Jean-Charles de Castelbajac has been fusing art with fashion for more than 30 years. A pioneer of the avant-garde, the French designer's work celebrates colour and childhood and has won him fans from Madonna to Pope John Paul II. Now, Castelbajac's colourful, Pop art approach is set to win over a new generation of fashionistas with the opening of a flagship store in London next month.
Born into one of the oldest aristocratic families in France, Castelbajac's mother ran a small fashion business, but it was his education at a military boarding school in Normandy that he cites as the biggest influence on his career. "It was tough at school, but excellent training for becoming a rebel," he says. "You were not allowed many possessions so I focused on the things around me."
A boarding-school blanket would later inspire a coat worn by John Lennon, while his infamous "teddy bear coat", worn by Madonna, was also inspired by a childhood devoid of toys. "Throughout my career I have explored themes associated with childhood. It's not that I didn't want to grow up," he explains. "When I was a kid, I was living an adolescent life, when I was a teenager I was living an adult life, so I believe my time for childhood is now."
Castelbajac's rise to fame began with his first job, at Kenzo in 1972. In 1975, he launched MaxMara's diffusion line, Sportsmax. Again rebelling against tradition, he enlisted graffiti artist Keith Haring to design the fashion-show invitations and Malcolm McLaren to produce the music. He established his own label in Paris in 1978, becoming a member of the governing body of French fashion, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
"My ambition was not so much to start a trend, but to start a revolution," he declares. Inspired by art, cartoons and popular culture, his dynamic collections focus on making the ordinary extraordinary. "My career is based on a manifesto of hijacking. At the beginning I was hijacking bandages, blankets, teddy bears. I can do works of art with a photocopy, a straw or even Sellotape. I love the magnificence of things that are humble."
Bold and bright became the mantra for Castelbajac's clothes. Celebrating images of Mickey Mouse, Tintin, Snoopy and Felix the Cat, tops were made out of gloves and hats were fashioned from other hats. A jewelled camouflage wedding dress was another iconic design of the era. Those who fell for Castelbajac's clothes in the 1970s and 1980s included Andy Warhol, Farah Fawcett, The New York Dolls and Mick Jagger.
Then, in 1997, Pope John Paul II invited Castelbajac to design ecclesiastical robes for 500 bishops and 5,000 priests for a National Youth Day celebration in Paris. Rainbow-striped vestments were inspired by the story of Noah and the ark, though the gay community felt their emblem had been inappropriately hijacked. The Pope's reported response? "There is no copyright on the rainbow."
In 2006, Castelbajac was honoured with Propaganda, a retrospective of his work at the V&A Museum in London, but his career is far from winding down – Rufus Wainwright, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary J Blige and London hip-hop artist MIA have all worn his designs in recent years.
In London's East End, the nu-rave scene has fuelled the current resurgence of interest, re-branding him as JC/DC. "This new generation is in harmony with my work more that ever," he enthuses.
Castelbajac's latest project is his London flagship, which will stock his men's and women's collections, homeware and furniture. "London has always been an important place for me and I wanted to have a presence here," he explains. Significantly, the new shop is a stone's throw from Savile Row. "It's perfect for me as the area unites tradition and modernity, something that is integral to my work."
Besides his work as a designer, Castelbajac is also a conceptual painter, has written a book and has ambitions to make a film. "In France they like people who specialise and that's why they have a hard time with me."
So what fascinates him now? "It's always my next project. The new world is mostly about quality of life and my vision is exactly that – it fits between fashion and the way we live."
Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, 50-51 Conduit St, London W1, opens on 5 June, www.jc-de-castelbajac.com