I am oh, so excited to attend the opening tonight of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, the new exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery. It’s been almost thirty years since I first met Jean Paul in Paris when I was cub reporter for BLITZ magazine and he was the toast of Planet Fashion. To celebrate this major retrospective I have been rifling through my old notebooks again. Here are some of my favourite Gaultier fashion moments, accompanied by a version of a profile that I wrote originally for The Independent newspaper and US Harper’s Bazaar in 2006.
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 9 April to 25 August 2014
“It was a total catastrophe. I was not ready, the clothes were not so good and they were not so well made. I didn’t know which clothes to give to the models. So the music starts and it was a disaster.”
Sitting in his palatial Parisian showroom of cool marble and frosted glass, surrounded by an extraordinary array of glamorous haute couture gowns sprouting cock feathers and crystals, it is a surprise to hear this is how designer Jean Paul Gaultier describes his debut fashion show in October 1976.
“The only interesting thing,” he continues, “is that I presented a leather jacket with a tutu skirt and sports shoes, which was a not-so-bad mix.”
This look helped earn him the title of ‘l’enfant terrible’, tapping as it did into the prevailing punk attitude creating waves on the streets.
“Of course I am influenced by the street,” he told me when we first met in the early 1980s, “but it’s about movies, music, everything. I take in all these images, mix them up and then the ideas come out.”
Thirty years on and Jean Paul Gaultier is now an international fashion icon whose influence has reached beyond the catwalk. His trademark peroxide blond crop (recently traded for a more dignified shade of silver-fox) and risqué striped Breton T-shirt and mini-kilt is as familiar to viewers of Eurotrash, the late-night sex’n’sniggers show that he co-presented in the 1990s with Antoine de Caune, as with front row fashionista. His designs have been seen by cinema goers in Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Luc Besson’s ‘Fifth Element’ and, of course, pop fans: everybody knows it was Gaultier who put Madonna in that corset. He even recorded a rap-song, ‘How To Do That’.
Gaultier’s irreverent approach to fashion has been truly groundbreaking, in the same mould as Vivienne Westwood. Each has boldly tinkered with cultural iconography and sexual taboos to create extraordinary new wardrobe possibilities.
“I like to show that there is no frontier between good taste and bad taste,” he says after his latest show.
More than that, the designer explores the forbidden and celebrates the bizarre. He has enlisted snowy haired senior citizens to model on his catwalk along with the short, tall, fat and skinny. He adores the idiosyncratic looks of British beauties (perhaps a payback for having been fêted by the British before his fellow countrymen) such as Amanda Cazalet, striking red heads Eugenie Vincent (honorary Brit) and Karen Elson, the androgynous Martine Houghton, who modelled in his women’s and menswear shows, Jade Parfitt, who is often cast as Gaultier’s bride, and, of course, Erin O’Connor.
“It’s more about their character. I am frightened by uniformity. If I choose Erin [O’Connor] I want her to be Erin,” he says.
Today, it is Hollywood’s A-listers who choose to wear Gaultier. His celebrity fans include Madonna, Janet Jackson, Nicole Kidman, Cher, Cate Blanchett and Catherine Deneuve.
“The best compliment is that the clothes can be worn,” he says, before taking the conversation off at a tangent (something he does a lot), at a machine gun pace. Rat-a-tat-tat!
“Now you see an actress and you know that sometimes they are paid to wear the clothes. When I started, actresses asked to borrow one outfit for one night or sometimes they were buying. Now, it’s not just that they borrow, you have to send, you have to offer and after they don’t give back, and sometimes they didn’t even wear it, even when you did something special for them. They are the only person that has the occasion to wear an expensive dress, need it and have the money to pay for it, but they don’t pay.”
Despite his status, Gaultier is reassuringly realistic.
“A dress may be spectacular and original and creative but you have to find the balance. We are not doing sculpture or something you put on your wall.”
Gaultier’s real art is his eclectic imagination that has juxtaposed Mad Max with Marie Antoinette, can-can dancers with saucy sailors, Dada and Surrealist art with travel brochure moments to Africa, India, Mongolia, South America, Russia and beyond.
“I think its good because everybody travels, everybody mixes now, from different country, from different religion,” he says. “So travel and mix and marry sometimes, even now men can marry together.”
Within his collections Gaultier has blurred the sexes and played with proportion, turning fashion upside down and inside out, quite literally when he deconstructed the jacket to reveal the hidden beauty of the workmanship within. Another was cut away to it’s bare bone construction – a theme he returned to in his latest couture show presenting a little black dress with a plunge neckline featuring a ‘spine’ made from tiny organza frills. Gaultier launched his own couture line, Gaultier Paris in 1997 after being passed over for the top job at Christian Dior.
“But I should have so loved to do it, so instead of buying an apartment I do a couture collection,” he laughs. “I sell two dresses the first time.”
Gaultier has created his own fashion vocabulary that has been slavishly copied and still continues to inspire.
”To have been copied has always been a good compliment,” he says. “The moment you are not copied I think, ‘Ah, maybe I am wrong’”
Yet Gaultier has made a virtue of getting it wrong. Growing up in the suburbs of Paris he was fascinated by society’s outcasts. “I was more attracted by the bad boys and bad girls than the good ones”, he admits. He liked their trashy lizard jackets that were the opposite of good taste. Starting his career in the rarefied world of haute couture working for designers Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou only confirmed his non-conformist beliefs.
“It was,” he says, “really conservative and there were these old vendeuse always saying, ‘Oh, that is so chic, so chic’, and it was always the cliché of chic, the cliché that because it’s expensive it’s beautiful. I didn’t like that, so I was quite rebellious. I say, ‘No, there is so much more to beauty’.”
“I always want to show that men are a little more fragile and women can be very strong, like Margaret Thatcher”, he laughs again.
The designer does seem drawn to strong women be it Joan of Arc or Frida Kahlo (who both inspired collections) to Madonna.
“I have been educated by women,” he says, “at school and by my grandmother, who was a very strong character. My mother also. I think in reality women are stronger than men.”
“I remember as a child I didn’t play with other children, I had nothing in common with them, I preferred to speak with adults and when I was not speaking with adults I was speaking with girls because I find them more interesting.”
It is only fitting then that Gaultier should team up with one of pop’s most powerful female stars, Madonna. For her Blond Ambition tour Gaultier laced her into that infamous corset, and the pair has collaborated once again for her recent Confessions concerts.
“It’s like a new adventure each time,” he says. “She has her story and you go into it. It’s like working with another maison couture, but in her way. She is so professional but now it’s bigger, you need a lot more clothes and there is less time, so this was harder. It’s a lot of work, a lot of dancers, a lot of everything.”
And does working with such a daring artist give the designer more creative freedom to express himself?
“Depends, depends,” he says thoughtfully. “It is and it’s not. For the equestrian part of the show I was one hundred per cent free, so I did exactly what I wanted, but for the disco [section], she was more specific.
Even though he is now one of the world’s most celebrated designers, Gaultier shies away from the flashy Dynasty-lifestyle some might expect.
“Like some we know,” he giggles. “I come from the suburbs. I am living my dream everyday, so what more should I dream of? I am lucky because I live in a pleasant little house in Paris, with a little garden, in Paris. It’s beautiful. I can travel as much as I want. I like my work. I am doing fashion as I was always dreaming to do fashion.”