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  • Photo du rédacteurPatrick Cabasset

The 90s: from comedy to tragedy

From the avant-garde and the carefree to the dramatic, somehow militant and

oblivious at the same time, the 1990s really were the breeding ground that

shaped the world we live in today. Various exhibitions, books and catalogues

have testified to the extraordinary ‘Big Bang’ of 1997 and to how revolutionary

the 1990s were in terms of the history of fashion in general. One long creative

party, by all accounts, almost as if it were to be the last hurrah!

Jean-Paul Gaultier. First Haute Couture collection, spring-summer 1997. Photo by Mickael Thompson for Vogue Paris.

“Representing both the sanctification of 90s fashion and a pivotal year in the

approach to the new millennium, 1997 saw a fast-paced succession of

collections, fashion shows, new appointments, inaugurations and events that

shaped the fashion scene as we know it today. Such was the impact it had, in

fact, that 1997 could be considered the dawn of 21 st -century fashion”. These are

the proud claims made by the Palais Galliera, where the concept exhibition 1997

Fashion Big Bang is currently being staged.

From as early as the autumn of 1996, in fact, Rei Kawakubo was presenting her

‘lumpy dresses’ as part of her Comme des Garçons collection, Martin Margiela was

conceptualising his creative language a little more with his Stockman collection,

and Raf Simons was redefining masculine beauty with his Black Palms line. At the

height of their hype, hardcore designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler,

who had already made a name for themselves in the late 1970s when they first

jumped into the pond of stuffy fashion houses, launched their own form of

Haute Couture, while Christian Lacroix, who was also at the top of his game, was

celebrating the 10 th anniversary of his own flamboyant fashion house.

Left to right: Thierry Mugler, Les insectes collection, photo by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.

Olivier Theyskens, spring-summer 1998 ready-to-wear, photo by Juergen Rogiers.

Martin Margiela, Stockman collection, spring-summer 1997. Palais Galliera collection.

Following the departure of Gianfranco Ferré, Bernard Arnault found the designer

who would finally shake up the long-established house of Christian Dior in the

person of John Galliano, whose explosive arrival really shook things up.

Alexander McQueen, for his part, consciously revived the house of Givenchy by

shamelessly ‘roughing it up’. Creativity levels on the whole seemed to be taking

flight in one great big creative whirlwind. At the same time, a number of

newcomers to the scene were starting to raise their heads and reinvent style for

the next 20/30 years, newcomers like Hedi Slimane, Nicolas Ghesquière, Olivier

Theyskens and Stella McCartney, for example. Trends were also emerging

around the newly opened Colette concept store, a unique shop that would

continue to set trends for the next 20 years. The tragic death of Gianni Versace

in 1997, barely two weeks before his client and friend Princess Diana was

involved in the fatal accident that took her life, also had the fashion world hitting

the headlines around the globe.

Furthermore, 1997 also marked the beginning of a process of globalisation that

would transform elitist brands operating in micro-markets into industrial giants

that would become popular on all continents, making a lot of money for some

visionary entrepreneurs and restructuring the French fashion industry in the

process. Day by day, in the space of just over 12 months, 21 st -century fashion

would be born, representing a creative ‘Big Bang’ that has now been depicted in

a brilliant exhibition you won't be able to get enough of.

All the ‘red flags’ of the AIDS years on display in the Exposé (‘Exposed’) exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. Photo by Quentin Chevrier.

Not far from this radiant demonstration, the Palais de Tokyo is staging another

darker but equally moving one focusing on the same period. The conceptual

exhibition Exposé casts light on the hidden side of the 1990s, which witnessed

an explosion in the number of AIDS cases. Since the mid-1980s, often young

patients who’d been raised believing that they were immortal had suddenly been

finding themselves without any viable form of treatment. From the start of the

1990s, an entire section of the creative world would be decimated, wiped out in

one fatal blow by the deadliest epidemic of the last century that saw children

dying before their parents. Not a day would go by without another death of

someone, somewhere being announced, casting a shadow over the creative


On 1 January 1990, Patrick Kelly, the first American designer to be admitted to

the very French circle of the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-porter (‘Trade

Association of Ready-to-Wear Fashion’) died of AIDS at the age of 35. In

June 1990, Guy Paulin, a designer with an extremely bright future ahead of him,

died at the age of 44. That same year, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s partner and CEO of his

company, Francis Menuge, also lost his life. In a creative environment that was

very heavily affected on more anonymous levels, real panic was gripping the

entire fashion scene. Insurance companies were getting scared. Suddenly, Calvin

Klein and Claude Montana were getting married. Gay marriage was not a thing at

the time, but in the absence of treatment it was all about keeping up


Création Guy Paulin

Inspired by art critic Elisabeth Leibovici’s book Ce que le sida m'a fait. Art et

activisme à la fin du XX e siècle (‘What AIDS did to me. Art and activism at the end of

the 20 th century’), the Palais de Tokyo’s challenging exhibition certainly raises a

number of questions. Far from a commemoration, the past and the present

come face to face here as the artists reflect upon their history and how these

dark hours before triple combination therapy transformed their contemporary

art practice. “Beauty here emerges as a possible response in the face of the

political and social consequences of intersecting pandemics”, the catalogue

reads. Derek Jarman, Guillaume Dustan, Michel Journiac, Hervé Guibert, Lionel

Soukaz and Nan Goldin are the saints and martyrs, dead or alive, of this

decidedly inspiring era.

Philippe Joanny’s latest book, 95, is even more explicit regarding the epidemic

and these astonishing years, looking at the daily lives of young men and women

in 1995. Offering the perfect insight into the atmosphere that reigned in Paris at

the time, the story takes the reader on a tour of the bars, gay clubs and first

techno raves of the time, following the death of one of these young people. The

drugs were by now already flowing freely, and people were partying hard, as if it

were their last hurrah! This was true of most of these euphoric young urbanites

who then discovered they were HIV-positive and had to consequently come to

terms with their imminent death. Life-saving triple therapies didn’t emerge

until 1996. So why fight it, then? Why abstain or hold back? The feeling of

abandonment, of despair, of having no future was tangible in every moment. The

bewildering tale of a generation lost in the darkness of the night.

Maurice Renoma, Solitudes, in the Gutai exhibition.

These 90s demonstrations could just as easily have been rooted in another

major trauma: World War II. Born in the 1950s from the aftermath of the nuclear

bombings, the Japanese avant-garde movement Gutai (from the words Gu,

meaning ‘instrument’, and Tai meaning ‘body’) was in contradiction with classical

abstraction because the body became a major component of artistic

intervention. As a performative movement based on matter and the founder of

action art (action painting), the Gutai movemenẗ demanded freedom and

creativity following the Hiroshima tragedy. Expression here takes the form of raw

materials crafted by committed artists between 1954 and 1972. Examples of

Gutai art can be found at L’Appart Renoma, amid works pertaining to the more

Informel movements the Nouvelle École de Paris and independent artists. A

Gutai selection compiled by Marc David Fitoussi (Galerie Atari Arts) that interacts

with the photographic and pictorial works and installations of Maurice Renoma.

Two Christian Lacroix Haute Couture My House dresses in the 1997 Fashion Big Bang exhibition at Galliera.

1997 Fashion Big Bang, Palais Galliera, from 7 March to 16 July 2023.

Exposé, Palais de Tokyo, until 14 May.

Gutaï, et les avant-gardes japonaises d’après-guerre (‘Gutai and the post-war

Japanese avant-garde’), L’Appart Renoma, from 15 March to 15 April.

95 by Philippe Joanny, Éditions Grasset.

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