After the massive success of the Met’s blockbuster Alexander McQueen retrospective in 2011 (and, for better or worse, the endless publicity surrounding their more recent exploration of “punk”), more and more museums have started turning to designers as exhibition headliners and, presumably, and source of increased foot traffic. The Brooklyn Museum is now jumping into the fray, hosting the only East Coast showing of “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” a staggeringly comprehensive show that initially debuted at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
And really, there aren’t many living designers more deserving of a lavish, thoughtful retrospective than Gaultier, whose 40-year career is loosely divided into eight categories here, including “Boudoir,” which looks at his extensive work with corsets, and, of course, his costume designs for Madonna’s 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour (there are also plenty of designs he’s worked on for the likes of Beyonce, Beth Ditto, and Kylie Minogue). Much of his work is displayed on mannequins with talking faces projected onto them (there’s sound, too, to vaguely creepy effect), but the exhibit’s at its best when Gaultier’s designs are allowed to speak for themselves. Even when they’re not quite working (particularly on the heels of the Met’s exhibit, the “Punk Cancan” section of the show is easy to find yourself rushing through), his clothes have a way of mirroring the decade or social moment they came from with taste and a sense of humor. It’s thought provoking, but never overbearing.
The opening of a glossy, high-profile exhibit feels particularly well-timed coming as it does a few days after the opening of Saul Bolton’s in-house restaurant Saul, which marks both the return of a beloved Brooklyn institution and a major move by the museum to position itself as a significant culinary destination. Whether you’re a design buff, stopping by for dinner, or just appreciate the significance of intricate, beautifully made things, this comes as a welcome reminder that we should all probably be spending more time at the Brooklyn Museum.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier runs October 25th — February 23rd at the Brooklyn Museum.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.