Arrrgh! Monsters in Fashion at Gaite Lyrique, Paris

Lady Gaga famously refers to her followers as “little monsters”, presumably hoping by this to encourage them to reclaim the darker elements of their psyches and feel more comfortable in themselves. She is by no means the first popstar to have urged fans to embrace their idiosyncrasies, but she probably is the only one to have lived so devoutly by her own creed: dressing, acting and music-making like the mother of all pintsize monstrosities.

It is along these lines that Arrrgh! Monsters, the latest exhibition to open at the Gaite Lyrique in Paris, treads (or rather, stampedes). Rather than focusing on the prettier aspects of fashion and the self – as, for instance, the show Paris Haute Couture does, over in the chicer side of town – it sheds light on the more grotesque elements of human identity, demonstrating them to be a singularly interesting, witty and subversive way of thinking about ourselves.

Unusually for French exhibitions, visitors are treated to a remarkably immersive experience. The monstrous is not confined to the items on display, but allowed to leak into the exhibition space itself, the main room of which can only be entered via a large fissure in the wall that seems to have been punctured by some recently rampaging creature. An intriguing ‘soundtrack’ also plays in the background as visitors walk around, combining odd squelchy, snuffling noises with intermittent clunks and clicks, evocative of deep-sea caves.

Mostly consisting of creations drawn from the portfolios of young art-school graduates, the assortment is refreshingly diverse. Some of the pieces retain elements of the humanoid – such as Craig Green’s MA Collection, presenting figures brutally geometricised by black wooden structures – while others leave the recognisably anthropoid far behind, interpreting monstrosity in more metaphorical ways and drawing on aspects of monster mythology. Unsurprisingly, many of the exhibits are aesthetically repulsive, frightening even, but all demonstrate flawless workmanship, with not a bumpy zip nor dodgy hem in sight.

Highlights include Charlie le Mindu’s 2010 collection Atopos, showing giant haired limbs, and a repellent, multi-lipped doll staring down at herself in a mirror. Also strong is a blue fabric bust by Shin Murayama entitled Amadeus, and, in the second room, a darkened grotto lit only intermittently by spotlights, Digitaria’s Mind over Matter, which claws us back to memories of childhood nightmares.

For all the gruesomeness of the show, however, it never ceases to be innovative – and amusing. Moreover, in the harsh white light of the main room, young visitors are unlikely to be psychologically scarred – indeed besides the strange clatter of the soundtrack, the dominant sound in the exhibition is that of laughter, as children point and guffaw at some of the more outlandish artworks. While, perhaps, lacking in narrative and cohesiveness, this is an exhibition well worth visiting – whether you feel like a “little monster” or not.

Leaf Arbuthnot

Arrrgh! Monsters in Fashion, 13 February until 7 April, Gaite Lyrique, 3 Bis Rue Papin, 75003 Paris.

Credits: Arrrrgh ! Monstres de mode, 2013. © Maxime Dufour photographies.