National Gallery of Victoria National Gallery of Victoria

17 Oct 2014 — 8 Feb 2015

Skin Deep

Except for the medieval codpiece and the bra, garments have never had a gender. - Jean Paul Gaultier

For Jean Paul Gaultier, skin and body are inexhaustible sources of inspiration. In his hands, materials become 'second skins.' With prints of flayed or tattooed bodies, he explores the possibilities of trompe l’oeil. His fascination with skin feeds his imagination and guides his at once romantic and fetishistic designs.

In opposition to the rule of thin, he has offered the sensuality of plus sizes, and sent out a powerful message: Be yourself, no matter what nature has dealt you! Instead of ethereal Swedish blondes, he chooses models with character. For his runway shows, he started to hold open casting calls, recruiting with classified ads that read:

Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models
—the conventionally pretty need not apply

In the early 1980s, Jean Paul Gaultier began introducing a diversity of genres, 
a wide range of looks that encompassed even the hypersexualised and the transgendered. As a child who had suffered from his 'different' sexual identity, he offered one and all the freedom to choose their own, whether 'butch', 'boy toy' or anything in between. In the summer of 1985, the designer wrote a new page in the history of fashion with his A Wardrobe for Two collection, reflecting his investigation of masculine, feminine, androgynous and alternative conventions. He proposed a post-macho look with the skirt for men, which once again lent credibility to an item of clothing that, in ancient times and other cultures, had been entirely accepted.

Following from that, Gaultier created 'men’s couture.' With The Modern Man, 
a haute couture collection that still remains unique, the male wardrobe was enriched by delicate, sophisticated materials. The Gaultier style features a blend of the classic and the unconventional, a mixture of rock and tradition that has inspired most of his collections. It gives men a new right, that of appealing through the expression of their fragility and sensitivity - something women seem to appreciate.

In stark contrast, he showed a woman capable of asserting the 'masculine' side of her personality. For her 2006 Confessions Tour, he turned Madonna into an equestrian dominatrix surrounded by harness-bound 'slave' dancers. His work has been marked by many allusions to bondage and the X-rated, with latex, leather, fishnet and other sadomasochistic paraphernalia dressing his new-style horsewomen in 'ready-for-sex' designs, close by-products of late 1970s power dressing, that some have found outrageous and others sublimely elegant.