twenty-first century? Has that side of your business changed?
The house of Vionnet used to have about two thousand people working for them. It’s not at all the same thing today—now there are less. Now there are houses that are not called couture, but which are, a little bit. In some way, Hermès is a kind of couture house. I thought, when I started to do couture, that it was completely dead. But I have more and more customers, and not all are eighty years old! I think that couture is about luxury, and there are young women who want to have things made on order. Do we make a profit off it? No. But we don’t lose money at all. I expected to do one couture collection in my life, but now it’s been more than fifteen years. Is there a future for couture? I don’t know. But it is going on. It’s not dead.

Jean Paul Gaultier

Has looking back at your work in this context changed the way you feel about any of the things you’ve done?
I feel some emotion. Maybe it reminds me how hard it was to make that outfit. Maybe it gives me the idea to make something opposite—maybe I should interpret that in a different way now. There are some [pieces] that I see that are still quite OK now! I have obsessions, different things that are deep inside of me, that I go on to work on and develop in another way.

I think that real fashion always comes from things that are happening in society. We are not, in reality, prophets. If we are prophetic too early, it’s not good. It has to be at the right time. When I did my punk things, punk was already there, but I did it in my way. When I did corsetry for a woman, it was because there were girls around me who were the daughters of the women who burned their bras! They wanted to wear something sexy, but to choose to wear it, not because of submission. Look at Madonna. Madonna concretized that spirit of modern women—strong, and at the same time fragile, but more macho than macho, sometimes. So I was feeling the changes in women, and also in men, and in the way women looked at men.

Through my collections, I’ve tried to show that men can be vulnerable, and can be sexy. But I didn’t want to be taboo about it. All this is to say that it was not provocation, it was only because these changes were happening. My purpose is not to shock—of course, I thought that people could be shocked by what I was doing—but I didn’t do it because I had to shock. It’s a reflection.

Photos: Andy Warhol (portrait); Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

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