When a fashion designer’s work merits a museum exhibition, it’s usually a nostalgic display. Since storming the French fashion world in the 1970s, however, Jean Paul Gaultier has unceasingly defied convention. Even as the high-tech inaugural retrospective of his haute couture and ready-to-wear pieces captivates The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ visitors, he is challenging women to embrace a more potent sense of their femininity with a provocative collection created for La Perla.

This exquisite union “was bound to happen,” says Gaultier of his collaboration with the Italian lingerie house. “Lingerie is part of my DNA: I have always used it in my collections. With La Perla, I have found a perfect partner,” he says.

Gaultier’s seductive creations—some reminiscent of his costumes for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition Tour—feature La Perla’s distinctive stitching and details. From pointedcup bras and extra-high briefs to curve-hugging slips too fabulous to conceal, each delicate garment is a powerful statement.

“I would like to give women freedom to be who they are,” says Gaultier. “I personally think women are the stronger sex; that they are more intelligent and much stronger than us men, and I always wanted to show a strong woman who seduces because she wants to.”

Fashion’s inimitable bad boy knows well the upside of chasing desires. “I never went to fashion school, but I sent my drawings to all the couturiers that I admired,” says Gaultier, whose break came on his eighteenth birthday, when Pierre Cardin called. “Although I didn’t stay long in his studio, one of the most important things I learned from him was freedom. Cardin was never bound by convention. His studio was in constant movement.”

Gaultier also knows the incalculable value of creativity. “When I turned 24, my boyfriend, who believed in me probably more than I did myself, told me it was time to start my own house. I plunged in and never looked back,” the designer recalls. “The first show was a disaster, but it prepared me for the future,” he says. “Starting without money is better—you have to make your brain work.”

Ever rebellious, Gaultier has spent more than three decades opening eyes to the allure of the human figure, in its myriad of forms. His mission: “to fight against the dictatorship of one kind of beauty.” “It is important to have an open mind and to search for beauty in unusual places,” counsels Gaultier, whose signature perfume packaging was inspired by the unlikeliest of everyday objects: a cat food can.

“The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” leaves Montreal after October 2 for the Dallas Museum of Art, then the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The exhibition’s designs from 1976 to 2011 affirm Gaultier’s still edgy and relevant position among fashion’s elite.

His work—including the opportunity to envision the empowering underthings found at La Perla and Jean Paul Gaultier boutiques and exclusive stores worldwide—keeps Gaultier energized. “I have the greatest luxury of doing the job that I love,” he says. “It was my dream to be a fashion designer, and I live my dream.”

> Written by Kim Knox Beckius

Lingerie: Jean Paul Gaultier