Blurred lines, Gaultier style

 As a couturier, Jean Paul Gaultier has always been a voice for diversity – both social and aesthetic.

He helped put the ambition in Madonna’s 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour, armoring the chameleonic one in his signature cone bras and corsets that were like a second skin on the perkiest of breasts, the sleekest of figures.

He dressed male model Tanel Bedrossiantz in one of his mermaid gowns and festooned South Sudanese model Alek Wek with a gown whose camouflage bustier gave way to a cascade of khaki, cinnamon and papaya tulle ruffles.

For Gaultier, the lines between fabric and skin and male and female – as well as among various ethnicities and religions – have always been blurry at best.

It’s the reason he’s happy to be celebrated in a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

“On one of my first trips, I decided to walk all the way uptown from (Greenwich) Village until Harlem,” he recalls in the press materials. “It took me the whole day, and I will never forget the pleasure of discovering this great city. But most of all, it is a melting pot, a place where you can go around the world in one day, where all the races and creeds live together. I am proud and honored that my exhibition will be presented in Brooklyn, where the true spirit of New York lives on.”

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” (through Feb. 23) surveys his career in a presentation that is more theatrical than chronological, with 130 haute couture and prêt-à-porter ensembles accompanied by audiovisual materials, sketches, early designs and photographs in thematic arrangements.

“The Odyssey” sets the tone with Gaultier’s early use of nautical and religious iconography and includes his first design (1971), never-before-displayed, costumes worn by Beyoncé and gowns created for Marion Cotillard and Catherine Deneuve to wear to the Oscars.

“The Boudoir” explores the designer’s fascination with lingerie, which he plumbed in the conical bras and corsets created for Madonna. Also featured here are designs for Hermès, where he was creative director 2004-11 and his childhood teddy bear Nana in the first cone bra (circa early-1960s).

“Muses” gets to the heart of the Gaultier aesthetic as it considers how he erased boundaries in establishing a new ideal of beauty.

“Punk Cancan” takes us through his mélange of styles, from Paris chic to London punk. This section includes the strapless chiffon-camouflage ball gown that Sarah Jessica Parker wore to the 2000 MTV Awards, which required 312 hours to make.

“Skin Deep” looks at the idea of clothing as a second skin in the Gaultier aesthetic and how his use of trompe l’oeil effects conveys the illusion of nudity, a flayed body, a skeleton or tattoos.

“Metropolis” spotlights his collaborations with everyone from the late choreographer Maurice Béjart to Lady Gaga. This section includes the first-ever display of pieces from a summer collection inspired by Grace Jones, Boy George, Sade, Madonna and David Bowie.

“Urban Jungle” mines the role world culture plays in Gaultier’s designs, where the influences range from Bedouin to Bollywood.

These themes come alive in a highly interactive, kinetic show – initiated by Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – that features revolving mannequins and a continuously moving catwalk.

For its part, the Brooklyn Museum is as happy to have Gaultier’s quirky designs as he is to be there.

Says director Arthur L. Lehman: “Jean Paul Gaultier’s mastery of the complex technical demands of haute couture is matched only by his rich and unrivalled artistic collaborations. His unconventional designs, frequently spiked with his sense of whimsy and quixotic humor, reflect the richness of our cultures.”

For more, visit brooklynmuseum.org.

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