Pain Couture (High-Fashion Bread) by Jean-Paul Gaultier
at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Paris
Crafts magazine
Cynthia Rose

"We can live without clothes but not without bread!" couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier exclaimed at the opening of his début art installation, "Pain Couture". Working from an idea by the UK-based artist Souhed Nemlaghi, Gaultier has married the métier of French bakers with that of fashion's finest atelier workers - to produce haute couture with flour, water, salt and yeast. At the Fondation Cartier, behind Venetian blinds made from 4,000 fresh baguettes, he has unveiled a set of costumes that are delightfully sculptural, sensual and exuberant. Below, the entire basement of the gallery space has been transformed into a bakery, in order to replenish items as they fade. Dressed in saucy wicker corsets over their bakers' whites, its busy boulangeres flood the building with heady aromas.

Gaultier transports the familiar crafts of the couture house - the gathering, pleating, darting, beading and embroidery; the specialty stitching such as faufiler (basting), surfiler (whipstitch) and bâtir (temporarily binding two fabrics together) - into an equally specialist world, where they translate into measuring, mixing, kneading, molding, slicing, patonnage (dividing the dough), fleurage (sprinkling with bran) and façonnage (shaping every loaf). Thirteen French master bakers, several British engineers and the Wandsworth baker Treolx Bendix, have contributed to realising this ingenious fantasy.

The fanciful range of costumes they have created begins with a quick spin through French costume history. Croissants and meringues make a Marie Antoinette wig; a shimmying flapper shift consists of thin langues-de-chat; oval slices of country bread form a bustle that literally trails into crumbs. Then there are Gaultier's personal homages to the breadbasket: baguettes, round loaves and swelling brioches adorn (or explode from within) a range of silhouettes he has designed out of wicker. There are also baked versions of signature JPG items - the kilt, the corset and the matelot shirt. Displayed in glass vitrines are pain accessories, too, that include a perfectly toasted Hermes Kelly bag.

Just as one expects from a successful atelier, these pieces represent a seamless partnership of skills. Baguettes shoot out with ebullience, forming swirling skirts or flounces; rolls and country round breads pile and curl into feminine fullness. The results include uncanny evocations of Dior's New Look, of evening sheaths by Schiaparelli and of sumptuous, crinolined ballgowns. The nature of these transformations - ridiculous and quixotic but also, in the end, poetic – qualifies them as couture.

Subtexts and fascinating facts also arise with the yeast. The exhibition catalogue bulges, for instance, with double-entendres (in English, observations such as "What nice buns the baker has!"; in French, phrases such as "to feel someone's basket", which in conversation means to pinch somebody's derriere). The show notes that, if the tools of bakers and dressmakers were to be intermingled, each trade would unconsciously take up the other's utensils.

Gaultier stresses that he himself views his fashion work as craft rather than "art". This is the reason he gives for having staged "Pain Couture" instead of the fashion retrospective first proposed to him by Cartier. However, for all its novelty, discovery and whimsicality, "Pain Couture" has a very pragmatic side. Now aged 52, Gaultier is no longer anyone's "bad boy". Au contraire; he has run his own label at a profit since 1991 and last March joined the staid house of Hermes as Artistic Director.

A top-shelf saddle maker from the 1830s, Hermes is currently one of the world's top luxury brands, especially famous for exquisite leather goods and silks. "Pain Couture" is running during both of Gaultier's first two collections there, each of which he says will be used to emphasise the roots of the house. (Just picture corsets made like saddles, cinched in front with silver padlocks – or a svelte riding-jacket sculpted out of shiny crocodile).

By aligning his own art with a craft France celebrates daily, Gaultier suggests he is at heart a man of the great traditions. This is despite his penchant for naughty kilts, for designing Madonna's conical bra and his role as a presenter of UK television’s "Eurotrash". With "Pain Couture", he cleverly gives weight to his industry's firm contention that the haute couture is a national need, every but as vital to French identity as the baguette.

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