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Museum exhibit explores what inspires fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier

Jean Paul Gaultier can barely contain his enthusiasm to be in Brooklyn. Make that his enthusiasm for New York. And life, in general.

In a single conversation, seemingly a single breath, he covers the Chrysler Building; the 1940s film “Falbalas” that started his love affair with fashion; his beloved grandmother who inspired his fascination with corsetry, and the Broadway production of “Nine” that reminded him of it. A joie de vivre oozes with each word.

It leaves one wondering, is there anything Gaultier — he of the famous Madonna cone bras, tongue-in-cheek catwalks and rock-star collaborations — isn’t exploding to talk about?

But back to Brooklyn. Until he arrived recently to christen the Brooklyn Museum exhibit “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” he had visited the borough twice: once to a fish restaurant that was “very good,” he says, and once to visit the nightclub where John Travolta wore his sharp white suit in the 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever.”

“I’m so impressed with Brooklyn,” he says in his thick French accent and occasionally broken English, “and this museum is absolutely fabulous. Voila!”

Living dolls

This is no static fashion exhibition with gowns behind glass.

It seems there was no other way to put Gaultier’s 30-plus-year career on display than on mannequins that cry, laugh and speak. They do it so realistically that passers-by surely will do a double take. They’ll probably drive the security guards crazy at night.

Some of the outfits, including the “cancan” bustier dress lined with photo-printed legs that gives the illusion that an entire dance line is hiding under the full skirt, are on a revolving runway that aims to mimic the models on parade at a fashion show.

“Fashion is not clothes on the hanger, it was always about dressing somebody. Somebody has to be inside,” the 61-year-old Gaultier says.

'Do I deserve it?'

Seeing the childhood teddy bear that he used as his first model, complete with its bra top and red lipstick, in the same space as the iconic concert costumes he created for Madonna, Beyonce and Kylie Minogue “is a privilege of age,” Gaultier says. “It’s a very strong sensation.”

Yet, Gaultier wasn’t completely sold on a retrospective when Thierry-Maxime Loriot, curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, presented the idea in 2010. “My god, at first I thought this was only for people that were dead, like a monument! I am not an artist like the painter or something like that, so I feel a little humbled. … Do I deserve it?”

His only experience in creating exhibits at that point was participating in a challenge to craft fashion out of croissants, brioche and other French baked treats. “It was funny!”

Now, though, Loriot has produced this show in Montreal, Dallas, San Francisco, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden. The Brooklyn exhibit runs through Feb. 23.

Each time the pieces are packed and unpacked, Loriot says he’s impressed by Gaultier’s craftsmanship and creativity.

Loriot is eager to show off the mermaid-shaped gown that Marion Cotillard wore to the 2008 Oscars — it took 180 hours to make by hand — and Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” bustier made of a vintage 1930s metallic fabric that now has added patina from body heat and sweat.

Loriot says the designer isn’t some sort of style shock jock. Gaultier roots everything in tailoring and execution, but he’s not confined by any conventional rules.

The high-tech, projection-beamed version of Gaultier that greets visitors is, not by coincidence, wearing his signature men’s trouser-skirt. “It’s one leg of a pant, one half-skirt. It was inspired by the long aprons at a Paris cafe, but it looks like pants from the back. It’s sort of very ‘him,’ ” Loriot says.

New to the exhibit in Brooklyn is a section dedicated to Gaultier’s muses. There’s the fishnet-covered floral gown made for model Crystal Renn, the bronze-beaded catsuit for Naomi Campbell and the floral tulle leotard for Beth Ditto. Also on display is the Amy Winehouse-inspired gown that male model Andrej Pejic wore in a 2012 couture show.

“I always wanted to show there is more than one kind of beauty,” Gaultier says.

Voila, indeed!

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