The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk explores the creative development of one of the world’s most influential designers.

Throughout his career, which spans more than 40 years, Gaultier has been obsessed and influenced by all facets of popular culture. The exhibition tracks the growth of his identity as a designer and organises it around seven themes: from mermaids and sailors in The Odyssey, to a teddy bear wearing a cone bra in The Boudoir.

Thierry-Maxime Loriot, the exhibition’s curator from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, says, “Gaultier didn’t want to have an exhibition that was a retrospective, so we approached it more like a contemporary installation.”

More than 140 garments are on display, sourced mainly from Gaultier’s archives with others on loan from celebrities. One dress looks like a leopard pelt, but is made from tiny embroidered beads and took approximately 106 hours to produce. “The dresses of Gaultier need to be taken care of, like jewellery, they are precious,” says Loriot.

A highlight of the exhibition is the 32 custom mannequins, each with animated faces that blink, look around, talk and sing in chorus. In one fascinating instance, one mannequin gazes into a mirror and shares a dialogue with his reflection.

You may recognise the faces of Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, muse Ève Salvail and even Gaultier himself.

As the exhibition has toured internationally, it has been tailored to suit each venue. The NGV is its ninth location and has a section devoted to Gaultier’s Australian muses, such as Kylie Minogue, Nicole Kidman and Andreja Pejic.

Gaultier came to Melbourne to install the final stages of the exhibition, together with a team from his atelier who did the dressing and styling.

Paola Di Trocchio, curator of Fashion and Textiles at the NGV, says, “it’s great to have a fashion exhibition about a contemporary, living designer who is coming out and going to be involved in the show. I think that in itself is really exciting.” If you want a gauge of the public’s response: the In Conversation event with Gaultier sold out in minutes.

“Gaultier has been consistently good over 40 years and that’s very hard. Anyone maintaining their career at his level for that time is quite extraordinary, particularly in fashion, which is something that is geared around constant change,” Di Trocchio says.

Together with the superbly crafted garments, there are photographs by Peter Lindbergh and Cindy Sherman, a program screening documentaries about Gaultier and films he designed costumes for, fashion floor talks and live music on Friday nights.

“What is important in this exhibition is for people to understand the strong social message in the work of Gaultier – how generous his open vision of society is. Whatever your age, your body type, your skin colour, your gender, everybody is welcome,” says Loriot.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is on at the National Gallery of Victoria from October 17 2014 until February 8 2015.

ngv.vic.gov.au