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Putting on the glitz

Retrospective celebrates Gaultier’s striking, pop-culture couture

Immaculata dress from the “Madonnas’’ haute couture collection of Spring/Summer 2007. Immaculata dress from the “Madonnas’’ haute couture collection of Spring/Summer 2007. (Patrice Stable/Jean Paul Gaultier)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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MONTREAL - The cluster of so-lifelike-they’re-disturbing mannequins is striking, strange, and straddles a blurry line between gaudy and avant-garde. In their own way, these mannequins serve as a concise metaphor for the work of the man who dressed them - French designer Jean Paul Gaultier.

The hologram-enhanced and much buzzed about mannequins sing, talk, and demurely blink and wink at visitors at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts at a retrospective of Gaultier’s 25-year career, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.’’ A chatty faux Gaultier stands alongside these hybrids who wear ensembles culled from the designer’s stunning “Madonnas’’ haute couture collection of Spring/Summer 2007.

The ensembles, ultra modern reinterpretations of Botticelli’s subjects, are nearly overshadowed by the technology. But it is impossible to upstage the work of the Parisian clothier whose themes of sexuality, the human body, and pop culture dominate with an exuberance that seldom wavers through the first quarter century of his career.

Some of Gaultier’s most recognizable moments come courtesy of Madonna, who made Gaultier’s cone bra a nationally recognized symbol of early 1990s sexuality during her “Blond Ambition’’ tour. There is nothing particularly demure about any of the clothes on display in the exhibition, but there is something quite endearing about Gaultier’s pluck - including his stints hosting a cheeky late-night European talk show and releasing a pop song.

All of these moments are included in the exhaustive retrospective, as are key periods in Gaultier’s development as a designer. His fascination with corseting, which began with discoveries in his grandmother’s closet as a child, first surfaced in his work in 1983 and never fully receded. Some may see the corsets as a symbol of female oppression, while Gaultier, associating the undergarments with his grandmother, reinterprets them as a symbol of feminine strength.

Gaultier’s work also finds its subversive strength in its embrace of all women. He is not interested in conventional beauty. “As a child, my attention was always drawn by those women who didn’t look like everyone else. . .,’’ he writes in the show’s catalog. And he demonstrates this in his costume design, most notably for the actresses who regularly appear in the films of Pedro Almodóvar.

It’s easy for a designer to create a conventionally pretty dress for a lovely woman. It’s more challenging for a designer to look at a subject, her personality, and her body, and then capture those elements in his clothing. But that is Gaultier’s skill - from Madonna’s dominatrix ensembles to his stunningly bizarre “Cinema’’ collection of 2009. Gaultier can make pretty clothes for pretty women, and he often does, designing for sirens such as Catherine Deneuve and Arielle Dombasle, but his art lies in the underbelly of beauty.

Freeing himself from those expectations makes his designs, and this retrospective, an oddly heart-warming experience.

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’’ runs through Oct. 2 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.