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Jean-Paul Gaultier, enfant terrible of high fashion, is on the board of the Carla Bruni-Sarkozy Foundation. In an interview, he looked back over his career.
You often mention that you come from a simple background. There are two ways to speak of one’s origins: deny them or own them. How important are your origins for you?
I’m okay with them. I was lucky to have parents who loved me. They were ordinary, average people. My father was an accountant, my mother a cashier in the restaurant of a government organization. My grandmother was a nurse. She was quite a character. In addition to her official duties, she practiced magnetism. She even did beauty massages. We lived in Arcueil. An aqueduct separates it from Cachan. A communist town and a socialist town. I remember one time, when I came home after school, I repeated what the principal, a communist who dispensed a relatively politicized form of education, had said. My parents were shocked. They were socialists, but this is not what they expected from the school. It had no business exercising such an influence on children.
How do you explain that this is the first thing that came to mind?
In fact, I had not been struck by what he had said, but by the reaction that it provoked. I had witnessed the effect that words could have. I believed everything I was told. Discovering another way of thinking helped me understand there are many truths. From then on, I called each truth into question. I had to form my own opinion. Another memory of this principal. In October 1963, he told us about the deaths of Jean Cocteau and Édith Piaf. (I can’t recall what grade I was in. I was two years behind. For several months, I pretended to be have a fever so that I could stay with my grandmother and draw.) I had no idea who Jean Cocteau was. I hadn’t made the connection with Beauty and the Beast, a film that I had seen. But Édith Piaf, I could see her hands clearly, this woman all dressed in black with this incredible voice. An strange character, very different.
From whom do you acquire a passion when you’re an only child?
With no brothers or sisters, I was surrounded by adult topics. I listened to my grandmother’s clients. When they had problems with their husbands, she would advise them to change their hairdo or to cook up a nice meal. Fixing themselves up, being beautiful. I was discovering female psychology. At school, I was a lonely child, in my own shell, rejected, left out of the boys’ games. They must have sensed in me a different sensibility. I compensated by taking an interest in the cinema, the theater. I would watch a lot of TV. There was Au théâtre ce soir with the famous sets by Roger Hart, La caméra explore le temps and Les Rois maudits [The Accursed Kings] with Jean Piat. It was practically live. I liked everything to do with performing, like figure skating, the only sport I liked! There were costumes. Wrestling, too. I had seen a variety show at the Folies Bergère where naked dancers were lowered on the rigging with feathers. The next day, at the local school, I drew a dancer with fishnet stockings and ostrich feathers. The teacher, who was usually very nice to me, made me stand on the platform. She hit me on the fingers with a ruler, pinned the drawing to my back, and made me go around to all the classrooms. That should have traumatized me. It showed me my calling. All of a sudden, the pupils looked at me differently. I became amusing to them. The drawing had integrated me. I was no longer the tom girl who doesn’t play soccer. On the family front, my parents supported me, and my grandmother read my cards, predicting a wonderful future for me. This reinforced me in my choice. Then I discovered Falbalas, by Jacques Becker. This film with Micheline Presle, set in a 1940s fashion house, depicts the life of a fashion designer inspired by his models. From then on, I wanted to be in fashion. I wanted models who inspired me. Nothing to do with celebrity, I thought it was a beautiful profession.
Does this episode at the local school foreshadow your relationship with the public and with institutions?
After my family, it was indeed my first audience. The confidence I developed there is what later enabled me to cross the boarder of the suburbs to Paris, from Arcueil to Cardin.
Still today, school promotes stereotypes, science for boys, literature for girls…
It’s terrifying. Even if some more rebellious individuals forge on, many will miss their calling. At 14, I wanted to be in fashion, a designer or to make costumes for the theater. My parents were a little scared. They encouraged me to continue my studies. I thought of studying Spanish, because I was quite good and Spain appealed to me. It would have allowed me to earn a bit of money in the meantime. Luckily, my parents were open-minded. They accepted when the opportunities presented themselves.
Did this environment allow you to put your passion to the test?
In the winter, I was at my grandmother’s. It was warmer, and prettier, too. My parents lived in a low-income apartment complex. It’s true that I felt self-conscious. Instead of “Émile Raspail Complex” I would say “Émile Raspail Group”. Across the street, there was a beautiful 15th century church and a small Arab bar. It was the beginning of immigration. I made a joke. My mother had said to me: “What did you say?” Without realizing, it was slightly racist. She put me back in my place. My parents were not rich, but next to other people who are wealthier, they were much kinder. After seeing the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, I asked: “What if I wanted to marry a black girl?” My mother answered: “If you love her, it’s just fine.” Years later, when I started living with a guy (I hadn’t said anything before about my homosexuality), she had the same answer.
Your parents gave you this love. At the same time, you drew your imagination from the Folies Bergère, a music-hall from the early 20th century. Did you feel the need to skip a generation to assert yourself?
I was fascinated with what was different. When my grandmother was receiving her clients, I would snoop around. There were feathers and plumes in old pictures of her. I would find a corset. She said you had to drink vinegar. You would tighten a string, and have a smaller waist. It was all cinema for me. From one element, I would invent a story.
Do you still draw from this inventory of images?
I am very rooted. Like the bust of my perfumes, the corset is one of the Gaultier symbols. In the case of the sailor stripe, it didn’t come from Querelle de Brest. I saw it much later. But I would see other movies with sailors that I found very beautiful. There was The Untouchables with Eliot Ness. These costumes made an impression on me. They are part of my vocabulary.
An important part of your vocabulary?
Yes. I’d even say a loyalty. They are bases upon which I construct or deconstruct, on which I cut, shape, that I anoint with oil. My education has opened my mind to mixtures, contrasts, contradictions, and juxtapositions, even to paradoxes. It’s not headline news: childhood and adolescence are determinants. This is where we explore our relationships with our parents. If they fit well together, if they welcome you, if they reject you. Even the rebellious phases can’t prevent that. You can’t trample on, transform your education, it’s your DNA.
Is it a musical vocabulary?
Even though I remember the music that my parents listened to, it remains background music for me. I have memories. I was at my grandmother’s when I heard the Rolling Stones for the first time. The sound was coming out of the radio. A physical, almost erotic sensation, like something forbidden in this oldish, very 1900 setting.
How did you get out of Arcueil?
I didn’t know anybody. We had a neighbor who was an artist, a painter. His wife, an illustrator for l’Écho de la mode, had seen my sketches. I was 16. She asked me to design children’s clothing for her. I had never learned how to. I dressed them like small adults. Everything around me influenced me, the zippers from school bags ended up on clothing, spiral bindings that unfolded like bridges I made into dress straps. My drawings were clumsy, but I had ideas. She encouraged me. This reassured my parents. She knew the head seamstress at Dior. Marc Bohan wasn’t interested. But he advised me to send my sketches to other designers. I contacted them all. I first got a reply from Saint Laurent: my colors were not attractive. It took me a long time understand the subtlety of this remark. It’s not that they weren’t cheerful, but they were too bold for the brand. When I turned 18, when I came home from school, my mother announced: “You’re expected at Cardin.” We went together to place Beauvau. My mother waited downstairs. I didn’t notice whether he was tall or short, I was petrified. And he liked my colors. I was still in school. He asked if I could work. Looking back at those sketches, I think he was really courageous. It was quite rough. I would draw freckles on the girls, they were orange. Still, he hired me, for 500 old francs.
What he saw, beyond the clumsiness, was a personal style?
Yes, ideas. I had learned fashion by watching haute couture shows. I would even steal magazines — my mother only read l’Écho de la mode. These magazines explained how to wear a garment differently. It wasn’t just the total look. A suit could be mixed and matched. With Cardin, I was able to participate in an haute couture collection. I had the opportunity to be with him during several fittings. Since he had many licenses, he would have us draw and draw and draw. After the show, I thought I was on vacation. I didn’t know that I had to ask the personnel manager! I left for two months. In September, other people had been taken on. I had joined in April, but had to leave in November.
Is this when you decided to become “Jean Paul Gaultier”?
I worked for a while at Jean Patou and another collaboration with Cardin in the Philippines. On my return, I met Francis Menuge. I wanted to create a collection. He, who wasn’t in the fashion world, but very talented in his field, electronics, gave me the push. I didn’t have a career plan. Even though I would write articles about myself (“My collection was very Parisian and there were 350 models”), I didn’t see myself heading an empire. I could have worked as artistic director in a fashion house. Francis thought I had to become independent. I jumped right into the deep end. The first phase was done without money, of course. I financed my work with collections that I would do freelance.
What did they bring you?
In the literal sense as well as figuratively, they enriched me. There was never a negative experience. I remember one firm that imported clothing from India. It was in front of the Louvre. They gave me a chance to go to India: colors and culture shock. I had to make skirts and dresses using the local know-how. Usually, over there, they wanted western-style embroidery. I felt it was more interesting to use their own “tradition”. It was low-cost clothing. My dream was “fashion”. I was realizing that there was something else, not even ready-to-wear: mass production. I did those pleated Fortuny skirts. It was a hit. It was both traditional and modern.
Gainsbourg claimed that provocation is the way to voice the essential. It’s also the way to break through the boundaries. Enthroning the “toy boy” style, a man wearing a skirt, in your first collections, and later creating collections of men’s beauty products, is it just a gesture, or a way to express something deeper in society?
Our job is to transcribe behaviors, based on gestures, gazes, movements. I was raised by women. I felt that chauvinist society was an injustice. It was the Women’s Lib era. I was aware that things were rather demented in terms of salary inequity, gender differences, pre-conceived ideas about beauty and brains. Some models were more intelligent than the “male” bosses! And history has illustrated it: women have the power! They are the ones behind the kings.
On a lighter level, fashion goes foreshadows changes in society. What are your feelings, today?
We’re in a period of change, with some quite frightening steps backwards. Alongside the very commendable fights for ecology, I see regressions. A return toward fundamentalism in terms of abortion and religion. I defended gender equality. It was not to provoke. I knew that Yves Saint Laurent — like Cardin — could have created a sensation by dressing women in men’s clothes. It wasn’t to make people talk about him. It echoed society at the time. When I dressed men in skirts, it was because the point of view was again different. We would talk about the femininity of certain actors. Like women as sex objects, men could be sex objects. My provocation was justified. If men are valued for their power and their money, why would they not be for their power of seduction? What is Marlon Brando if not that? The physique is a way to seduce. Why couldn’t this apply to men, too?
Did you want to be the spokesperson of people who have no voice?
There are sexual minorities, excluded like the minorities generated by immigration. I don’t pretend to be an apostle, but I was, myself, rejected. I always base myself on a phenomenon. It’s never lucubration or misguided narcissism. I feel a globality. When I present a bracelet in a tin can, I’m saying that everything can be beautiful. It all depends on how you look at it. It’s the same for the models. I don’t want a look that would be my ideal. I’m looking for particularities. Something that screams out. I chose Farida (Khelfa) when she was at the door of the Palace, at a time when the codes of chic and elegance were the Swedish look. A very claustrophobic approach.
You have dressed several singers: Sheila, Catherine Ringer, Madonna, Mylène Farmer, Yvette Horner. Was this also a way to fight against the stereotypes by reinventing allegedly light forms?
This is how we see certain garments. Yet, a zipped pullover or a cap can be very very elegant. It depends who’s wearing it.
Is there such a thing as bad taste?
Fashion is not in a position to say so. We glorify what we hated. This is an effect of saturation. We love something passionately, then we want the opposite. It’s like with food. We can even start liking flavors that we hated in the past. It all depends on the context and the way things are presented.
Across the English Channel, you and Antoine de Caunes co-hosted the series Eurotrash. You intentionally put on a really thick accent. Aside from the comic angle, was it to express the uniformity of the world? Today, all the capital cities have the same commercial streets, the same brand names…
The world has become Americanized. We laughed at Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Frenglish. But we’re gravitating toward talking like him. In this phenomenon of globalization, which is wonderful for promoting the sharing of cultures, traditions must not be forgotten. We need traces. Similarly, we have a tendency to sanitize everything. Erasing Monsieur Hulot’s pipe on the poster of the Jacques Tati film is positively scandalous. If milk were to become bad for your health, would we touch up all the representations of the Virgin and child? It’s good to know where we come from. It doesn’t prevent you from loving. I’m proud of my background, but I also like to travel. But when I go to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where I have a house, I have the pleasure of going to a restaurant that reminds me of my childhood vacations. These two women still make celery root salad. There was a time when the brasseries served it. Perpetuating celery root salad is a way to rediscover pleasures that we had left behind. And that we rediscover. We used to go on vacation at a given place, life took us elsewhere, but we must be able to go back! Sometimes its fantastic. More concretely, we have to be aware of what can be exported. In cuisine, cinema and fashion, it’s what’s typical.
Faced with the intrusion of brands, some parents advocate going back to school uniforms. Like cell phones, they are said to interfere with concentration and the development of the pupil’s personality. What do you think?
I will always defend mixtures. What seems serious to me are the reactions that this type of ban provokes. Let’s take the reverse example of the veil. Banning it makes people want to wear it even more. Therefore, I think we should most definitely not go back to the school uniform! Today, everyone is free to wear what they want. Uniforms are a form of denial. In East Berlin, before the fall of the Wall, I remember going into a department store. All of a sudden, I had no reason for being. What I was doing no longer had any purpose. And the uniform brings back many other bad memories. If we’re to be forced to, we might as well ban all uniforms, the traditional costumes of each country and each region, as a whole! The Alsatian women with their magnificent costume, the boubou of the African women. Now we’re talking.
What has changed a lot, also, is the recapitalization of the fashion houses. Ten years ago, Hermès became a shareholder of Jean Paul Gaultier. Do such acquisitions that sometimes lead to conglomerates have an impact on the identity of the brand?
At Jean Patou, I had seen some examples. Changes in business management resulted in artistic directors, who had been associated with the brand for years, being canned like ordinary workers. All in all, owning one’s brand is not so bad. It’s like in television, when hosts become television producers, or like actors who finance their own movies. A dispute with the firm’s commercial executive can be disastrous. I don’t feel that with Hermès. They are not majority shareholders and I do their collections. It’s a very good collaboration. Forming a partnership was not a necessity. I wanted to see what Jean Paul Gaultier from Arcueil-Cachan could do on Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré!
With the proliferation of brands, inducing an exponential inflation of the marketing costs, accessing a market seems more and more difficult. Do you have to reach a critical size to continue to exist?
Everything has increased tenfold: the number of designer ready-to-wear brands, the number of garments, etc. The world is expanding. The collections are therefore getting bigger and bigger. We’re experiencing overproduction while people are wearing fewer clothes. In the 70s, there was a movement to reject the consumer society. The crisis is bringing us back to that. Clothing has lost its status. Only the most conventional people still dress to the nines to go to the bank. People dress more casually, with the least expensive garments. Or they mix luxury items with cheap products. In the 60s, a post-war period, people wanted brand new clothing. New and modern. It was very Courrègizing. It corresponded to revival of architecture and design. Then there were all these periods were you couldn’t tell the difference between real and faux, old and new. Vintage jeans, they were faux old! And here is the paradox: it’s more expensive to produce!
Is disposability a form contemporary luxury? Instead of buying a garment that will last 10 years, you replace it every month? Nowadays, durability no longer seems to be a valid selling point. It’s the success, for that matter, of H & M…
Mass consumption takes us into a paroxysm. There is too much of everything: too many magazines, too much fashion. From now on, there is fashion that the masses wear and fashion that they look at. Fashion shows have become performances. A window display of your dreams, a fantasy. It’s pretty, there’s music, pretty girls, it’s unwearable, but it’s a performance. At one time, there were fewer fashion shows. The journalists were getting bored. The public, not. The fashion shows broadcast on the Paris-Première TV channel had a faithful audience. But who was buying?
When you dress Madonna for a show, can these clothes “trickle down” into ready-to-wear?
This type of back and forth movement inspires me. Working with Madonna, Mylène Farmer, Almodovar, Greenaway, Chopinot, Jeunet, Besson, Prejlocaj, that is, for music, movies or dance, is very stimulating. I draw from the imaginary. There are no industrial considerations, and no fashion constraints. Of course, they want the Gaultier style. But these are encounters that allow me to better understand myself, to become a chameleon. The subsequent collections are often influenced.
Do the closing in his lifetime of haute couture at Yves Saint Laurent and the current problems of the Christian Lacroix house profile a phenomenon?
In the 60s, William Klein, with his film Who are you, Polly Maggoo?, announced the death of haute couture. Like in all professions, the scope was narrowing. There were deaths. In the meantime, luxury ready-to-wear appeared. Haute couture, today, is the designers and creators of the 80s who have become affiliated. But I think fashion will always exist. It’s a need for visual recognition, for protest even. With clothing, one can also lie and protect oneself against bad weather brought on by climate change. Clothing will always be there to call attention to oneself. Therefore, I don’t believe in the uniform! How will it be? To be perfectly honest, we are false prophets. We’re only ahead one or two years. But we’re at a turning point. Look at the state of the music industry with the Internet. So it’s not science fiction if I imagine that, one day, we’ll stand naked in front of a nozzle, and a rubber stay will dress us for the day.
But is it harder to become a fashion designer nowadays?
I can only speak from my experience. I was lucky to do this job. It wasn’t for the money; it was far from my thoughts. I simply knew that I could make a living by fulfilling a passion. The more I worked, the happier I was. In any field, you have to be passionate for the job in itself. Making money, that’s another occupation. Like glory. If I am known and “famous”, it’s a little despite myself. There was a media coverage at a time when we were looking for celebs. Before, fashion designers were only known in the fashion industry and by the clientele.
Can a foundation help?
When you have fulfilled a dream, it is legitimate to want to share one’s experience. I can help find solutions, ideas, perhaps through contests, bursaries, internships. Help is always welcome. I was lucky in that several people believed in me. I had no diplomas. Perhaps we could also help schools? Young people must have the same fears, handicaps worse than mine. They’re not fortunate enough to have parents who understand. For a boy, fashion is a hard business. Male model is the only occupation that is paid less than women. When the day comes that men are paid the same as women, it will be the sign that mindsets have evolved.
Interviewed by LP