Monday, 27 May 2024

Jean Paul Gaultier

Time for JPG

FANTASTIC MAN - Jean_paul_gaultier_1_fm36

He won’t admit it, but Jean Paul Gaultier laid the groundwork for how men dress today. He presented skirts for men. Sheer tattoo tops. Striped sweaters. His theatrical approach always included a sense of fun fluidity in terms of gender and masculinity. It seems like the world has caught up! He’s retired but busy as always, and his life is now a touring stage show.

From Fantastic Man n° 36 — 2022
Interview by GERT JONKERS
Photography by BRUNO STAUB

FANTASTIC MAN - Jean_paul_gaultier_1_fm36

GERT — Did you celebrate the 14th of July?

JEAN PAUL — No. I stayed in bed. I don’t care for the 14th of July.

What’s being celebrated again?
The French Revolution. As a child I liked the parties and balls to celebrate the revolution, but now, not anymore.

I’ve been thinking about freedom, and how in fashion it feels now like everything goes; people are free to wear whatever they want to wear. Men wearing women’s clothes, heels, crop tops. Which is quite a Jean Paul Gaultier approach to dressing. As if we’re finally reaching what you’ve preached for a long time.

Hmm, hmm. [Nods affirmatively] But I think people have been free for years. And it’s not fashion designers who make those changes. Already in the ’70s, with the hippies, came a big sense of freedom, and of unisex dressing. After that, there was punk, which in itself was a revolution against the hippies, and a big movement, socially. People dream of change, and sometimes that change happens. In general, I don’t think fashion designers ever create or change anything. We’re not artists creating art. We only [Inhales deeply through his nose] smell change.

I think at best, fashion is a reflection of people and what’s in the air.

So, things like the skirt for men, or the bra as outerwear, or the popularity of your striped Breton sweater – those are things you only smelled?

I surely didn’t create this. [Points at his blue-on-white striped sweater] Honestly, I got it from a flea market because it wasn’t expensive, and I wore it, and started to mix it into my collections. Not even with the idea of making money with it. And in reality, the striped sweater is not a creation in itself; it just happened. Mine is from the French navy, and you know why? Because these sailors sometimes drank too much and they would fall overboard. They wouldn’t find them in the water, not even with a search light, until one day one of them was wearing stripes, and he turned out to be really visible in the water. So after that, all the sailors wore stripes.

I didn’t know that.
It’s functional, which is great. The best clothes are functional clothes.

How free are you at the moment? Because you retired from designing your collections two years ago.

I am lucky that I’ve always felt free. I was free from the moment I started working, because I did what I wanted to do. I dreamt of doing fashion, and I did. I sent my sketches to Pierre Cardin and he invited me to come and work for him. And when I started my own brand, I was free, because I had no money, so I was completely free. It’s true! If you have no money, you have to find good ideas to make things happen. You have to find solutions. I never did fashion school, so I was completely free in my mind; I didn’t have any of the limitations that can come with education. I’ve felt like that all my life, which is great. And if I didn’t feel free, I would escape.

What was your escape? Drinking, drugs?

Theatre was my escape. When I was 13 I saw a movie from the ’40s on TV called ‘Falbalas’, which was a love story about a couturier. I especially loved the moment of the fashion show, the people seated, the lights, the models, the action. I saw that, and that’s what I wanted. And I loved the Folies Bergère shows on TV. That’s why my shows were like theatre. I love that theatrical part. And through clothes you can say things, you have contact with people that in reality you couldn’t. What was your question again? How I got started?

No, we were talking about freedom and escape.

Ah, yes. So, I always did what I wanted, and for a long time I was lucky to have no money; that helped me a lot. Because normally in business you have to grow, grow, grow, grow, grow, and hire more and more people. For a long time I didn’t have to do that, because I didn’t care about growing. And I don’t mean growing my fatness [Taps his belly] but economic growth. I started the company with my boyfriend, and he was clever and knew how to make ends meet. I just wanted to do fashion shows. That was the idea. When Francis died, I had to go on alone. That was tough, but I’ve always felt free. And course I’ve had to hire people. It only happened to me once that somebody who worked for me said about something I had designed: “That’s not really Jean Paul Gaultier.” Excuse me? I am Jean Paul Gaultier. How can you tell me what I am and am not?

So you fired that person?

No, I don’t fire people. But I did make sure I never saw that person again! So, I feel like I’ve always been free to do what I wanted to do. I started with womenswear first, in 1976, but I did always include two or three men in the shows, like accessories. Voilà! That was the beginning of the male object. I wanted my women to be powerful and sexy, but only if they felt sexy. And I was thinking of men as a different kind of man, not the old John Wayne kind of macho man. I included young boys that were a bit more feminine, or some that weren’t even young, to make them a male object. It was about equality, you know? Why didn’t women’s jackets have inside pockets? Because they didn’t have a wallet, because everything was being paid for by a man. I’ve always found that absolutely disgusting. Like I said, I was influenced by what was happing around us, by rock stars like David Bowie, who was incredible. Pierre Cardin, the first designer I worked for, was designing clothes that looked like they were meant to be worn in space, but he also made those collarless suits for The Beatles. So funny! He didn’t put men in skirts, but almost, and so that all felt natural to me. For me, men and women dressing the same was completely natural. And anyway, what is feminine exactly? I just did an exhibition called ‘Cinemode’ – it was in Paris first and it’s now on view in Spain – in which I show the evolution of men and women through fashion in cinema. Marlon Brando is in it – his way of talking, his way of acting, his way of wearing a wet T-shirt. It was very sexy.

I see.
He really was the first to do that. Well, maybe the other one was actually first, but he was a bit younger, what’s his name?

James Dean?
Exactly, James Dean. But with Brando you knew he was causing more trouble; he was wearing more of a look. James Dean was making young girls dream, but Brando was interesting for both women and men, and he knew it. And at the same time you had Brigette Bardot, in the early 1950s, with black leather shorts, boots, and nothing underneath her biker jacket. Can you imagine how free she was? She wasn’t trying to be Marilyn Monroe, who was just a reflection of a Hollywood victim. Bardot was so modern, dancing with herself in ‘And God Created Women’ like she was in a trance. I find it interesting to look at what we call femininity, and what femininity really is. That’s it.

Maybe presenting a man in a skirt was considered feminine at the time?

Well, what I did wasn’t even a skirt; it was a trouser skirt. I was just reflecting on something that was in the air at the time; I wasn’t trying to make some ridiculous gesture or whatever. I just tried to give the codes of masculinity a little twist to make it a little ambiguous. I showed my skirt on a model who was super muscular – like a Bruce Weber type of model – and with a shirt and tie and a big jacket. It was a very masculine silhouette, in a pinstripe. It wasn’t a frilly skirt with a crinoline or anything. It was quite masculine, but with – aha – a surprise!

Did you ever feel the constraint of commerce, to have to produce and to succeed and to sell, season after season?

It depends on how you look at constraint and freedom. For me, freedom is being able to create. That was my freedom.

FANTASTIC MAN - Gaultier loves dressing pop stars and has made stage costumes for Mylène Farmer, Amanda Lear, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Dana International and Conchita Wurst.

Now that you don’t have to create collections anymore, what do you with all your free time?

I did the ‘Cinemode’ show and I have my ‘Fashion Freak Show’ that’s touring the theatres. And there’s still decisions to make for my brand. For example, when I stopped designing my couture collection two years ago, I came up with the concept to ask a different guest designer every season to do their thing with the Gaultier code. Because I can proudly say that I have many codes that are mine and that people can work with within the house. I’d had this idea long ago, when Christian Lacroix left Jean Patou to start his own brand, I think in 1987. After I had worked at Pierre Cardin I worked at Patou for a while, and years later, when Lacroix left, I thought I would love to make a single couture collection for Patou.

That could be fun, yes.

Right? I figured I didn’t have time to do it all the time, but to make just one collection would be great. I suggested this to the head of Patou, to get a new designer for every season. “Oh my God,” he said, “what a terrible idea. That will cost a fortune.” A very French way to react, of course. So, he refused. Years later, the house was sold to Bernard Arnault, which I think was stupid. Arnault got rid of the amazing old Patou building and he took the only good thing that Patou still had, the perfume Joy, and he made Joy perfume for Dior, even though Dior already had too many perfumes. How did I get onto this? Ah, yes, having a new designer every season, which I’m now doing. We just showed Olivier Rousteing’s collection, which was nice. The first season we had this wonderful Japanese woman, Chitose Abe, from Sacai.

FANTASTIC MAN - To the left, Jean Paul wears an Hermès watch with that iconic Double Tour strap, an innovation designed by his trusted ex-assistant Martin Margiela during his tenure at the Parisian leather powerhouse. Margiela's surprising successor at Hermès in 2003 was... Jean Paul! He stayed on for seven years.

And last season you had Glenn Martens from Y/Project, which was great.

Glenn was fabulous too. Very good. Excellent. And the next designer is very interesting too. I love him.

Who is that?
I can’t tell you. It’ll be a surprise, but I’m seeing him tonight for dinner.

Are you involved with the design process of the guest designers?

Ah, no, no, no, no, no. Not at all, not for one second. I know what that feels like. You cannot interfere, or you’re not showing respect. It’s better like this. And it’s fun for me too – I get the same surprise at the fashion show as the audience. Which is great.

What’s the ‘Fashion Freak Show’ about?

It’s my story, but as a theatre show. Like I told you, I saw the Folies Bergère show on TV when I was a child, and I loved it. I’d always wanted to do something like this, a revue, years ago already, but that was around the time my boyfriend Francis died, so it didn’t happen. Then, a few years ago, I thought: “This is the time to do it.” I did so many collections; I have quite a nice heritage of what I did in fashion.

Oh yes, definitely. Amazing!
I’m proud of it and I love it. It’s the kind of work I’ve always enjoyed doing, ever since I was a child, and the kind of thing I always did throughout my career: directing shows, choosing the models, choosing the light, as if I was directing ‘Falbalas’. I’m not very technical, but I’ve always known what I wanted, and what models I wanted in my shows: models with character, personalities. I never wanted the savoir faire of the classical model, or if they were classical models, I would tell them to walk as themselves, not like a model. My direction was “no direction” – just be yourself. That’s it. I’m now working on a show for the Friedrichstadt-Palast in Berlin. I’m doing the clothes for that.

It sounds like you’re not retired at all. Didn’t you ever want to act in any of these shows?

Oh no, not at all. I’m not an actor. I’m shy. Like, when I started, I would send my sketches to designers to ask for a job; I would never go there myself. I could speak through my sketches, but not for myself. Even when they asked me to present the TV show ‘Eurotrash’… It was funny to do that.

That was an amazing show. You were incredible in it!

Yeah, it was amazing. But for example, I was in the jury for ‘Danse Avec Les Stars’, the TV show, and I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoy watching the show, so I’m a good audience member. I don’t want to judge; I prefer to be a fan. I love being a fan. And I guess I don’t know how to behave with a lot of people around me.

I find that hard to believe. You come across as super social.

I can talk about what I know and what my passion is. But if you ask me something else, I can be very boring.

The story goes that you don’t read books. Is that true?

It’s true. The only books I read are biographies because I like to get to know people, to understand their work. And I love gossip and stupid things. I watch TV a lot. My whole career started with seeing ‘Falbalas’ or the Folies Bergères on TV.

What’s incredible is that, unlike pretty much every other designer, your name is associated very specifically with a couple of garments: the striped Breton sweater, the cone bra like Madonna wore, the fake-tattoo T-shirt, and the skirt for men.

Yeah, maybe.

Who else can claim that? Martin Margiela has the Tabi shoe with the split toe, Chanel has the tweed deux-pièce, but you have four different iconic items!

Chanel did more than the deux-pièce. You know why? Because she was an orphan. She grew up in an orphanage, and as a form of social revenge, she dressed her rich lady clients in simple black dresses with a white collar, like orphans. It was her revenge, and it was modern. She was a revolutionary.

But what I’m saying is, so are you. Is it because besides being a great designer you’re also brilliant at marketing?

Not at all.

But, for instance, by making sure that you kept showing the striped sweater, you pretty much claimed the copyright on it.

No, no, no, honestly, it wasn’t marketing. It was spontaneity, and it was because when I looked at fashion, I admired the designers who had style: Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, of course, and Courrèges and Paco Rabanne. They were the ones that did something different from all the others. I would also have loved to work for Saint Laurent, who was more classic than Cardin but so good at reflecting the times, dressing women in transparent blouses, capturing the sexual revolution that was happening.

Still, I think it’s an incredible achievement that you coined so many distinct styles, like I said: the transparent T-shirt with the tattoo print, the striped sweater, the skirt.

Maybe that’s our role as designers. For example, the tattoo T-shirt: I was in London, sometime in the ’80s, and I went to an event where everybody was wearing tattoos and piercings. I only have one little tattoo. [Gestures at his upper left arm] The people I saw there! Incredible! There was an older woman in a black pencil skirt and a black transparent blouse, and under it I could see her bra printed with flowers, but as I moved closer I saw it wasn’t a bra, it was a tattoo! My God, I love the English! How eccentric! That’s when I thought, “Voilà, that’s my next collection.”

Did you make many friends in fashion? Aren’t you still friends with Martin Margiela?

Definitely, yes, yes, yes. Martin truly was the best assistant I ever had.

You must have been sad when he left to start his own brand?

Of course, but I was also very happy for him because I knew he would do very well. And it was fabulous to have worked with him for three years. I saw him for the first time at a fashion competition in Antwerp. I was the president of the jury and we chose Dirk van Saene as the winner. Martin was second, and I loved what he was doing. Some time later, this journalist called me and said, “Martin Margiela is looking for a job and he would like to work for you.” But I didn’t need a designer because I was doing the collections myself. I thought he would suffer if he had to work with me, if he’d not be able to express himself. But out of politeness, I saw him, and he told me, “No, no, no, I want to work and see and learn.” And I was designing a collection of raincoats for Gibò at the time because I needed the money just so that I could spend it all on my own shows. So I thought, what if Martin designs the raincoats, so that I can concentrate on my own collection and still get the money? So that’s what we did. And he was a very good assistant. He was more than good; he was super clever. Honestly, he was fabulous. And when he left, I went to see his first show, which was fabulous. It was even better than I could imagine. We’re still seeing each other 35 years later. Not that I don’t want to be friends with other designers, but he’s the one who I really admire and respect, and he’s a nice person. That’s it.

FANTASTIC MAN - Jean Paul has exactly three of these vintage Levi's denim jackets in his wardrobe. He likes them old and well worn, he says. He also has about 100 pairs of jeans.

Do you follow fashion today? Who do you like?

What do I look at? I think what Olivier Rousteing does is interesting. I love Rick Owens. I think he’s really clever. Of course I love Vivienne Westwood.

I feel, like, the spirit that you had in your collections I now only see in smaller designers like Ludovic de Saint Sernin or Palomo Spain or GmbH. It’s as though the bigger brands are all playing safe and don’t dare to surprise.

Are you saying those designers are inspired by me? We’re all inspired by somebody. When I dressed a woman in a suit I had Saint Laurent from 20 years earlier in mind. Inspiration is natural, as long as brands are not blatantly copying each other, and I think it’s interesting to see the evolution of men. What Ludovic de Saint Sernin does is almost like porn. I like it. He’s taking things further than I did. Maybe it’s the time, or maybe I should have gone further? We’re all part of an evolution. From the sexiness of Marlon Brando to rock stars to the hippies and unisex. Who is the Marlon Brando of today? I wouldn’t know.

Harry Styles, maybe?
Oh, no. Bon. He’s so British. He’s a little sweety, and his music is cute and commercial, but, no.

Do you like that band that won Eurovision last year, Måneskin?

Pas mal! Pas mal! The way they’re feminine, I thought that was super clever. And I should say, surprising for Italy! I think that was very good. Very authentic. We don’t have anything like that in France.

Were you ever friends with Thierry Mugler? I thought of him because he did work in theatre, and so do you.

Yes, he was very good. His shows were spectacular, but that made sense because he came from a ballet background. He was a ballerina himself. While I was always more into normal people, or punks, or people being themselves in my show, Mugler loved supermodels, the glamour, the glitter. He was brilliant at using light. He directed that George Michael video for ‘Too Funky’, which was fantastic, in a big Hollywood way.

Were you good friends?
I’ve known him since the beginning. We started more or less at the same time, and we once travelled to Brazil together. But friends? I don’t know if we had the time to be friends. And of course there was always the press who was trying to invent some sort of rivalry. Like, Mugler and Montana were friends, until the press set them up against each other. That never happened between us, but still. I saw Mugler just before he died – I went to the opening of his exhibition. He was looking great. We had our picture taken together and he was truly nice. Nobody could imagine that he would die so soon.

The poor man.
Why poor man? Talented man. And he died in his sleep, apparently, which is a good way to go. I would say he’s more of a classic old couturier than I am. He truly loved to create, while I’m more of a patchwork kind of person. I like to mix things; I’m like a designer DJ.

Well, it’s true that you combined a whopping array of things as a designer, from couture to Coca-Cola cans. One year you launched a fragrance called ‘Classique’ but also presented the TV show called ‘Eurotrash’. Speaking of extremes.

And I even did a record, ‘Aow Tou Dou Zat’, which actually wasn’t my idea, and it wasn’t the best thing I ever did.

What happened to the men’s make-up range ‘Tout Beau Tout Propre’ that you launched in 2003? Do you think you were too early with it, and that we’re now, finally, 20 years later, seeing men wear lavish make-up?

The people who were taking care of my fragrances at the time wanted to do a party for the tenth anniversary of my first perfume. I said, who cares about a perfume’s anniversary? What kind of birthday is that? Let’s make something special. So we made a line of colourless make-up for men, very natural, that women could wear too. It was a great product.

It was. I remember that it was hardly visible if you’d use it, but it worked like a subtle Photoshop filter for the face.

Yes, yes. So we did that, we launched it, and it was selling really well, but the fragrance people didn’t believe in it, so they let it die. Shame. Maybe we should relaunch it.

Are you religious?

Are you spiritual?
I don’t ask myself that question, so maybe that’s the answer: I am not. I guess religion and spirituality are there to give people something to believe in and to give them hope. In that way my religion has always been fashion.

Because fashion gives you hope?

Yes. And fashion is everywhere, like religion and politics are everywhere. But I really wish fashion would be a little bit more in touch with what’s happening in the world right now. Fashion is not doing enough. We thought that after Covid happened the world would change, and that fashion would change.

But it didn’t?
No, it didn’t. The amount of consumption! How much can we produce and buy and throw away? People spoke about it a little bit, but as soon as Covid was over, everything was back to normal.

Do you know the solution?

Not at all. I have no answer either.

Shouldn’t people stop buying so much?

Yes, that. It’s a little bit what I wanted to show in the last couture collection I designed, in which I used a lot of old clothes, old couture collections. Cut off a sleeve here, put it there, add something… We can make something new from something existing. I always think of my mother and my grandmother who took an old pair of trousers of my father’s and cut them open and turned them into a skirt. The spirit of recycling was already there – do-it-yourself. All these years later, it can still do the trick.


Photographic assistance by Michal Czech. Digital operation by Rebecca Lièvre. Hair by Kalle Eklund at Bryant Artists. Make-up by David Koppelaar at Bryant Artists. Production by Total Management.