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An understanding or appreciation of ‘haute couture’  has long eluded me. Those indulgent Paris fashion shows showcasing ridiculous outfits on anorexic models always struck me as an exercise in self-appreciation and self-agrandisement (read: big wank). But after experiencing the work of Jean Paul Gaultier up close and personal at the National Gallery of Victoria’s amazing current exhibition – The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk – I’m gaining a new respect for fashion as an art form.

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The exhibition is quite stunning, both in content and curation. Exhibition content aside, French Canadian and former model, Thierry-Maxime Loriot, has done an outstanding job whittling down 15,000 items from a 40 year career of this fashion trend-setter into this touring exhibition (with some additions for our Aussie audiences). With over 140 items on display, including fashion, photos, sketches and videos, it’s a lot to take it, but the terrific free guided tour from a knowledgeable volunteer and the brilliant breakdown into themed rooms makes it manageable and allows you to digest the glory, and the detail.

Jean Paul is there himself at the start  in the guise of an animated mannequin, switching seamlessly from English to French to introduce his fashion story. In fact, there’s a whole heap of those disconcerting mannequins whose faces come to life with sneaky animated projections, having a quiet word to the visitor, or even a deep and meaningful among themselves. Fabulous.

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The exhibition is divided into seven rooms based on themes, featuring some of the design trends and philosophies of the Frenchman. There’s a place for muses; in a punk-inspired street scene, denim is matched with delicate lace and feathers; and glittering mermaids sing sad tales of the sea.

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Visitors are invited to take a front row seat at a Parisienne fashion show while outfits take a glorious circular parade on the catwalk, including numbers inspired by the Can Can, starring beaded faces, and even floor-piercing Eifel Tour stilettos. It’s no wonder those models take a tumble from time to time.

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One room is set up as a bedoir, with the requisite pointy bras and stuff you normally wear on the inside brought to display on the outside (think Madonna – yes, that outfit is here) and where a childhood teddy reveals the genesis of creativity with his own pointy undergarment crafted from paper. In another dimly-lit enclave, sexy secrets lurk. Men’s wear gets a guernsey as well, with those distinctive man-skirts (no one actually wears them though, surely?) and even some specci male wedding attire. And don’t be surprised that boundaries are being pushed wherever you look – in all sorts of ways.

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Every room brings another scene, another dimension of JP’s work, and more wild and outrageous fashion artistry. The ‘urban jungle’ space combines elements of all sorts of societies and ethnicities, from Jewish orthodox to African tribal, and masks emerging from gowns, and lots more remarkable work. There’s also a section featuring some of his wild and whacky film and television creations. Look out for that innovative microphone in one jungle-inspired outfit.

But it is the detail of the workmanship that had me entralled – the exquisite detail. That leopard skin outfit that you venture in very close to, to check out whether that pelt – including the head – is real fur (surely not? tut tut). But it’s actually fully beaded – hundreds of tiny little glass beads that took 1600 hours to sew on, and has diamante claws. A spectacular corset featuring braided sheaths of wheat, in fact, lots of spectacular corsets you couldn’t have imagined, and everything else. It goes on and on. Art works on mannequins.

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As you gaze in awe at the craftsmanship, spare a thought too for the considerable talents of the curator as you journey along, and take in the lighting, the backdrops, the beguiling animations, the conversations, and the thematic stories being told from space to space. It makes it so much an experience rather than a display.

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I’m still not convinced normal people would wear any of that runway fashion, but that’s not really the point, is it? It’s art up there, and some of it is pretty amazing – especially when you get to see it from just inches away. And this man, Jean Paul Gaultier, has some brilliant creative abilities, and some interesting takes on the melding of societies and racial groups and even sexual identities, as well as fabrics and fashion.

My only regret is that I stupidly left my beautiful new camera behind (a Cannon 70D in case you’re interested) and had to resort to taking woefully inadequate images on my crappy on-death’s door iphone instead. It could not do the outfits any justice.

If you’re in Melbourne, check out the exhibition, even if you don’t think fashion’s your thing. There’s still time (finishes 8 Feb) – just do it. And it’s not going anywhere else in Australia.

And remember to take your camera.

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