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The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier

The celebrated French designer is the subject of a new fashion expo at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

In the 1994 fashion satire Pret-a-Porter, by Robert Altman, designer and couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier appears as himself. He has a shaved head and sailor-striped shirt and speaks in cartoonishly accented French. “I think there is not only one idea of beauty,” he tells the perky reporter. “There is a lot of different kinds of beauty... I try to show, like, uh, a kind of tolerance”, 17 years later, 35 years after his first collection, and Gaultier — the subject and life-force of a new fashion exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts — is ever the same. Shaved head, check. Breton stripes, check. (Even the museum workers wear them, in solidarity.) And the commitment to all kinds of beauty, even/especially the ugly kind? Check. And that's exactly what compelled MMFA director Nathalie Bondil to show The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier. “When I met him, I loved his open mind toward humanity,” she says, “and his democratic social message.”

“I started with nothing, no money,” says the artist formerly known as l'enfant terrible. “So in the beginning I used non-models, not the big models, because I had no money, but also because they had a different kind of beauty, and I always wanted to show that". But then the big models came to him, and the big stars, and the art stars, too. The six-room, thematically organized exhibit is littered with photographs of and by major names: from Cindy Sherman wearing Gaultier for her Fashion series (1983) to Richard Avedon shooting Nadja Auermann as “Mrs. Comfort” (1995) to Lady Gaga in a white trench (2009). There are film clips starring his friend Catherine Deneuve, and stills of Nirvana's “Heart-Shaped Box” video, Kurt in spangled Gaultier, and snippets of Kylie Minogue concerts, for which he outfitted her. It's all so glittery—and we haven't even talked about the gowns.

They are dazzling, these gowns; stupendous; de trop. There's haute couture for secretaries and skinheads; for madonnas (and Madonna) and whores; for sailors and sirens, scuba divers and mermaids. There's a gown in “leopard skin” made entirely from beads, which took 108 hours to do; a kaleidoscopic stunner from his Russian collection took 242 hours. One La Mariee, from spring 2005, is topped with a snow-feathered headdress-cum-veil. Many of the pieces are so rich in craft, so poor in subtlety, that to gaze upon them is to wonder what they made for, if not a museum? And though the exhibit is subtitled From Sidewalk to Catwalk, it's not about his major street influences—say, a corset under worker's overalls—so much as his masterpieces. As it should be, really.

“Because Gaultier is so democratic in his ideas, we wanted to bring the most haute couture to the widest audience,” says curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot—an ex-model, as it turns out. He takes pains to point out it's neither a commercial show (unlike the McQueen show at the Met, it's funded entirely by the museum, not Gaultier) nor a retrospective. The legend is still very much alive. “It's a celebration of his creativity, not a funeral. We wanted the show to be alive, too". Which is why the mannequins, no kidding, talk. They literally have talking, moving, digitally animated faces. One of them is Gaultier “himself.” The rest are a cacophony of races and ages, representing all Gaultier's beloved kinds of beauty. Whether they are beautiful is a matter of taste. Watching their artificial tics, hearing over and overlapping again their mechanically voiced idioms, I felt panicky, like I was trapped in a 90s idea of the future, or an insane asylum (a feeling not helped by the satin padded walls of the final, “boudoir” room).

Not so for Gaultier. “I feel at home, already at home in Montreal, which I must say has been the place where since the first collection they have understood what I am doing,” he says. “And I feel at home in my collection. I could sleep there". He's winking, but it's true: he could. After all, it's a show spun entirely from his wildest, most perverse and exorbitant dreams.

Curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot, "The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk", June 17- 2 October at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. A lavishly illustrated catalogue edited by Loriot featuring interviews with Gaultier's legendary collaborators will accompany the exhibition.