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VM inspiration: super real mannequins

I’m certain all VM people have seen the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican by now, but if not, there is still time.

Apart from the garments - generally, the more extreme examples of a variety of collections - the most fascinating part of the exhibition is the mannequins used for the ground floor display. Created by Rootstein, they have abstract stylized faces with realistic ears and noses, on to which is projected a video of a changing facial expression.

The mannequin dressed as a leather-clad matalot at the entrance sets expectations as his eyes move, rather disconcertingly, to the left, back to centre, and down to us. The projection of the video is perfectly adjusted to make it seem as though this is a real, moving face – and that he is alive.

He also looks incredibly French, in the impossibly handsome way that BCBG (Bon Chic, Bon Genre) way that young French guys can, with thick dark eyebrows.

He is just the beginning. To his right we have a Jean Paul Gaultier mannequin dressed, as we have often seen Gaultier, in a shaggy version of the striped Breton sweater and a Stewart tartan kilt, worn with the Dr. Marten’s boots that Gaultier has made his own.

This time it is Gaultier’s own face projected on to the mannequin, speaking to us in English on the video. Such a pity visitors cannot stand beside him and capture the moment on their smart phones for posterity.

Past a slowly moving runway – a touch like a baggage carousel – we meet more mannequins which look at us and change expression, all attired in the punk-inspired collections that helped Gaultier make his name.

Cutest of these is a girl – again so French looking – whose eyes charmingly survey us as she stands defiantly against a rough, chipped concrete wall. The toughness of her stance is echoed by the Barbican’s currently fashionable, uncompromising brutalism.

To achieve this only the lower part of the mannequin display has been lit. The upper part of the back walls has not been lit at all, allowing the projected video to be seen clearly on the mannequins’ faces.

Museums have struggled for years to offer mannequins which support but do not dominate the display, such as by offering white wigs – which only succeeds in making the mannequin look elderly, or by using only abstract mannequins without any features, which just looks dull. Making the mannequin as real as the exhibits - in this case, relatively recent fashion merchandise - the dissonance usually created is reduced.

Thinking of living mannequins as this exhibition proposes, the internet did once feature a story about an American visual merchandiser who died at work and was not found until customers began to complain about the poor taste of a display including a ‘dead mannequin.’ So much for the daily external inspection of all windows, which is recommended store management practice.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From sidewalk to the catwalk: https://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=14772