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The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk exhibition at the de Young Museum

"Non-conformist designer seeks unusual models ..."

by Steve Phipps/FAMAMOCA
17 August 2012

above, left-to-right, from the July 27 La Milonga de Gaultier Friday Night event at the de Young museum: Two dancers perform on-stage; members of the band Trio Garufa perform; inside gallery rooms of the exhibition. Photographs by the author.

It's five-thirty, and empty chairs still sideline the foyer. But the crowd is growing and large enough now to be congesting traffic, and with a lot of pointing, it's also moving this way.

"Each Friday Night program has a unique theme and ties in with the special exhibitions and permanent collections at the museum," said Clara Hatcher from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, describing the Friday Nights series ongoing at the de Young. "The programs include a mix of live music, dance performances, film screenings, panel discussions, lectures, artist demonstrations, special performances, and hands-on art activities."

Tonight, it's La Milonga de Gaultier, a tango for the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Professional dancers perform on-stage, couples from the audience dance on the floor, and the band Trio Garufa plays several sets of Argentine tango.

"The program is free to the public and exists to provide an engaging, participatory experience for the entire community," said Hatcher. The event partners with the Gaultier exhibit currently at the de Young, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. Downstairs, the museum is screening the film The Fifth Element, with costumes by Gaultier. Downstairs, too, is the exhibition itself: In roughly six gallery rooms, an extensive presentation of Gaultier's work. "The exhibition at the de Young has exceeded our projected goals for attendance," said Hatcher. "Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive."

Exhibitions of fashion and textiles can feel a bit static. It's a showcase of clothes, but even with the extreme or implausible, they're things brought to life in movement, by people actually wearing them.

An emotive mannequin, inside the exhibition. Click the image to advance the sequence. Photographs by the author.

Technology is a surprise surrogate here: Gaultier's outfits are indeed shown on full-form mannequins, which gives at least a sense of the human figure, and also of how the garment does — how it fits and shapes, how it shows and hides. But here, the mannequins have expressions, life-like and in fine detail. And they are changing and interpretable expressions, life-like and with fine detail.

It's a kind of surprise breath of life: a more complete, more complex, more pleasing presentation. A technological surrogate to what's missing — to living social culture, and to the emotional. Of your being able to see the thing alive on someone, with a moment of communication or understanding. The experience of how it affects them, and you. Or at least such a hint.

In theatre, the on-stage command is you must play a choice. Actively, make a choice. And they do. In each museum gallery, on each curiously expressive semi-mannequin, an act. And each with its own context, there in its outfit, life-like and with fine detail. It isn't exactly some sincere moment of pride or status or envy or boredom, but the technology is tireless and it's risk-free and it is successful.

Further along in the exhibition, traditional mannequins also traverse a short runway, round and around. And again, if it's not actually runway itself with its surprise and vibrant life, here again it is at least such a hint. A technological, now strictly mechanical, surrogate. As the model-mannequins make their parade exit and return, and return.

And a tip if you go: They're somewhat easy to miss, so look for large prints of Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Nadja Auermann, and more. What the models and the photographic artists did with Gaultier and their respective talents.

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