Matthew Ortiz – A Frenchman in Bucktown: Gaultier at Brooklyn Museum

As a quick preface, I’m happy to write this article for Psychology Tomorrow Magazine (PTM) after its one-year anniversary this past September. PTM is a medium in which writers and journalists can cover the everyday and/or the taboo by unconventional means; e.g., by writing in the all-telling first person which, in my opinion, is ironically not a common mode of writing in journalism. Open up the New York Times and take in the plethora of objective pronouns.

In keeping with the unconventional means of first-person reporting, I’m happy to cover the couture of world-renowned fashion designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, who, until February 23, 2014, has a vast collection of his garments on display at the always-riding-backseat Brooklyn Museum whose special exhibitions and permanent collections alike always seem to be haphazard, cluttered and, at times, pedestrian, when compared to New York City’s more notable museums, unlike this moment in time for Brooklyn Museum. Many of my Manhattanite chums know barely anything if anything at all about the museum, and they aren’t generally willing to traverse the East River to figure out what’s happening in Brooklyn, which is awesomeness!

The “awesomeness” that is Gaultier is mostly known for his haute couture which, under French law, cannot be shown outside of France when initially produced, so I guess we should consider ourselves blessed. There always seems to be an inescapable watermark on all things created by the French which are celebrated by the world, an invisible tattoo of sorts. You can almost hear the nasal hohn-hohn-hohn when viewing or doing anything that is sanctioned by French law. While I don’t know the legalities behind how this exhibit, a “best of” of Gaultier’s confections to date, has been able to cross the American border, I and the world shouldn’t be bothered by the details of law. You have to focus on the details of the work, which are impeccable, which define haute couture.

For a quick crash course, haute couture translates to “high fashion” and that in turn means something that you most likely cannot afford and even if you could, you probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to buy it, and even if you did buy it, it might be impossible to wear without the assistance of a servant and the maintenance and storage of the garment alone is probably more trouble than it’s worth. But who cares because it looks so good! You’re literally wearing sculptures. Under French law, the definition of haute couture, among other technicalities, is that it’s made entirely by hand, just as a sculptor might work with clay or metal or whatever garbage (“found objects” being the preferred wording) they discover on the street. A simple yet fantastic example of haute couture is in the pinstriped dress by Gaultier seen below.

Now, if I might digress before describing this dress, I’m going to keep with PTM’s ethics by disclosing everything and censoring nothing, and I ask you to pardon the quality of this photograph. It was taken by me and my cell phone. Always the eager tyros of photography we are. We weren’t expecting to publish these photographs, but as anyone working in journalism or publishing can tell you, content and schedules will change at the drop of a couture hat right up until the very last minute and when the ultimate deadline approaches you’ve got to give what you’ve got, which in this case would be this horribly blurry photograph. But this quality actually works with me a little bit. Let’s look.

GaultierAt first glance, it looks like a typical pinstriped dress with a belt made of white buttons, but upon further inspection – at least upon further inspection in person – you’ll notice that the stripes are in fact more white buttons which are holding strips of black material together. It’s almost a mirrorland version of a pinstriped dress in that the actual pattern is the dress and not merely flare added to the form. It’s more a dress made from buttons, with the buttons being sewn together by strips of black fabric if you will. It is with this example that one can view fashion as art and wearable sculpture: a mélange of materials molded by human hands to create something new and with fashion, functional. One button alone would barely even cover the nipple of the wearer, but a vital button that would be considering the depth of the neck line, the amount of cleavage, and that one can’t wear a brasserie with this dress. Breasts and their clothes a great segue into why Gaultier has been dubbed l’enfant terrible, or “the terrible child,” which is a French expression given to children who, with childlike innocence, say or do things that are, if completed by adults, totally inappropriate.

Take one of Gaultier’s most iconic muses: Madonna. If you were alive during the zenith of Madonna’s career, which would be her Blond Ambition tour (most notably documented in the film Truth or Dare) you were in a deep coma if you never saw her risqué, conical brassiere and corset turned outfit, all designed by Gaultier. Her breasts were almost weapons of a sort. I remember when I was young and seeing this for the first time, I was fascinated that a woman could transform her boobs into sharp torpedoes. It’s with this transformation that Gaultier turned something which restricts, e.g., corsets and bras, into something that in turn amplifies and celebrates. “If we took…some time to celebrate just one day out of life,” as Madonna sings in her song “Holiday,” it would be so nice and lead to a promising and prosperous career in fashion as it did with Gaultier.

MadonnaGaultier’s upbringing was heavily influenced by his grandmother who would let him watch endless hours of television through which his brain became saturated with images of glamour and fashion. His grandmother also let him toy around with her old clothes, including undergarments, and he was regaled with stories from the war, a time in which materials and goods of all kinds (cloth, food, metals, etc.) were under rules of heavy conservation. Costumes of all kinds, including men’s suits, were recycled and tailored to match the proper look of a woman as they were to be worn by women and subsequently, an androgyny was born and infused with the foundation of Gaultier’s fashion sensibilities. A perfect reference for this “engendered” Gaultier’s androgynous aesthetic is the image of Marlene Dietrich as cabaret singer, Amy Jolly, in the film, Morocco- an image Gaultier most indubitably witnessed while watching copious amounts of television at his grandmother’s home in Arcueil, a suburb of Paris. He was entranced by the fashionable world of Hollywood and by the vedettes de la société parisienne.

Marlene Dietrich

What I think is most fascinating about the career of Gaultier is that he remains to be a avant-garde conduit between what’s happening with the “times,” or with current events, pop culture and fashion. What’s also interesting is that as a teenager, he relied on matriarchal influences and inspiration from years gone by. But when discovering himself as an individual he began to take inspiration not from the past, but from the Now. Like a surfer flawlessly riding atop the crest of a formidable wave, the wave of contemporary culture, he was always at the forefront of his time with his creations; from atop the wave he could see the destination of the shore. The late 70s and early 80s saw the punk movement in which detriment and destruction quite literally affected clothing and garments. Gaultier embraced the do-it-yourself approach to fashion and created dresses out of black garbage bags. He had studded leather, he had torn denim, he had men in plaid skirts and it worked!

He sought inspiration from northwestern coastal France where oceanic life was also common, and the beret and striped pattern of long-sleeved shirts seeped their way into his collections. His bond with nautical chic seems interminable now that his fragrance, Le Male, still a top seller since 1995, features a sexy Frenchman with the hat of a sailor and the physique of a Gaulois GOD!

But always as tastes changes, so appropriately does Gaultier. With New Wave and advancements in technology in the 1980s he incorporated synthetic materials such as vinyl, Lycra and neoprene. All the while, like any true artist, he simultaneously embraced fantasy: that which wasn’t but could come to be when seen through to fruition, from idea to creation as is all art. His themes have included underwater couture, dresses with patterns of metallic fish scales and accessories made of pearl and coral. He embraced BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) with constricting leather, face gear and harnesses. He went to the future in Luc Besson’s film, The Fifth Element, to create hybrid and androgynous reinterpretations of classical styles, wonderfully displayed in the scene of the Diva’s aria.

L’Enfant Terrible continues to “play” in his Fall-Winter 2013 of prêt-à-porter fashions (or, “ready-to-wear” fashion; i.e., streamlined and not necessarily made by hand). The men’s line features an almost-proper business suit for a pilot as it’s a marriage between jumpsuit and tailored suit; no broken hems, literally, from top to bottom. His more traditional suits are all the same, still playful in that the sleeves are a completely different color and pattern, making it seem almost like a cut-off T-shirt for the gym or the beach. At the same time, the women’s line features suits with hems outlining the breasts, a throwback to his Madonna days. He also features strong leather tops over playful, colorful pattern of what seems to be the moving silhouettes of dancers. In his couture line, there are wonderful dresses with classical tailoring, save for the bulbous pockets in the torso or on the overcoat, and the furry animal prints.

L’Enfant Terrible is the most fitting nickname for Gaultier because, like a child, he just wants to play and let his imagination run wild. He brings the wearer into a world of fantasy, an escape of sorts from the everyday when, in fact, they are dressing up to engage with the everyday and going outside to face the world. Jean Paul Gaultier is a veritable artist in that he brings that out of you: the imagination of your former child self where pretend wasn’t just a game. It was everything.

 Matthew Ortiz