An installation view from The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk (Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen)

NEW YORK - Among the 130 haute couture and prêt-à-porter creations that make up a mesmerizing retrospective of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s career, on view at the Brooklyn Museum, is an inauspicious all-black ensemble that seems to come straight out of a Chinese ghost story. Derived from the designer’s 2001-2002 haut couture China and Spain collection, this “Turandot” look includes a fringed evening gown with Chinese dragon motif and jet bugle bead embroidery, crepe georgette pants and a parasol made of hair created by Odile Gilbert. 


The original “Turandot” from the runway of Gaultier’s 2001-2002 haut couture China and Spain collection was a blonde (Photo courtesy of Jean-Paul Gaultier)
Hermann Broch once argued that the essence of kitsch is imitation in that it mimics what it is not. Just like Puccini’s Turandot, which was based on the lore of dubious origin misattributed to China, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s China and Spain association invites us to look beyond a lineal history of cultural influence and imitation and discover something more elegant in his artistic license. As he champions the fluidity of cultural identities, Gaultier has rendered the question of “authenticity” largely irrelevant.


An installation view from The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk (Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen)

Gaultier’s fashion utopia is a melting pot where elements derived from different cultures and origins mingle freely. He has returned to the classic motif of French sailor stripes in different collections that bear dissonant titles such as the Russia collection, the India collection and Ze Parisienne collection. His spring/summer 2010 women’s prêt-à-porter Bad Girls–G Spot collection is a tribute to disparate sartorial elements that include Burnouses, harem pants, Mongolian jackets, Greek bouzouki skirts, Swedish socks, Chinese dresses and Masai necklaces, to name just a few.


“Apparitions” gown from Virgins (or Madonnas) women’s haute couture collection spring-summer 2007.  (Photo credit: Patrice Stable/Jean-Paul Gaultier)

Interestingly, Gaultier’s future-looking worldview finds its theoretical underpinning in the Metropolitan Museum’s splendid Interwoven Globe exhibition, which traces the crisscross of the international textile trades from 1500 to 1800. Rather than singular inspirations or direct adaptations, most of the objects embody complex, iterative cultural references. For instance, a Chinese textile of painted silk found its way to an opulent dress made in France for consumption in America. Despite the cultural supremacy and economic exploitation that often accompany cross-border geo-politics and trade, exotic clothing has, at different points throughout history, personified the awe-inspiring luxury object desired by many across different societies.  

Exoticism, with its aesthetic pretension of what it is not, is susceptible to being kitschy. When I walked through the Interwoven Globe and the Gaultier shows, I found many objects thought-provoking, but nothing akin to the distasteful pedestrian associations of kitsh. Gaultier populates his show with electrically engineered talking robots. These mannequins are, for the most part, trans-racial, trans-cultural and trans-gender. Once “exotic,” they are the ancestors of the future’s “world citizens.”


Coverlet (detail), China, for the European market, 17th century
Silk, satin, embroidered with silk and gilt-paper wrapped thread
 84 in. x 79 in.  
(Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As a museum show serves to elevate Gaultier’s fashion designs to the level of “art,” we are naturally fascinated by Gaultier’s creative influences and whether or not he perceives there to be a gap between fashion and art. I asked him if, in his long-standing career, he had ever felt the pressure of commercial dictates. His responses were surprisingly candid: for him, clothes are made for wearing – they protect us as well as show us how beautiful we are.


I was late to the show preview last week. As the curator was addressing the guests, I ran into the designer at the museum gift shop. Before he was called upon to address the crowd, we had a brief one-on-one chat. (Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen).

Gaultier was appointed the creative director of the House of Hermès from 2003 to 2010, which at the time also owned a 45 percent stake in the designer’s eponymous brand. In 2011 a Chinese investment group reportedly entertained the possibility of taking a significant stake in the Jean-Paul Gaultier label before the deal fell through. Hermès eventually sold its Jean-Paul Gaultier shares to the Spanish group Puig. As this show has already left extensive footprints in North America and Europe, I eagerly anticipate that it will set foot on China in the near future.


Gaultier picked up some souvenir bags with his favorite French sailor stripes motif at the gift shop of the Brooklyn Museum (Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen).

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk
October 25, 2013 to February 23, 2014
Brooklyn Museum
Brooklyn, New York

Interwoven Globe
The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800

September 16, 2013 to January 5, 2014
The Metropolitan Museum of ArtNew York City

Watch below for Jean-Paul Gaultier: a talking mannequin (Video by Chiu-Ti Jansen).

Tags: New York, Exhibitions