Interview with Jean Paul Gaultier

In celebration of his very first international retrospective – The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – which opens today, Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony had the honor of interviewing fashion icon Jean Paul Gaultier. Offered below are excerpts from the piece which delve into everything, from birthday cakes to Madonna to Jean Paul Gaultier’s early apprenticeship at Pierre Cardin.

Happy belated birthday! What did you do to celebrate?
Thank you. I am on this detox diet at the moment, so I couldn’t even have my birthday cake – I just had a tiny slice.

What was your favorite birthday party of all time?
I don’t usually make a big fuss of my birthdays; it is something private and intimate. I did have a party for my fiftieth birthday, and I arrived in drag.

This year also marks the 35th anniversary of your first runway collection. And despite nearly 4 decades in the industry, your designs continue to feel new and fresh. How do you seek inspiration?
Inspiration is never a problem; I usually have too much of it. I sometimes want to say too many things at once. Everything I see can inspire me: the cinema, theater, music.

With Jean Paul Gaultier, you have cultivated a brand in a way that hadn’t been done previously, using a lifestyle approach that explored markets beyond standard ready-to-wear. How did this 360-degree view of fashion–which included home design, children’s wear, and beauty–come about? Did you learn about branding from your apprenticeship with Pierre Cardin at age 18?
No, I learned about freedom from Mr. Cardin. There was an absolute freedom in his studio. I would give him a drawing of an outfit, and he would say, “Great, you can do that now as furniture”. I worked for him in 1970, and he had just opened a theater, but he also did his shows there. He had assistants from all over the world–it was the first time I tried Japanese food with my colleagues from work. It was a great time, and it taught me that you have to have a free spirit to succeed.

Tell us about your working relationship with Madonna in the 80s and 90s. Where did the idea for that infamous cone bra come from?
The first time I saw Madonna was on Top of the Pops. She was singing “Holiday,” and she had a fabulous look. (I actually thought that she was English because she was so stylish.) She was into the same things that I was doing at the time, like crosses, oversized jewelry, and fishnets. The second time I saw her live was at the first MTV awards in New York at Radio City Music Hall. It must have been 1984. She sang “Like A Virgin” in a wedding dress and was simulating “self contentment” or “self satisfaction,” to put it euphemistically. The audience was mostly business people, who were horrified. There were just a few young fans–and me, who absolutely loved it. That is when I realized that she couldn’t care less what others thought of her, and I also saw how powerful she was. I was a real fan of Madonna – I loved her music as well as her “personage”. I loved her being the director of her own appearance.

The infamous runway walk the designer took with a topless Madonna.

When I saw her first concert in Paris, I said to myself that she should have asked me to do the costumes. I thought that I would have done them better. So, two years later, when my PR told me just before a prêt-a-porter show that I had to call Madonna, I thought that someone was playing a joke on me. But three days later, I asked if it was true and, to check, I called the number I was given. And it was her in person. She answered, “Hi, Gaultier.” Blonde Ambition tour was a real collaboration, friendship, and complicity. She was frightened of nothing, and our vision was in complete harmony and symbiosis.

You’ve often designed for film, from the The Fifth Element to La cité des enfants perdus. How does this process differ from designing ready-to-wear?
When I do my own shows, I am the director and I write the script. I decide on everything. When I work for the cinema, it is someone else who directs, and I try to do the designs in the function of what is asked of me. I have just returned to Paris from Cannes, where I attended the premiere of Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, The Skin I Live In. This is the third time that I have worked with Pedro, and I have enjoyed it very much. He is very precise: he knows exactly what he wants. I like to work in the cinema because it is always good to be able to express yourself in different ways.

Photography: Roberto Alamo

The interview in its entirety can be read here.

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