Shelf Appeal finally got to the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican. Having heard all about the mannequins with the video faces, I found myself quickly lost in the stitches.
Gaultier has long been up near the top of my designer list. More imaginative garments have come out of that man’s head than many other designer’s outputs combined. Tasteful cuts and silhouettes have been covered off by many an Italian designer. But fabric and decoration remain best done in the French frock houses. And Gaultier, picking up the (embroidered) gauntlet laid down by Schiaparelli in Paris all those decades ago, manipulates both with an eye to the surreal, subtle and (sometimes) couture sacrilegious.
This exhibition strides through the Gaultier years with gusto. It is an understated exhibition design (for these days) but the frocks are fabulous and cleanly displayed. The latter, sadly, a design technique much underrated. Contextual information is given with a light touch, videos nicely placed above the frocks, not interfering with the main event as it were. The crowd-pleasing video heads are a really good photo op, which exhibitions ignore these days at their own peril. But best of all most of the frocks are not in glass cases, so you can peer up close and personal.
Such far and near sightings are essential – Gaultier frocks work on two levels, the first showy impact and then, if you can get close, the magnificent details. The sometimes seemingly random yet planned with precision pinks, sequins, pleats, cords, bows and buttons. His layering makes me want to weep; ethnographic fabrics, fringes, feathers, skins all piled one upon the other for urban Anime ladies to wrap themselves up in. And then the treatments of simple things like net and denim, corsets, sailor pants.. Sigh.
All in all this is an old fashioned frock exhibition. And let’s face it, if the frocks are good enough, you simply don’t need to dress things up any further.
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