JEAN PAUL GAULTIER – Multiculturalism & Iconoclasm

JPG copie

Jean Paul Gaultier translated onto garments this new era of multiculturalism and multisexuality. When he started his own brand (haute couture and prêt-à-porter) in the 80s, he grounded his work in traditional techniques while creating irreverent collections at the crossroad of gender, race and cultures. His use of cornucopian references blurred boundaries between the catwalk and the sidewalk, integrating signs from pop culture, subcultures and ethnic dresses.

“Par transpositions, détournement, et assemblages, il donne forme à des métissages transfrontières. Les mondes et les individus déparés par le barrage de la langue, des coutumes et de la géographiese fondent en un univers dont le passeport est tamponné “Planète JPG”. Le couturier orchestre par le vêtement le dialogue entre les cultures et les races. (…) Ces silouettes composites illustrent symboliquement à quel point le brassage des peuples enrichit le patrimoine culturel et artistique d’un pays”. (Jungle Urbaine in La planète mode de Jean Paul Gaultier, p. 272-273).

By incorporating eclectic fragments of ethnic dress, Gaultier aimed at transgressing norms and breaking boundaries between cultures, echoing fashion globalization. His work does not aim at re-enacting the true authenticity of the traditional costumes he borrows reference from, but instead at creating a unique universe, with imaginary  narratives based on novelty and cross-culturality. His strategy of subversion earned him the title of “l’enfant terrible” of fashion, opposing himself to a strategy of conservatism displayed by the couturiers dominating the “field” of Haute Couture, an idea developed by Bourdieu in “Haute Couture et Haute Culture”. Bourdieu believes “new designers and dominant designers are located on two opposite sides of the field [of fashion” (Rocamora, 2002, 341). Gaultier “leftist” vision fostered the avant-garde fashion of the 80s and 90s, challenging the status quo of the traditional “rightist” Parisian couture.

Gaultier’s creative process involves traveling, figuratively or literally. “Reading” his design or experiencing his fashion shows invites the viewer to jump into the narrative of an exotic voyage. Both designer and viewers are invited on a journey breaking cultural boundaries. It is the aesthetic and narrative qualities of ethnic dress that seem to have motivated their incorporation in to Jean Paul Gaultier’s collection, such as in Le Grand Voyage (prêt-à-porter FW 1994-1995), La Chine et l’Espagne (Haute Couture FW 2001-2001), Homage à l’Afrique (Haute Couture SS 2005), Mexico (Haute Couture SS 2010) and more recently, Voyage, Voyage (prêt-à-porter FW 2010-11). The later was one of his most hybrid collection, mixing pattern and styles from Chinese, Berber and Mexican traditional costumes.

The aim of utilizing the Other is to invite the viewer to travel and experience a sense of global awareness that is highly bodily, phenomenological and performative. Gaultier fashion shows have a reputation of theatricality, incorporating music and live performance to create a strong and coherent narrative fragmented onto the various garments of the collection.  By the late 1990s, high fashion was undeniably becoming “a fluid branch of performance art” (Duggan 2001, 243). As stated by Duggan, “[t]he late 1990s mark[ed] a significant point in this development of a heightened art/fashion phenomenon that is more far-reaching in its effect, as it results in fashion show productions that communicate through the medium of performance art” (Duggan 2001, 243). Gaultier’s practice is strongly in line with this notion of fashion as hybrid performance art. By elevating his design to the status of art, Gaultier distanced himself from purely ethnographic motives when finding inspiration in other culture’s sartorial traditions.

To blur the boundaries between art and fashion, fashion shows will resemble spectacles when featuring “elaborate costumes, lighting, props, music and sets, and have been referred to as ‘theater without a plot.” (Duggan 2001, 246).  To construe such performance, designers will select specific models, locations, themes and finales. Gaultier used both supermodels and models that challenged norms of beauty (older, fatter, tattooed), pop culture references (performances by popular singers) and cultural tropes of specific country homage (Russia, Ukraine, China, Spain, Mexico, India, Africa, etc.) that conveyed a sense of travel narrative to his shows. Gaultier obvious themes were also faithfully staged and re-enacted in his campaign and fashion magazine editorials. Such extravaganza ensured high media coverage and the attention of a large audience, directed at both creative and marketing efforts.

Gaultier’s commitment to detail echoes French thinker Roland Barthes’ understanding of fashion as a semiotic system: “fashion as a system where a group or set of related or associated garments come together to a create a unity or complex whole.” (Black 2009, 499). Each detail contributes to foster the “whole” – the narrative- thus every accessory selected by JPG harvest the larger narrative of his creations. This is the case for the cigar and the mariachi band employed in his SS 2010 Mexico fashion show.

Gaultier’s appreciation of the artistic and political potential of fashion profoundly questioned the traditional conception of race and gender. By challenging traditional tenants of Haute Couture and prêt-à-porter, he invited viewers to endorse a multicultural and multisexual gaze, appreciating the contact zone located at the crossroad of the Us and Them and to become a citizen of this new reciprocal space.

Selected Works:

  • Prêt à porter Fall Winter 1994-1995, Le Grand Voyage
  • Haute Couture Fall Winter 2001-2002, La Chine et l’Espagne (Turandot, hair accessories) (Manille, red toreador vest)
  • Haute Couture Spring Summer 2005, Homage à l’Afrique (Baoulé, colourful dress) (African Queen, dress with red face)
  • Haute Couture Spring Summer 2010, Mexico
  • Prêt à porter, Fall Winter 2010-2011, Voyage, Voyage
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