Jean Paul Gaultier
Exclusive Interview of Jean Paul Gaultier. Portraits Peter Lindbergh
Iconoclast and visionary, Jean Paul Gaultier has celebrated the female body for over three decades, turning established codes upside-down by feminizing the masculine and masculinizing the feminine. Numéro caught up with him on the eve of the opening of a magnificent retrospective of his work at Paris’s Grand Palais.
Visionary, mischievous and provocative, Jean Paul Gaultier turned fashion upside down from the 1970s onwards, pushing the discipline into a whole new dimension. His arrival on the scene had the effect of a bomb going off, shaking up all the old-fashioned codes and dragging fashion by the hair into the modern age of pop. Among the icons in his personal pantheon were Madonna – whose provocative image was famously codified by Gaultier in the form of a pointy-breasted corset – Catherine Ringer and Boy George. In constant dialogue with his times, Gaultier became close to many of the iconic counterculture figures of his era. “He was involved in all the cultural movements, working with Nirvana when they started out, with NTM, with Cindy Sherman or with Pierre et Gilles. In order to dialogue with these very strong personalities, he developed a character of his own, rather in the manner of Andy Warhol,” explains Thierry-Maxime Loriot, curator of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier – From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. In an irony of history, while this spring Gaultier was absent for the first time from Paris’s prêt-à-porter runways (he’s decided to concentrate only on haute couture), this major retrospective arrived in the French capital after having toured the world. First shown at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, it has already travelled to London, New York, Dallas, San Francisco, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Madrid before coming home to roost in the designer’s birthplace. The exhibition’s approach is thematic, covering all the major motifs of the man universally known as the “enfant terrible of fashion.” “It’s above all his generosity and humanism that I want to get across,” explains Loriot. “Jean Paul Gaultier was totally transgressive through the fact of his bringing into fashion for the first time all the sorts of people that society usually refuses to consider. He refused to conform to established models, doing his utmost to break down taboos by including old, fat, dwarf and transgender people.” Recording it all were his faithful companions Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Stéphane Sednaoui, whose photographs allow us to trace the designer’s fascinating trajectory. The exhibition, which opens at the Grand Palais on 1 April, includes many of their most iconic shots. For Numéro, Jean-Paul Gaultier took the time to look back on his extraordinary life and career.
Numéro: Were you interested in fashion as a boy?
Jean Paul Gaultier: It all started in the secret, magical workshop of my childhood with my teddy bear, who I subjected to countless outrageous operations and alterations. I was like a little Dr. Frankenstein who hoped his modified creature would come to life once out of the lab. Actually, the first operation I did on him was a heart operation. It was at around the time that Professor Barnard performed the first heart transplant in South Africa. I saw it on TV, in black and white, and immediately locked myself in my personal operating theatre to carry out open-heart surgery on my teddy. Shortly after that, using cardboard, I gave him a double breast implant, endowing him with new breasts that were pointy and conical. He was my first transexual and that moment was also my first trance, in a way! Teddy remained a boy, but with breasts. The idea, which of course I only understood properly later, was to escape from the impasse of mindlessly-sexed gender and to invent an in-between. The more-or-less visible part of what distinguishes women are their breasts, real or not. What fascinated me was this mix of obviousness and dissimulation. For example, the breasts of postcard pin-ups: pointy, erect, rock-hard breasts moulded into a black sweater – like Brigitte Bardot or Marilyn Monroe, to take two examples – and at the same time completely mysterious. How do they stay up? How does it work? I love the probably apocryphal story of how aeroplane manufacturer Howard Hughes had his engineers design a special bra to glorify the beautiful breasts of his fiancée, Jane Russell.
Read the full story in Numéro 162, now in stands and available in our iPad app.