Paris’s Grand Palais is currently hosting an exhibition of Jean Paul Gaultier’s work (#expoJPG). Before seeing it, I had not appreciated that JPG was self-taught, largely through a love of films and shows, and it left me wondering whether it was this early media fascination that has had a profound influence on his work and on the fashion industry as a whole.
Perhaps it is partly what comes of being self-taught, but the clothes on show here seem to contain all aspects of the DNA of Paris fashion and its designers over the decades. There was strong religious reference as I had seen at Lanvin; global exoticism as at YSL; corsetry echoing Dior’s New Look; draping in the style of Madame Gres; streetstyle and workwear adopted in the spirit of Chanel.
So what made JPG so innovative? What really struck me seeing this show, was the way that the designer embraced the media age. Like YSL in the late 60s, he spotted a social wave that would engulf the market: the convergence of music with fashion and the way that performers and other celebrities would become intimately associated with the fashion industry. This is really brought home in the Punk Cancan room, so-called because it represents the way JPG merged traditional Parisienne touchstones of style (beret, trenchcoat etc) with London’s punk movement. The room contains a moving runway surrounded by a front row representing the celebrities and fashion journalists with whom JPG worked. Strikingly all the mannequins – on catwalk and front row – wear his clothes, raising the question: “Where is the show really taking place?”.
Some of the clothes, especially those for the celebrity clients, are so extreme that you just cannot imagine how they could sell and it was just this thought that I was having when I walked into the final room, Urban Jungle, and encountered a collection of some of the most beautiful pieces in the whole exhibition. They showcase JPG’s inspiration from exotic cultures – Mongolian, Japanese, African, Spanish – and, though some of the looks were extreme, the individual items were exquisitely crafted. I loved the flower embroidery and dramatic hats almost as much as a wonderful crocodile tailored jacket, surely inspired by his appointment to design for Hermes in 2002.
Seeing this after visiting the Paris exhibitions for Lanvin and YSL on the same day gave a unique perspective on three Parisian couturiers. Jeanne Lanvin focused the extraordinary beading and embroidery talents of her atelier on clothes that served the wearer’s needs and lifestyle. YSL reinvented couture in the modern age, adapting it to the needs of the professional modern woman. JPG gave us couture in the multimedia and social media age where runways and red carpets merge. Each one transformed Haute Couture to reflect social change. It left me with one question: what will the next revolution hold and who will lead it?