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It all started with a teddy bear.

Encased in a Plexiglas cube and wearing a papier mâché-like cone bra (the first of many to come), her name is Nana and she was Jean Paul Gaultier’s first subject.

A stuffed animal not unlike the ones we all had as children, Nana stares back at patrons as they make their way through “The Boudoir”, an exhibition space built around an oversized satin cushioned centerpiece and housing some of the French designer’s most iconic lingerie creations.

So thematically contradictory is Nana to the explicitly sexualized contents of the room, it almost jumps out at you (which is a feat in its own right given the dozen or so attention-garnering corsets in close proximity). Nana attracts an inevitable huddle around her showcase, as everyone wonders the obvious: What’s with the bear?

As The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk progresses, however, it becomes clear that Nana’s not such a surprise after all. Not after you learn that Gaultier’s design ethos is deeply rooted in his childhood and based on an affinity for the unconventional when it comes to fashion and beauty.

Irreverently known as fashion’s enfant terrible, it’s another great irony that Gaultier is anything but. Easily one of the kindest, most jovial designers working today, Gaultier doesn’t take himself too seriously. If he’s perceived as a contrarian, it’s only because his values are in such stark contrast to rest of the industry.

Where most designers continue to work with typically underweight models to relay their designs to the greater public, Gaultier gravitates toward the more or less controversial figures of Beth Ditto, Crystal Renn and Lara Stone (he once held a casting call for models with a classified ad that famously said “the conventionally pretty need not apply.”)

And the Montreal exhibition — the first retrospective in Gaultier’s 35-year career — successfully and repeatedly illustrates that point.

With a carefully curated 6-theme display of more than 140 designs (some worn by talking mannequins — undoubtedly one the exhibit’s creepiest and most curious moments), guests are guided through the various highlights of Gaultier’s career to date. The designer’s sense of humor is on display throughout, as is his refusal to subscribe to the chauvinistic notion of women as the weaker sex.

The best evidence of this is in his fascination with corsets — which Gaultier played with as a child while rooting around in his grandmother’s closets.

Caged, lamé, sequined, satin, top-stitched, striped, feathered, and laced, the Boudoir display shows the one-time torture-inflicting undergarment as Gaultier’s favorite subject and a symbol of his vision for post-feminist female empowerment and sexuality. (That’s his 2010 Skeleton corset above, and the 2009 Flayed body stocking in the top photo.)

Gaultier has successfully modeled his career around that lingerie staple and arguably pioneered the lingerie-as-outerwear trend in the process. It‘s the iconic visual for most of his perfume bottles (shaped like corseted busts) and the crux of his costume designs for her cone-bra highness, Madonna, on her Blond Ambition and Confessions tours.

And it’s no coincidence that Madonna has worn some of Gaultier’s best (corset) work. The two harbour a very fond affection and respect for one another. The essential American, as Gaultier calls her, Madonna’s chameleon approach to fashion and natural tendency for making everything she touches her own are what make her his muse and an inspiration to work with.

Having kick-started his career with his cone bra innovation, it only makes sense that Gaultier’s first love was lingerie. While he has yet to collaborate with any of the famed French lingerie labels, he recently added luxury Italian brand La Perla to his designing resume (which also includes an 8-year stint at Hermès and a 2010 collab with Target).

Gaultier has an almost mythical knack for paralleling extremes, bridging the erotic and the everyday with stylistic flourish. This detail is not lost on the Montreal exhibit’s curators, who have paid an accurate deserving tribute to this rare talent.

Nana would no doubt be flattered.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier runs til Oct. 2 at the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1379 Sherbrooke St. W. $15 for adults 26 to 64. Reduced rates Wednesday evenings and for students and seniors. Here are some more images from the exhibition:

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