Jean Paul Gaultier does not look himself. There is no Breton top, no kilt or army boots. And the bleach-blond crop is more a grey one now. Rather, Gaultier, dressed demurely in black shirt and suit, looks more the chief executive of some creative industry bluechip company, and less the living stereotype of the mad-cap Euro fashion designer he toyed with during the 1980s and 1990s.
He dresses, indeed, as the person he is: the head of a global fashion brand, couture house and fragrance power-player. It is only when he speaks – with an accent so French it sounds like he is putting it on, and with an energy that belies his looming 60th birthday – that the Gaultier of popular imagination is still revealed.
“I just think I have a cinematic way of designing,” he replies when asked why it is that so many of his designs have become staples of popular culture, recognisable even to those with no interest in fashion – the stripy tops of the French navy, the Parisian-chic pencil skirts and trench-coats, the corset dresses, conical bras and the idea of underwear-as-outerwear, each of which has entered the fashion vernacular.
“I never take photos when I travel but try to absorb the images, and they stay with me for a long time. I once did a collection inspired by India, for example, and that was 10 years after I travelled there. And it was really through cinema that I discovered fashion in the first place.”
That sponge-like mind hints at why Gaultier is one of the most creatively respected designers of the past few decades, skilled in blending the conventional and the outrageous, the androgynous with the macho, the high-brow with the irreverent, tailoring and streetwear. He is, though, also one of the most cherished; and that is not an easy accolade to win amid the ego and pretension of the fashion world.
His straight-talking helps. He bemoans, for example, the fact that today’s fashion press – once a useful critical instrument by which he might assess his collections – is little more than a tool of big-spending brands. “It’s all part of marketing now,” he says, somewhat exasperated. “If they don’t like your clothes they won’t say because they have other priorities – advertising. And if those big groups call a magazine directly – as I know one does, mentioning no names – it will make whatever changes are asked.”
But Gaultier has a track record too. His CV covers the release of dance singles; the hosting of television series (Eurotrash, in which he hammed up his stereotype); costume design for Pedro Almodóvar, Peter Greenaway and Luc Besson; set design – most recently for Elton John’s Grey Goose charity winter ball; as well as, until this season and for the past seven years, designing womenswear for Hermès.
It was an appointment that arguably saw the luxury goods house through the recession. Hermès, which bought 35 per cent of Gaultier’s brand for $23 million (Dh84.5m) in 1999, has since bought another 10 per cent, as though in recognition of the fact. Now comes the recent opening of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a major career overview that will tour the world over the next two years.
The show underscores the end of an era. “Hermès was a fabulous experience, but leaving is a great opportunity for me to try some other things,” Gaultier says, causing his harried assistant to wince slightly. “Well, maybe not more things, but to do the things I do better. Hermès meant designing another two collections, meaning eight in all, including my own, and I’m very hands on. In fact, I’m a control freak. But even control freaks need some space.”
New things include a collection for La Perla – ironically, Gaultier’s first actual underwear-as-underwear line – of which the lingerie brand expects to sell more than 10,000 pieces at more than €500 (Dh2,400) each.
It also means a return to old form when, for example, Gaultier upset the fashion establishment by daring to use old, short or less than skinny models in his catwalk shows. Beth Ditto, for example, caused a sensation in a tulle-covered basque at his prêt-à-porter show last October, while Gaultier disrupted the usually august, refined ambience of the July couture shows by having the burlesque star Dita von Teese perform a finale.
Indeed, this touch of rebellion marked Gaultier’s anniversary in the business. It was 40 years ago that he got his first design job with Jean Patou, fresh after a spell as assistant to Pierre Cardin, who took on the untrained but enthusiastic 18-year-old based on a perusal of his sketches (Gaultier sketched almost reflexively throughout his schooling, often having them pinned to his back as a form of punishment – a measure, he says, that only afforded him a kind of playground celebrity).
Unfortunately, Gaultier soon realised that the reality of fashion was not as he had thought back when his lifelong obsession (in his words) with the traditional French clothing of his childhood had begun. The rot had already set in. He recalls being cornered by Patou’s licensing director and effectively being told to copy a popular design of skirt by another brand.
“And I was devastated,” says Gaultier. “Why buy from Patou when the garment already exists? What’s the point? You have to propose something, not just market something. If I do anything I try to do it differently.”
And is the fashion industry as creative as it used to be? “Absolutely not,” says Gaultier. “There is no style, nothing that I would call fashion. Maybe there is no need for fashion any more. Maybe it will come back because there are still people who want the opposite of what they have. But now, for someone to tell me that I have to do trousers in a certain way because that is what’s selling, which is what happens a lot in the industry, well, I’m not interested in that. That is not to be rebellious but because I love difference.”
Difference, if of more niche appeal now, has proved a successful blueprint for Gaultier. It persuaded him, for example, to launch his Junior line when the idea of pricy designerwear for the youth market was still outré. He went out on a limb by creating the first cosmetics line for men, one only now being imitated by the major brands. And his outsize Gallic nose has served him well too: 15 years after its launch, his men’s fragrance Le Male remains the EU’s best-seller (a new men’s fragrance will be launched later this year), while a bottle of Classique, one of his latest fragrances for women, sells somewhere every 15 seconds.
But the chance to escape from commerce into a world of purer creativity is perhaps the reason he remains so dedicated to the couture line he established in 1997, despite couture being an industry in steady decline for years now, with Gaultier ruefully nostalgic of a time when Paris alone had 30 houses employing more than 2,000 people. It is a part of his business from which, he admits, he makes no money, but on which, he adds, he does not post a loss either. In these more bottom-line-minded times – before, as he puts it, “the big fashion groups came to control things” – that may not be enough. But independent as Gaultier is, his 100 regular customers, each of whom perhaps orders just one or two dresses at €100,000 each, are enough for him.
“Maybe it helps sell some perfume,” he suggests, even if it is more likely that his fragrance sales allow him to continue with couture. “But just as some people buy an apartment with their money, or a little boat, I do couture because that’s what it’s been my dream to do since I was a child. Couture should go on, maybe in a different way, but it’s an important laboratory. It’s exciting when I find the idea. And when I don’t it’s like – urrgghh.
“And it’s true I don’t recognise the dresses on some of the older, wider people, having designed them on a mannequin,” he adds, struggling not to laugh at his own matter-of-fact cattiness. “But these days a lot of couture customers are young and super-slim. They obviously don’t eat much and go to the gym a lot. But I don’t mind either way. At least with couture you know that if you make a dress for a woman she is going to wear it. You can’t say that about the fashion world in general these days. There are already more clothes out there than there are people to wear them.”
Of course, Gaultier has himself gone some way to making that the case. He has, after all, been making clothes since he was barely out of nappies. Does Madonna know that her conical bra was first made out of paper and safety pins – for a teddy bear?
“Ah Nana,” Gaultier exclaims, as though recalling his one true muse, whom he describes as “quite punkish”.
“Yes, it was a slightly outrageous look for a teddy bear, really. And, no, I don’t think that [Madonna] knows that.”