National Gallery of Victoria National Gallery of Victoria

17 Oct 2014 — 8 Feb 2015

Punk Cancan

Jean Paul Gaultier was born in the suburbs of Paris, but his heart beats to the rhythm of both rough-and-ready Paris and rock-attitude London. He is fascinated by the Paris of the Belle Époque and the interwar years, the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge, the colourful throngs crowding the streets of the Barbès area and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. He loves the postcard Paris that calls to mind the Parisians in Brassaï photographs, the denizens of the city’s bistros and cabarets. These many visions of Paris set the scene for the multifaceted character whom Jean Paul Gaultier unflaggingly pays court to: the Parisienne.

La Goulue, Arletty, Micheline Presle and Juliette Greco are his icons. He gives new twists to their classic accoutrements—beret, trench coat, cigarette holder, houndstooth checks, gingham, and baguette. He contrasts The Uptight Charm of the Bourgeoisie (autumn-winter 1985–1986) with the sass of The Concierge is in the Staircase (spring-summer 1988). His Parisienne alternately morphs into a 1940s existentialist or a 1950s couture customer, nonchalantly moving between the Paris of the multiethnic suburbs and the glittering circles of high society. By combining those opposite worlds, he ennobles mundane garments and derides the smugness of conventional good taste.

An apprentice couturier with Cardin in 1970 and 1974, Jean Paul Gaultier then became an independent designer and interpreter of societal turmoil. In January 1997, he returned to the elite ranks of his profession by opening his own couture house, a bold decision to ensure the continuity of haute couture’s fine crafts and tradition. In 2004, the Jean Paul Gaultier headquarters was set up in Paris’s 3rd arrondissement, in the former Palais des Arts de l’Avenir du Prolétariat, far from the city’s middle-class neighbourhoods and other couture houses.

As a child, he listened to his grandmother tell stories about life during the war. Women were already recycling then, to cope with the prevailing shortages: men’s suits were altered for women; pants became skirts. By enriching recycled objects, Jean Paul Gaultier made them magnificent. Sumptuous linings turned military garments into formal attire, while evening gowns sprang from camouflage-print fabrics.

Traveling to London in the early 1970s, he got his first look at the styles adopted by the punks of Trafalgar Square, whose alternative artistry would stimulate new aesthetic codes. Punk’s antimaterialist principles would have an influence on the designer, enabling him to explore a nonconformist fashion. He found inspiration and new materials in the energy of London’s streets, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique and, with David Bowie and his alter ego Ziggy Stardust at its head, the glam rock movement. A couturier with a punk soul, he adopted the concepts of recycling and the offbeat, penury forcing him to be inventive. The total rebellion, the trash, 'destroy' look appealed to him:

. . . the raw side of punk, with its Mohawk haircuts, almost tribal makeup, allusions to sex, torn fishnet stockings, black, kilts, bondage straps, mixing of genders and materials—all that spoke to me, suiting me much better than some of the ossified conventions of the couture.