The Man of a Thousand Faces
Tattoos, corsets and sailors you said? This is just the tip of the Gaultier iceberg. The infamous enfant terrible has long since outgrown the title.
Gaultier thrived throughout the ‘80s in Paris. His mischievous spirit and overflowing creativity swiftly elevated him into exclusive circles of the fashion capital’s most wanted. One of the first designers of the TV generation, he brought charm with his colorful personality, even reaching out to a public who had no interest in fashion whatsoever. Jean-Paul Gaultier has a natural ability to make people relate to him with ease, all the while keeping the iconic dimensions of his persona.
Provocative and visionary, the French designer continues to assert his fascination with modern and bygone icons. With a unique talent for experimenting with opposing themes, he opened up new horizons in fashion as well as in pop culture. And we must not forget that Gaultier was one of the pioneers of sustainability in fashion, and introduced to the world a new vision of sensuality, breaking boundaries between genders and cultures. Working hand in hand with Mondino, Jean-Paul Gaultier contributed greatly to the recognition of male/female ambiguity through breathtaking imagery and groundbreaking ads, paving the path for today’s fashion.
All of the following images by Chantelle Dosser
A few decades down the road from his debut collection at the Palais de la Découverte in 1975, Gaultier has established himself, and his fashion house, as a true French institution. Astonishingly the designer only just agreed to a retrospective of his work. The exhibition will retrace 35 years of audacious fashion and unbridled creativity. About 120 haute couture and ready-to-wear items, sketches and clips will be displayed, along with tributes of friends, muses and collaborators.
Always on the lookout for new challenges, the multi-talented Frenchman is now taking on the art direction of Coca-Cola, giving the legendary bottle the Gaultier touch. Involved in every step of the creative process, he even directs and acts in their latest ads, the witty Night & Day series portraying him as a “serial designer.”
Thirty-five years at the head of his own fashion house as well as a six-year run as creative director at Hermès; add to that his countless collaborations, a short lived music career, a few cameos, and a stint as a TV show host, the building of a perfume empire, as well as his lifelong fight against AIDS, for which he earned the amfAR (The American Foundation for AIDS Research) inspiration award. Jean Paul Gaultier definitely is a busy man, if not a workaholic. In spite of his tight schedule, he kindly agreed to a heart to heart on life, career paths, projects and inspirations
It all starts with Nana, your teddy bear, your first muse. How old were you when you first started fashion experiments on her, and more importantly, how did you start?
I was not allowed to have dolls, it was not considered proper for a boy, so I had my teddy bear and I dressed him. I did his hair, did his make-up. He had the first conical bra, way before Madonna, which I made out of newspaper. Whenever I had seen something on television or in the papers, I had to do it with my teddy bear. I did an open heart surgery on him (but not exactly on the heart — I couldn’t as he had his conical bra on), and dressed him for the wedding of queen Fabiola of Belgium. He was my faithful companion. And now he is part of my exhibition, which is traveling the world. He is in Madrid now.
Does the iconic image you portray match your personality in your private life?
Believe it or not, I am a very shy person.
With a nonconformist fashion sense, you thrived in the ‘80s, distancing yourself from other designers with your peculiar edge, sense of humor and entertainment. You are known, for instance, to take a bow at the end of your shows with Nana or while eating ice cream. Is it difficult in this industry to keep your youthful spirit intact and stay true to oneself?
I don’t know, I guess I am no longer the enfant terrible, but I am a child at heart. And I still have passion for what I do. I think that it’s the most important thing, to be able to keep on working. But the industry has changed, big groups have taken over, it is not like in the ‘80s when there were more independent creative houses.
Your work is full of images, which are as iconoclastic as they are sacred. For example, a virgin-like Dita Von Teese with a golden halo and black teardrops on her opaline skin. Where do you get this attachment to the icon in the true sense of the word and its reinterpretation?
Dita modeled in a show that was inspired by the Semana Santa in Seville, that is why there was all the virgin imagery. She is just perfect as a virgin with her translucent skin. I am also familiar with Greek icons and have done a collection inspired by Greece.
Your fashion has been called many things, from groundbreaking to visionary, provocative to simply outrageous. In today’s society where almost everything is mainstream, to what extent does one need to go to shake things up like you did in the ‘80s?
I never wanted to provoke. It didn’t cross my mind. I just wanted to show what was in the air du temps. For example, when I was thinking of doing a skirt for men, a friend of mine, who was a model at the time and later on became a photographer, came to my studio wearing a sarong. And he was heterosexual. I thought that it was the right time to do it. The same things with corsets. After the ‘70s and the women’s lib, and women burning their bras, I noticed that some of my friends would wear a bra under a jacket. To show that they are seductive but on their own terms. That is how I started thinking of corsets and how I made my first corset dress in 1982.
When you think of the Gaultier woman, do you have in mind a Parisian woman?
Yes, but the real Parisians are not always found in Paris. Dita Von Teese can be a real Parisian and she was born in the Midwest. Farida Khelfa is of Algerian descent even though she was born in France, in Lyon. Carla Bruni as well, she is Italian and French.
You advocate an anti-ageism fashion, breaking the codes of the industry by casting women of all ages, cultures, sizes. Mixed, popular, glamorous, boyish, the Gaultier woman opens new horizons. How did the Gaultier woman evolve these past 36 years?
I feel that age is now our final frontier in fashion. Daughters used to want to look like their mothers, and now mothers want to look like their daughters. I still feel that there is not one kind of beauty but many kinds and that we can find beauty everywhere, even where we least expect it. The Gaultier woman has evolved but at the same time she stays the same – strong, confident and seductive, but on her own terms.
You grew up surrounded by women, in particular your grandmother, a fascinating character. In what sense did this influence your approach of women in your work?
I always knew that women were stronger than men. Girls are so much more clever than boys the same age. And women have to work twice as hard to succeed. I think that we will come to real equality the day a male model will be paid more than a female model. Modeling is the only profession where women are paid more than men.
A retrospective for the 35th anniversary of the House last year in Montreal; a U.S. tour this year with a stop in New York. What made you decide to do it?
It is not really a retrospective; I see it as a creation that shows my obsessions over 35 years. There are sailors, mermaids, and virgins just at the entrance to the exhibition. Followed by boudoir with corsets and corset dresses, x-rated Parisians on the runway surrounded by punks, and so on. I never wanted to do a retrospective or be in a museum, as I thought that retrospectives are for those who are no longer with us, but the team of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Nathalie Bondil and Thierry Loriot, were so enthusiastic that they convinced me to do it. I had seen, many years ago, a play by Denis Marleau, The Blind, which was done completely with projections. For years I had thought about it and how we could collaborate, and it finally turned out he was from Quebec and agreed to do the animated mannequins for the exhibition. After Montreal, the exhibition was shown in Dallas and San Francisco, and now it is in Madrid. I could never have imagined that it would be such a success and I am very excited about the show in New York, at the Brooklyn Museum of Arts!
What is your main source of inspiration?
I can find inspiration anywhere. In films, theatre, books, travels or just by seeing someone on the street.
The world of cinema is ever so present in your work. It’s a world of the imaginary, of gimmicks, and artifice we often find in your collections. You have done quite a few cameos in movies, designed costumes — even directed and acted in the latest Coca-Cola commercials. Were you ever tempted by a career in acting?
I’ve never wanted to be an actor – it’s a skill that I don’t have. And doing those small cameos has shown me how difficult it is. I can play myself, but that’s all.
You let yourself be painted by Liu Bolin in a trompe l’oeil for Harper’s Bazaar. How was the shoot?
I loved the result of this experience, but when I realized that I had to stay still for three hours, I panicked. Liu Bolin was great; he gave me a massage so that I could relax.
If you didn’t become a designer you would have been…?
A pastry chef? I love sweets.
Finally, what is your WILD Wish?
To find a cure for AIDS.