A summit meeting between Jean Paul Gaultier and Beth Ditto
They met at a concert; fell in love at a fashion show… Singer Beth Ditto and couturier Jean Paul Gaultier share the secrets behind their complicity with Numéro.
Numéro: How did you meet each other?
Beth Ditto: Darling! But where the hell did I meet him? [laughs]
Jean Paul Gaultier: The first time I saw Beth was at her concert in the Bataclan six years ago. I was captivated! I already knew the music by her group Gossip, and I’d read a couple of things about her in the press that amused me. I found this character absolutely fascinating. Her show at the Batalclan lived up to her sulphurous image: she commanded the stage, in all her glorious largesse, beauty, energy and power. With her very own sort of seductiveness. I remember how at one point she came down off the stage and walked among the audience. She brushed past me and I was electrified. I quickly invited her to my next fashion show.
BD: Jean Paul is a cool punk, everyone knows that. I didn’t know him personally when he invited me to his show, but he was one of the few fashion designers I’d already heard of. And that’s saying a lot. In the depths of the American sticks where I come from, if you said “Linda Evangelista”, you’d get answered back, “What? Who's that? Linda Ebaptista? Linda Elangibattista? Linda Giamiabibattista?” When I finally managed to extricate myself from that backwater and started to get known, people never stopped asking me, “So you going to Fashion Week?” I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, so I’d just say yeah, like an idiot and I ended up at Jean Paul’s show.
Jean Paul, what gave you the idea of having Beth on the runway for your spring-summer 2011 ready-to-wear show?
J. P. G.: It was a time when models were getting thinner and thinner, it was bordering on anorexia and wasn’t good to watch. Suddenly I had the impression that I wasn’t dressing them, but more covering them up to hide their modesty and emaciated bodies. So it was just the right moment to show someone who was glamourous and happy with their curves.
B.D.: Jean Paul instantly brought out my hidden talents as a top model! As you can see Mother Nature was generous by my cradleside. I was born like this. I was destined to be the queen of the catwalk. [Laughs] No but seriously I don’t believe in God – God only knows if he exists – but I am deeply convinced that a superior force exists – whatever it may be – and that guides my choices and pushes me forward. [In a confiding tone] What you have to know about me is that I am one lazy bitch. A true loach. I do fuck all. There, now I’ve said it. And if that mysterious force wasn’t there – the ghost of a kindly ancestor, who knows – to get me out of bed in the morning, believe me, I would spend the whole day there.
How did Jean Paul convince you take part in his show?
B. D.: Jean Paul is a very funny person. He has perfected the art of ridiculing everything. That’s something that we have in common. With him I got the feeling that if things ever got bad – like if my heel broke, my dress fell off or the seams ripped open – that it wouldn’t get to him, but that he would burst out laughing and find it even funnier than if things had gone to plan. I really, really like that way of looking at life: when things fall flat on their face, it’s a chance to get up and bounce back.
How about the fittings for the outfits you wore in the show?
B. D.: The dress was more or less finished when I arrived. It was when I tried it on I really understood the expertise of the workshops, all those seamstresses with their fairy fingers. When I put it on I felt as though I had slipped into a hot bath. Stockman don’t make a model that fits my size, Jean Paul and Marc [Jacobs for whom Beth Ditto modelled last year] had to have one specially made with my measurements. It was hilarious to see my enormous Stockman in the midst of the other window display mannequins at Jean Paul’s exhibition, De la rue aux étoiles. Especially because mine - go figure - was a head above all the others. I was thrilled to be part of that exhibition, but even so I couldn’t help thinking, “How is that possible? No woman is that big! Not even Linda Ebiamgiattista.”
What goes through your mind when you glamorously strut down designer runways?
B. D.: I say to myself: “keep focused honey, if not you’ll go flying.” The models were all very kind and supportive backstage. Probably because they knew I wasn’t likely to steal their jobs. It was Kate Moss who showed me the ropes. Oh yes baby! It was her who taught me how to make love to the camera, how to throw my shoulders back and walk one foot in front of the other like a duck.
Jean Paul, how did you come up with the idea to create an extra-large t-shirt with Beth?
J. P. G.: It was Beth’s own idea. I’ve always wanted to make clothes for the curvier woman, and I instantly said yes, even more so because it’s just one design, and I didn’t have to do a whole collection. When she talked to me about the project, I instantly wanted to play with the clichés of a frustrated customer, the one who shrieks in the boutique: “I like it, but it’s not my size…” Or “Nothing fits me.” That was when I came up with the idea of printing Madonna’s corset on an over-size t-shirt.
B. D.: Jean Paul was pretty quickly the most obvious person for this project. Aside from his amazing talent, he seemed like the most human couturier and the most sensitive to the plight of women, which really meant a lot to me. I was so lucky and honoured to go see De la rue aux étoiles in his company… It was a moment of pure happiness where he regaled me with stories and personal anecdotes. The one that touched me most – not ever having been to college myself – was that he reached the summit of his art without ever having stepped foot in a fashion school. I was thrilled also to learn that when he was little he would hide in his bedroom to dress up his teddy bear. I have to say that I have great respect and admiration for people who have the courage, against all odds, in their creative convictions. Men who wear lace underwear beneath their suits at the office for example. When I was a kid I felt so repressed myself – because I was fat, because I was broke, because I had a big mouth… - like so many homosexuals who don’t dare assume who they really are. Those are all feelings I am extremely in tune with.
J. P. G.: If I have always advocated diversity on my runways, it no doubt comes from the fact that I too always felt different. The first girl that made an impression on me – apart from Micheline Presle on the TV – was a redhead. She had frizzy hair, in a constant state of combat – a bit like Grace Coddington. I was as fascinated by her skin which was so white, you could see right through to her veins. I thought that was fantastic. She was a pied-noir [North African ex-pat] and so to make myself more interesting, I pretended to be one too. Later on I realised that I was attracted to boys who were different to me…
In what way?
J. P. G.: The boys who were opposite to me, those that were, let’s say, a bit less delicate than me.
And Madonna didn’t sue you for reproducing her famous corset on your XXL t-shirt?
B. D.: The last I heard it wasn’t Madonna who designed that corset. Yes? Er, no. Personally I love Madonna. I don’t think she’s going to sue us. [She pauses for a few seconds] And if she does it would be by far the most insane thing that could happen to me! Amazing!
If you could re-enact that famous kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards, who would you prefer to smooch? Katy Perry, Beyoncé or Mariah Carey?
B. D.: Ooh what a delicious choice! But personally I prefer Brittany Howard by far, the singer from Alabama Shakes.
And you Jean Paul? Would you go for Karl Lagerfeld, Olivier Rousteing or Tom Ford?
J. P. G.: Is that a trick question? You know I prefer men who are older, more tanned and more, hmm… American? Well okay I’ll take all three of them.
Why do you think the press has picked on Madonna so much these recent years?
B. D.: Has she ever had good press? Has anyone ever agreed on her? What annoys people is that she dares to be a powerful woman, still, at her age. And if her critics feel threatened it’s because they would never have the guts to do the same thing if they were in her place. It’s not like she’s the only one extending her mandate: take Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Emmylou Harris and Cher or even fucking Dolly [Parton], for example. All fabulous women who’ve lost none of their enthusiasm or relevance. Talents of that calibre don’t have a sell-by date, and those who say are otherwise are nothing less than sexist pigs. You know when it comes to a man, everyone shuts up.
J. P. G.: I think she’s just doing what she’s always done: having an opinion. And seeing as she is very criticised for the way she dresses in relation to her age, she has a tendency to go even further. I don’t know if that’s the best thing to do, but there we go. It must upset her to be attacked so often about her body, when frankly she is pretty beautiful…
Why are all women in fashion as thin as nails?
J. P. G.: There’s a certain trend – particularly with chic American women – that advocates this idea that eating nothing is the height of elegance.
The late Duchess of Windsor liked to say, “A woman can never be too thin or too rich.”
B. D.: More like she “can never be too fat or too poor” in my case. Don’t forget that the canon of beauty rehashed by the fashion industry is totally out of touch with reality. It’s a parallel world where no one gets old, no one sweats, no one loses their hair, no one ever gets ill, and no one gets thinner or fatter. How awful! Yuk! It’s filthy; it’s just to sell handbags when in fact it doesn’t even exist. It’s a purely capitalist notion. The idea that you look at a girl in a magazine and say to yourself, “What do I have to do to look like her?” Well let me tell you honey, you gotta do nothing at all because you ain’t Linda Evangelista. So just forget it, it’s over.
Jean Paul, have you noticed an evolution in the shape of models during your career?
J. P. G.: I remember having used Marthe Lagache, who was curvy, in the 1980s, but I also cast others too who were the total opposite. Even Farida [Khelfa] – when she modelled for me the first time – was well filled out. She wasn’t fat, oh no, but she had breasts and hips, and as she was very tall, it gave her an Amazonian silhouette. So much so that to begin with I had to make her clothes just for her.
B.D.: As women, society encourages us – forces us – to focus on our bodies. Except that when we do that, we get criticised. General opinion criticises models “how dare they?” for being too thin, and in the same way they criticise me “how dare she?” for being too fat. In the end we’re all losers.
What’s the politically correct adjective for a woman carrying a few kilos too many? Generous, voluptuous, plump, heavy, bulging, chubby, pot-bellied…?
B. D.: “Fat” isn’t a dirty word you know.
Beth Ditto launched her own clothing brand for larger sizes with a collection for spring-summer 2016.
Interview by Philip Utz, portraits by Stéphane Gallois.