From his old teddy bear decked out in a paper bosom to Madonna's corsets and a parrot feather bolero, French couturier Jean Paul Gaultier reveals an enchanting universe at Montreal's Fine Arts Museum exhibition which opened Friday.
The 59-year-old, who views haute couture as an art form, welcomes guests to a preview from the top of a grand staircase, sporting a simple knit sea sweater and surrounded by a handful of young women in splendid clothes and hairdos.
It is actually a dummy, its eyes and lips moving as it delights visitors with an anecdote from Gaultier's life. Gaultier's face is projected on the model using a technique developed by Quebec theater director Denis Marleau.
The illusion is striking. Hidden speakers allow Gaultier and several other models in the exhibition to tell their stories, thus the exhibit itself is communicating with the spectator.
Marleau had used the technology in mounting Maurice Maeterlinck's play "The Blind" before deciding to use it here, the real Gaultier told reporters at the preview including Agence France Presse.
It is also a nod to Jacques Becker's 1945 melodrama "Paris Frills" ("Falbalas") in which one of the characters sees his lost love in a mannequin.
The idea for "The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk" was conceived by the museum's director Nathalie Bondil. For her, haute couture is an art form entirely set apart from others and deserving of a place in museums.
Gaultier, she said, is "beyond fashion". His work carries "a humanist message, of liberty and tolerance for minorities."
"I've always tried to show that there is no single beauty," the artist added.
Are Jean-Paul Gaultier's corsets and other cage-dresses for women really symbols of freedom? "Yes," insisted Bondil. "These are ithyphallic corsets."
In other words, they showcase women's breasts, affirming the power of women.
American singer Madonna, who lent the museum a gown decorated with selvage shaped into breast cones, agrees. In an exhibit inscription, she wrote: "I think that inversion of the concept of the corset is what turns it into a symbol of feminine power and sexual freedom."
Smiling, Gaultier was clearly delighting in his "new adventure". Pressed by Canadian journalists why he chose Montreal over Paris for the exhibit, he spoke first about his fondness for the Quebec museum's staff, and then the "administrative complexities" of the French capital.
Does he believe himself to be "king of France," since among his peers, Karl Lagerfeld is German, John Galliano is British and Yves Saint-Laurent has passed away?
"Oh no!" he exclaimed. "You know what they do to kings in France? They cut off their heads."
The public has until the beginning of October to revel in the former suburbanite's rich creativity. Thereafter, the 140-piece exhibit will travel to Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid and Rotterdam.
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