This January, at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, the taboo-breaking and visionary couturier said goodbye to the runway with a joyous, generous and grandiose show that was met with a standing ovation. After 50 years in the business, he’s stepping back to concentrate on his flamboyant Fashion Freak Show.
On March 4th, Jean Paul Gaultier unveiled a new concept that aims at inviting a different fashion designer to co-sign his Haute Couture collection for each season. The Japanese designer Chitose Abe, founder of the avant-gardist label Sacai, will be the first guest of this innovative project and will present her collection during the next fashion week in July 2020. Interview with Jean Paul Gaultier, the fashion designer who opens up without compromise.
NUMÉRO: So apparently you threw a pretty amazing leaving do at the Théâtre du Châtelet the other night... You’ll have to tell me all about it because sadly I wasn’t invited!
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER: Are you kidding? No I mean it! You really should have called me: not only would I have invited you to the show, I’d have had you up there on the runway in an embroidered tulle jumpsuit!
There’s no need to do overdo it! Apparently you’re giving up everything: drugs, alcohol, sex, prêt-à-porter and haute couture.
Well the truth is that I wasn’t doing everything in your list, so that already makes fewer things to eliminate. But moving on to the collection, it came about in a sort of flow of things that I wanted to redo, undo and reconstruct, without measuring its extent but simply following my impulse and instinct. What’s more I’ve never been very good at mental arithmetic, so when it came to attributing the garments, it all got a bit out of hand... I realized it in the wings at the Théâtre du Châtelet when I saw all these outfits and people – so many people in fact that you could barely move. I was a little bit shocked, and had to count on a miracle happening, just like for my first runway show!
Why did you choose the Théâtre du Châtelet to say goodbye to the fashion business?
The first time I saw a real show, with my grandmother, it was at the Châtelet. It was a production of the operetta Rose de Noël with the tenor André Dassary. I was eight or nine. At one point he was on a bed which flew up into the air - it was magic! So the Châtelet has stayed in my memory as a magnificent theatre where dreams can come true. A little bit like the shows at the Folies-Bergère, which I saw as a child on television and which led me towards fashion.
the clothes anymore.”
What’s all this talk about “upcycling” these days? What does it mean exactly?
I couldn’t give you an exact translation into French, but the idea is that you reinvent things... In fact, I don’t have the faintest idea what it means, but I used it because “up” made me think of haute couture. So it was all about recycling my own haute couture, which I decided I would also mix with prêt-à-porter.
So what made you decide to hang up your scissors now?
Well, for a start, I’m going to turn 68 in April...
So? What’s the retirement age in France these days?
Well, that’s just what everyone’s talking about right now! But it’s not about retiring... I’ve always had the feeling, ever since as a child I started doing little sketches I used show to my grandmother, that the day I stopped I would still be able to carry on drawing, that that was my own personal pleasure. It doesn’t matter if they’re seen by anyone or not, these drawings are by me, for me and for no one else... Now I’ll be able to show them to my cat!
“Today anyone can see
their dress worn by any old star,
they just have to write them a fat cheque”
Is drawing what you’re most passionate about?
No, it’s making collections. Or rather it was making collections, in other words making my drawings real. I was Pierre Cardin’s assistant: he was very free. Today we live in a world where there’s less and less freedom, in every sense of the word: in the moral sense and in the sense of the perception of things, which are misinterpreted or frowned upon, sometimes very violently. What’s more, a garment doesn’t have the same meaning as before. It still designates sociocultural belonging, but today luxury clothes are no longer bought but given away.
What do you mean?
Nobody buys the clothes anymore. Or very few people do. There’s over-consumption, but at the same time there aren’t enough people to buy everything. Some fashion houses go as far as to burn their unsold stock... And they’re all doing ever more enormous collections, whereas today you’d probably be better off doing the opposite. Everyone wants to do everything, whereas they should stick to where they’re at.
“If, recently, I’ve felt that I had less liberty,
it’s perhaps because of the economic situation,
and because of the luxury groups.”
What makes you say that luxury garments no longer sell but are given away?
Back in the day, I was flattered to know that Boy George or Sting bought my clothes in my boutiques. Even Madonna did. Imagine! All that has changed today. It’s not that I want to sell, sell, sell, but it was a way for them to show that they liked my work. Now stars are paid to wear clothes: it’s no longer an act of love. Today anyone can see their dress worn by any old star, they just have to write them a fat cheque.
Do you feel that there’s no longer a place for you in the landscape of today’s fashion industry?
Yes, I was getting a bit fed up be- cause there didn’t seem to be a place for me. But what was my place? When all’s said and done, I’ve been pretty lucky: I did exactly what I dreamed of doing as a kid, and that’s a very rare luxury. What’s more, I’ve always been free. And if, recently, I’ve felt that I had less liberty, it’s perhaps because of the economic situation, and because of the luxury groups who do everything they can to wipe out the competition. It was the Fashion Freak Show, the entertainment I put on at the Folies- Bergère, that made me realize I’d come full circle, that I needed to change my ideas and do something else. It had become urgent.
Will your Rue Saint-Martin premises be closing?
No, not at all. I’ve organized things so that they can carry on without me. I’ve found a concept that I can’t talk about yet but which is very much in tune with the times and which will allow the couture collections to carry on without me. It’s perfectly possible, there are plenty of young – and not so young – designers out there with a lot of talent.
So you are capable of envisaging your brand carrying on with some- one else at the helm?
Yes, totally. Especially if I’m not there interfering!
So what are you going to do with all your free time? Join a pottery class? Take up bridge? Reupholster TGV seats like Christian Lacroix ?
I’m going to copy Divine and learn macramé! [Laughs.] No, I’ve got a few projects. First of all, I’ll still be involved with the brand, but I won’t be doing the collections. Maybe I’ll do collaborations. But most of all, the Fashion Freak Show will continue.
Isn’t there a risk that stopping couture will affect sales of Gaultier perfumes, which have been under licence to Puig since 2011?
That’s precisely why we won’t be stopping it.
Anna Wintour was spotted in the stalls at the Châtelet... Was it the first and last time she came to one of your shows?
I was very happy to see her there, and it shows that she doesn’t bear a grudge with respect to things I may have said about her – things I now regret. She knows how to have a good time at any rate: she was dancing, smiling, applauding...
She was dancing?!
Yes, no doubt because she was saying to herself [he starts clapping]: “Ding dong off he goes at last, off he goes at last!” [Laughs.]
How did you manage to last 50 years in the biz? It’s been 20 years for me and all I want to do is throw myself out of the window.
Now don’t do something like that! In my case, if I lasted so long, it’s be- cause I like fashion, it’s my passion. And then there’s the fact that, during my career, I didn’t frequent fashion circles so much, which definitely helps keep you sane!