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Jean Paul Gaultier Retrospective at the Barbican

By Alex Zagalsky on Apr 17 2014

The Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective opens this week at the Barbican and although it's small, the exhibition is every bit as fun and fabulous as the designer himself. I don't want to spoil things for anyone, but let's just say you'll giggle as you move around the rooms.

Is there anyone else in fashion who has his dual appeal? That of an endearing bon vivant and a master couturier? Karl Lagerfeld has his moments (funny mostly by virtue of being catty) but he does like to blow his own trumpet. JPG is widely regarded as the most humble and fun-loving designers of his generation and yet he is also one of the most controversial: quashing taboos, questioning and twisting sexual identity, empowering women (never feeble, always in charge of their desires) and introducing haute couture to men's runways. Indeed, his reign as fashion's enfant-terrible was firmly established in 1986 when he notoriously sent male models down the Paris catwalk - Vogue did not approve. Non.

I've only touched the tip of the iceberg here - or should that be the tip of the conical corset - but it's evident from this compact exhibition that playing safe was never part of the JPG remit - subversion with celebration was, and still is to some extent, his mantra. (In case you are wondering, Madonna's famous pink satin corset, worn for her 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour, is on show. You can practically touch it! Please don't though, I would feel responsible.)

There are over 140 pieces on display, mostly all spectacular couture outfits, including a leopard print number that was entirely hand-beaded taking seamstresses an astounding 1600 hours. There are also familiar editorial images as well as a collection of portraits by British artist Annie Kevans depicting the designer's muses (from David Bowie to Amy Winehouse), produced especially for the London show.

The exhibition has toured eight times around the world already, but London holds a special place for Jean Paul Gaultier. As the designer explained at the press conference:

'London is my muse. Yes the first opening of the exhibition, première fois, was wonderful and important, but London has influenced me in so many ways and still does. With the idea of punk, of liberation. It is very special to me to have show here.'

How thrilling to see him in the flesh - he really hasn't changed since he presented Eurotrash all those years ago on Channel 4 with Antoine de Caunes. I loved that show.

As affable and expressive as ever, Jean Paul was at a special talk at the Barbican following the press view to introduce his new fragrance Classique Intense along with the exhibition's curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot, Retail Director at Harper's Bazaar, Jo Glynn-Smith, and perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, who created his iconic La Male scent almost 20 years ago at the tender age of 24.

During the course of the Q&As, the designer was asked if he wears his own perfumes, he replied:

'Yes, but I wear others too. It is like a marriage. You are loyal, yes, but you can enjoy a little tralala on the side.'

And that's him all over. Playful and flirty, breathing fun into fashion with libertarian-like insouciance. Make no mistake though, he is a plain-clothed business mastermind underneath the cheeky persona too.