DALLAS -- Cone bra.
Are you getting a visual? Does it include a younger Madonna in a pink corset and a high-flying ponytail?
That "bulletproof" undergarment topped with the torpedo twins and worn during her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour is the most famous garment ever made by French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier. That Madonna wore it with men's trousers is typical of the male-female slipperiness of Gaultier's style.
The galleries at the Dallas Museum of Art Are filled with 130 of his most creative flights of fashion, many of them incorporating his underwear-outerwear subterfuge. This is the first time the DMA has mounted a display of a fashion designer's work. But it is an exhibit with international appeal; it opened in Montreal and will travel to San Francisco, Madrid, the Netherlands and Stockholm.
The visual elements in "The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk" are spectacular, but the timing is troubling.
Gaultier is one of 11 designers recognized by the French fashion office Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to create custom-made garments for a dwindling customer base that can afford clothing that costs tens of thousands of dollars. It is not uncommon for couture evening gowns to top $50,000. He also has a ready-to-wear line, which the French fashion industry calls prêt-à-porter , and those pieces sell for mere thousands, or if you are a savvy shopper, perhaps for hundreds on sale. For these two lines, Gaultier will design seven collections a year.
The exhibit is a selection chosen from thousands of garments of menswear and womenswear that he has made during the course of a nearly 35-year career at the helm of his own line.
Most people will never see a couture fashion show or even a couture garment, so this is an unparalleled opportunity to witness the most creative efforts of a fashion genius whose work is interpreted by the most skilled seamstresses in France. Imagine the most luxurious fabrics and embellishments taken to their extremes. This is haute couture, where designers push their visions to the maximum. Nevermind the 12-inch breast cones on the gowns or sequined lace bell bottoms for men; look at the fabrics, the feathers, the embroideries -- they are beyond anything you will likely see in a store.
Often the couture experiments will be toned down and trimmed of extravagance for mass production in the prêt-à-porter collection. Strip off the outrageous wigs and hats, and what is left is a jacket that is quite clever and wearable. Or look at the head-to-toe houndstooth outfit, with matching glasses, bag and gloves, and focus on just the accessories; they might be all that ever hit the retail shelves. All the rest is photo enrichment made to beguile fashion photographers and magazine editors. But seeing it all as it is presented in Paris is the delight here; this is an adventure in fashion wonderland.
The animatronic mannequins, though, of which the museum is unjustly proud, are a distraction. The faces of Gaultier and his models are projected onto the heads and as their lips move, voices emanate from the mannequins. It's eerily icky because you can't hear what they are saying over the din in the galleries.
Gaultier has made his bones on democracy, androgyny and multiculturalism with a lot of sexiness on the side. He sends his friends and family down the runway, old and wrinkled, or young and plump. He embraces models with eccentricities and a variety of skin hues. He likes masculine women and effeminate men as models. He fuses traditional garments from one country with historical costumes from another; nothing is ever too extreme or sacred. Even, he says, codpieces and bras.
Gaultier was the breath of fresh air that blew through Paris fashion in the 1980s. He was the darling of the magazine editors and the fashion-savvy street kids, the two factions who steer fashion's direction. Often referred to as l'enf ant terrible, he is neither. He is 59 years old, witty, warm and ebullient, with a voracious visual appetite that assimilates what he sees on the cultural landscape and borrows it for reinterpretation as fashion.
In the '80s, he was the best. Then he was eclipsed by the two Brits -- John Galliano and Alexander McQueen -- who were more outrageous, fanciful, exclusive and decadent. They weren't democratic at all, not like Gaultier. In 1996, Galliano was hired to design Christian Dior's haute couture and prêt-à-porter collections and McQueen for Givenchy; then McQueen made bigger headlines for his own collection. McQueen's suicide in 2010 and Galliano's firing from Dior this year for his anti-Semitic rants have cleared the tables of competition. It leaves Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani and Jean Paul Gaultier to lead France's haute couture. Neither Lagerfeld nor Armani seems to care about trodding new ground, so that leaves Gaultier to make the noise.
This is what makes the show problematic. It is a fine-art endorsement of a business in tremendous flux.
It smacks of retail opportunity. There are bottles of perfume in the galleries -- not in the gift shop, in the galleries. The horizontally striped nautical T-shirts that are a Gaultier signature are in the galleries and the gift shop. His licensed optical line is for sale in the gift shop; so are tartan handbags for $1,895 and filmy little T-shirts for $195.
"My clothing is not art," he said at the opening. "My job is to make clothes that have to be worn to please and to sell."
Fashion is a business -- a lovely, artful business -- and this show will boost its bottom line.
The DMA is hoping it will boost its bottom line, as well. There is a recent precedent that is staggering. The retrospective "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" opened in May at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. By the time it closed, it had drawn more than 650,000 visitors, making it the eighth most popular exhibit in the Met's history.
In March 2012, a retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent will open at the Denver Art Museum, the only U.S. stop, with more than 200 haute couture garments from Saint Laurent's 40-year career.
McQueen and Saint Laurent are dead, and their retrospectives are more homage than retail stimulus. Gaultier is still very much alive and working at his fashion collections, designing for performers and for retail giants such as Target. A little bit of all of this is on display.
The galleries at the DMA are divided into conceptual categories that play more like boutiques. There is "Boudoir," with all the lingerie-inspired garments; there is an "Urban Jungle" of clothes that could be reconstituted and plunked down on Rodeo Drive. A gallery has been made to look like a ballroom with a runway re-creation, complete with gold side chairs, just like the ones they use for the audience, with mannequins that move down the runway. There is a gallery of wearable creations complete with price tags. Oh, wait, that is the gift shop, where you can buy $245 Eiffel Tower umbrellas, signature striped T-shirts for $265, even a small teddy bear, just like the one Gaultier dressed when he was a youth, for $175.
Although there are financial objections to mounting this exhibit, besides the pricey stuffed toys and perfumes for the masses, it is not without its charms. And there is the opportunity to see, very clearly, what all the haute couture fuss is about.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113