The influence of Jean Paul Gaultier can be seen in the fashion of recent decades. The so-called enfant terrible defines what it is to be a designer of postmodern, eccentric and witty fashion. His designs are both cutting-edge and expressive; his garments are truly indicative of the moment in which they are designed.  The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is currently on view at the Barbican Art Gallery. The exhibition is organised by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and has been on tour around the world. London has always been a source of inspiration for Jean Paul Gaultier and the installation at the Barbican features around 165 couture and ready-to-wear garments.

The exhibition opens with The Odyssey and taps into Gaultier’s early life and the start of his career. It also charts the inspirations behind his collections, including film, television and unconventional beauty. In this room, the recurrent motifs in his work such as the Breton stripe, mermaids and nautical inspirations can be seen. Stand out pieces in this room include a celestial print strapless sheath dress from the Virgins collection of S/S 2007. However, the focal point here was on the lifelike mannequins.

The mannequins have interactive faces that speak, sing and move. To some this may seem like a distraction from the garments but for me it had the opposite effect. Clothing and the body are so deeply intertwined that when clothing is removed from the body it seems to lose its impact. After all, clothing is designed for the human body not for mannequins. These interactive mannequins make the clothes come to life. They also add to the ongoing theme of the essence of humanity in the exhibition. Gaultier’s desire is for his clothing to be worn by everyone, regardless of age, race or status and the mannequins provide a theatrical outlet to show this.

Punk Cancan showcases Gaultier’s affinity for non-conformist fashion and adding new twists to classic garments. A revolving catwalk adds excitement and is an ideal way to portray his love for Belle Époque Paris, performance and the Parisienne. The fantastic wigs and headdresses created by Odile Gilbert are seen here, with a standout hairpiece moulded to recreate the Union Jack. The next room is a dedication to Gaultier’s Muses and his preference for imperfect, unusual and unconventional models. Paintings of his many muses by Annie Kevans include Amy Winehouse, Dita Von Teese and David Bowie among others. This room also has stage costumes worn by Madonna for her 1990 Blonde Ambition World Tour.

Upstairs, the first room is The Boudoir which features Gaultier’s most recognisable designs. The inspiration for his conical bras and corsets unfolds here: His intention to celebrate the body and to use it as a symbol of sexual freedom and empowerment in his designs is a heavy focus. Excerpts from the 1945 Jacques Becker film Falbalas are shown as well as Gaultier’s teddy bear with a mini bra placed on it. A chest of drawers holding bottles of Jean Paul Gaultier’s fragrances emphasises his fascination with the female form.

Metropolis shows the ways in which Gaultier absorbs culture through television and movies in his designs, featuring the tiger print Lycra suit from Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I live In. The Eurotrash room also shows the designer’s involvement in pop culture with his role as a host on Eurotrash. Here clips from the show are featured as well as magazine covers, and a puppet of Gaultier for Spitting Image.

Skin Deep shows the body as inspiration for his designs and the illusion of clothing as a second skin. It also delves into the androgyny and intentional sexual ambiguity of some of his collections. A series of dark and seductive rooms and boxes follow featuring Gaultier’s bondage inspired collections. The Urban Jungle room shows a diverse mix of multi-ethnic designs that incorporate the exoticism of the animal kingdom and celebrates cultural traditions.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk encapsulates the creativity of Jean Paul Gaultier as a couturier but with a very human and personal approach. The theatrical nature of the exhibition design shows his eccentricity and his exuberance. The references to his Grandmother and family, and their impact on his designs, add a personal touch to his creative story.

His thought process as a designer can be seen in the exhibition labels which frequently include his quotes and ideas. What really comes across in the show is his myriad of diverse inspirations and references in his work and his craftsmanship as a couturier. Many of the garment labels noted how many hours it took for the piece to be completed: A remarkable taffeta evening gown with ‘leopard skin’ embroidery took 1060 hours. Jean Paul Gaultier and the curatorial team wanted to create an exhibition that wasn’t just about fashion but about Gaultier’s social vision and they have achieved exactly this. The show highlights the universal nature of fashion and the complexities behind creating pieces that push boundaries.

The exhibition will run from the 9th April to the 25th August 2014 at the Barbican.

Written by Giselle La Pompe-Moore. Images © Barbican.