Are designers the catalysts for cultural change in their time?

Costume by Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna's 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour
Costume by Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna's 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour

Are designers the catalysts for cultural change in their time? Jean Paul Gaultier thinks so. He claims that the role of designers is “to translate the changes of those times, to note the mutations and mirror the evolution of society”. Do designers really aspire to take on this much responsibility? After attending “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” an exhibition of 35 years of his fashion at the De Young Museum yesterday, I believe he is and continues to be a catalyst for our times and here are some ways he does this.

I met Jean Paul Guiltier in the early 1990’s when he visited the Royal College of Art in London to meet with students to talk about his work. Madonna had just released her book “Sex” which I was desperate to own but could not afford. She was riding high on the success of her Blond AmbitionWorld tour that Jean Paul Gaultier had designed the costumes for. The signature cone breasted corset became an icon of pop fashion culture overnight. Their collaboration was a mutation in the world of music and entertainment. Their work was playful, provocative, demanding, irreverent. It pushed us as all further and faster into the future than we would have gone without their collaboration.

Back at the Royal College of Art, Jean Paul Gaultier spoke with us with excitement, humility and a little admiration for us being design students in London. For him, London sub culture made a huge impression.  Second to Paris, the streets of London are his most overriding influence. Traveling to the UK in the early 1970‘s, he go his first look at punk – the alternative  artistry that would stimulate new aesthetic codes. He found inspiration in the energy of the London’s streets, in Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique, and in the glam-rock style popularized by David Bowie and his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. According to the exhibitions curator “Punk’s anti materialist principles influence the designer, enabling him to explore a nonconformist fashion. Gaultier adopted punk’s offbeat recycling. The total rebellion, the trash, the “destroyed” look appealed to him.”

“The raw side of punk, with its Mohawk haircuts, almost tribal makeup, allusions to sex, torn fishnet stockings, black, kilts, bondage straps, mixing genders and materials – all that spoke to me, suiting me much better than some of the traditional ossified conventions of the couture world.” Jean Paul Gaultier

Jean Paul Gaultier's Punk inspired work on show at the De Young Museum 2012
Jean Paul Gaultier's Punk inspired work on show at the De Young Museum 2012

As a student in the 90‘s punk was still a part of the London scene. Crossing the class divide, groups of punks were evident everywhere, often sitting like peacocks in Trafalgar Square – they dared you to stare back at them. It crossed my mind – what would you need to make your hair stand up straight in a mohalk  – I heard sugar water was the answer, but the ratio was a secret.

Looking at Jean Paul Gaultier’s translation of London punk into his couture line you see both “costume” and fashion. His work translates the changes of the time but does it in a way that is refined and beautiful. It leaves no room for the grime, grit and puke of its London roots.

His work is both conceptual and beautiful, at times too literal in translation to bear. This fabulous gown (see below) features an exotic animal print. You have to look really closely to see that a 1000 hours of bead work created the animal print illusion – no animals were harmed in the making of this dress.

Jean Paul Gaultier's Animal Print gown on show at the De Young Museum 2012
Jean Paul Gaultier's Animal Print gown on show at the De Young Museum 2012

In another example of this aching attention to concept is seen in this 2009 long silk satin and lace “cage’ over a sequined chiffon and lace sheath. The “Calligraphie” gown took 295 hours to create.

A concept is something formed by mentally combining all its characteristics and making it into an object of thought. For Jean Paul Gaultier he takes concepts like ornamentation or nonconformism and translates it into a garment which challenges our view of what clothes are.

There is no doubt that Jean Paul Gaultier’s designs translate the changes, the mutations and the evolution of society – he is truly a catalyst of change. Thank you Jean Paul for reminding me of this sacred design responsibility.

Jean Paul Gaultier's Calligrahy inspired gown on show at the De Young Museum 2012
Jean Paul Gaultier's Calligrahy inspired gown on show at the De Young Museum 2012

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