Jean Paul Gaultier: Fashion's L'enfant Terrible

By Megan McDonald September 9, 2011

Whether you love it or hate it, Madonna’s infamous and iconic conical bra, created by Jean Paul Gaultier for her 1990s Blond Ambition tour, has an interesting back story. The thing is, the look wasn’t first designed for her. Preceding all others, the original style risk-taker was none other than Nana, Gaultier’s childhood teddy bear. The inventive, ahead-of-his-time designer fashioned Nana’s brassiere out of the handy medium that is newspaper.

Seriously, I can’t stand how much I love this teddy bear!

But if we're talking about John Paul Gaultier, I must back up a bit, because in this case, it’s best to start at the beginning.  And by beginning, I mean the entrance to the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which is currently honoring 35 years of JPG's eponymous label, a first ever. It was truly my good fortune to be in Montreal for the opening day of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.

Photo credit: Le Pigeon

Photo Credit: Le Pigeon

Midway up the staircase to the exhibit, the energy of what’s to come is palpable. A sea of blue lighting envelopes the top floor, as if the viewer is ascending into the sky, where JPG is holding court with his models, draped in his exquisite creations. There to greet you, above the clouds, is JPG himself. Well, his doppelganger anyway.  Aside from the haute couture, the standout detail of this show, without a doubt, is the mannequins. The faces have been molded from live models, as well as JPG, and video of their facial images is projected onto the fiberglass mannequin. They are life-like apparitions. Some speak, some sing, some even have a conversation with their mirrored reflection. Seriously.

Here’s a clip of JPG followed by a model in his boudoir Cage Dress, who is telling a secret to her teddy bear.  Hope you’ve brushed up on your French…


Isn’t this just incredibly clever?  Curator Thierry Maxime Loriot, who collaborated with Denis Marleau and Stéphanie Jasmin of UBU on the mannequins, deserves to be commended for this entirely unique concept.


This irreverent French courtier was dubbed fashion’s l’enfant terrible early on, and rightly so. But it was good to be bad. JPG wriggled out of conventional expectations, which resulted in his unnerving the unnerved. He subversively influenced beliefs and went anti-establishment through his creations, where friction and tension were common threads. He took media, mediums and genres out of context to create his own language for social commentary. 

In a way, he became fashion’s poster boy for not only accepting and embracing differences--whether ethnicity, unconventional beauty, religious beliefs or sexual orientation--but he also showed us the stunning result of marrying those differences. 

The evolution of this talent has resulted in many signature looks, such as corsets, bondage strapping, London punk and the emblematic JPG sailor stripe.

It took a little doing, but I found an interview in English with JPG regarding the opening of the exhibit.  He’s a likeable character, for certain:

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If you find yourself in Montreal, the exhibit runs through October 1, 2011.  After that it hits the road, travelling to Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid and Rotterdam.

But that’s not the end of this blog. I couldn’t leave you without a little JPG eye candy!

Belles des champs [Countryside Babes] collection

Women’s prêt-à-porter spring/summer 2006

© Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier

Les Cages [Cages] collection, Calligraphie dress

Haute couture fall/winter 2008-2009

© Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier

Les Vierges (Virgins) collection, Laudes ensemble

Model : Dita Von Teese

Haute couture spring/summer 2007

© Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier

Look closely at this one–can you guess what it’s made of? Close-up shots follow….

Les Actrices (Movie Stars) collection, Étoiles et toiles dress

Haute couture fall/winter 2009-2010

© P. Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the ensemble is composed of movie reels. Talk about a cinephile!

L’Homme-objet (Boy Toy) collection

Men’s prêt-à-porter spring/summer 1984

© P. Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier

Photo credit: Le Pigeon

Paolo Roversi

Tanel Bedrossiantz, in a dress from the Barbès collection, fall/winter 1984-1985

Private collection

© Paolo Roversi

Collection Les Actrices, body-corset Barbarella

Haute couture automne-hiver 2009-2010

© Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier

Want to see what JPG has been up to lately?  Here’s a video of his Men’s Fall 2011 Paris Runway show:


What’s your favorite of JPG’s signature styles?  I’d LOVE to know!

Check out Heather's take on another fashion icon's museum exhibit, Alexander McQueen, by clicking here. And if you're looking for more style news and notes, follow Heather on Twitter @heatherDUNHILL.

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