Jean Paul Gaultier: From the catwalk to the big screen

Jean Paul Gaultier is the subject of a new film. Geoffrey Macnab talks to the flamboyant Frenchman about Galliano, Gaga – and a life tailor-made for cinema

It's Saturday afternoon in the bar of a beachfront hotel in Copacabana, Rio, and the 59-year-old French fashion designer and former Eurotrash presenter Jean Paul Gaultier is sitting quietly at a table. He is in Brazil for the Rio Film Festival. A documentary about him by one of his former models and muses, Farida Khelfa, is screening in the festival, as is the new Pedro Almodóvar film, The Skin I Live In (for which he provided the costumes). He is dressed discreetly in a white shirt.

At first glance, the designer is an incongruous presence at a film festival. Look at his credits, though, and you realise that he has worked on many movies with directors from Almodóvar to Luc Besson, from Peter Greenaway to Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He was also a key part of the team on the Madonna documentary, Truth Or Dare, "the first reality movie. Bravo, Madonna! The first reality movie!" he applauds the singer, with whom he is so closely associated in public memory.

Gaultier still speaks in the heavily accented and idiosyncratic English that many will remember from Eurotrash, the TV show he used to front. However, he is a more measured and less outrageous presence than you might expect, given how often he is still described as the enfant terrible of French fashion.

It is 40 years now since Gaultier was talent-spotted by Pierre Cardin. The young would-be designer from the provinces (he was born in Arcueil) has come a very long way.

"One day, she [Khelfa] asked me, 'Jean Paul, would you like me to do a portrait of you?' I thought that it was a written portrait," Gaultier recalls of how Jean Paul Gaultier Ou Les Codes Bouleversés ("Jean Paul Gaultier Or the Shattered Codes") originated. He is happy with how she has shown him on film. "She knows me. She can show things even that I don't realise about myself."

Khelfa's film is one of an increasing number of documentaries and dramatic features set in the fashion world. Whether Valentino: The Last Emperor or The Devil Wears Prada, Gaultier has watched most of them. However, he has mixed feelings about the way the camera has captured his professional world.

"I didn't like, for example, Prêt-à-Porter," he says of Robert Altman's mid-Nineties comedy drama, complaining that it wasn't sarcastic enough. Nor did he much care for The Devil Wears Prada itself. "Anna Wintour is a lot more monstrous than she is described!" he laughs of the 2006 film, which features Meryl Streep as a formidable fashion editor not unlike US Vogue's editor-in-chief, Wintour. Ask about his attitude toward Wintour and he is a little evasive. Is she a positive figure?

"She is a figure," is all he will say.

Gaultier is markedly more enthusiastic talking about pop diva Lady Gaga, whom he recently met for the first time. Their encounter was filmed.

Lady Gaga dresses in a way that rekindles memories of Gaultier's clothes (for example, his cone bra for Madonna) during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gaultier approves of Lady Gaga's sartorial sense, her business acumen and her voice. "Fabulous," he proclaims of her interpretation of "The Lady Is a Tramp", which she recently sang in a duet with crooner Tony Bennett. What he likes most of all is her outrageousness. At a time (he suggests) when fashion has become increasingly politically correct and petit bourgeois, she is a throwback to a less inhibited time.

Ask Gaultier about the troubled British designer John Galliano, who became caught up in a huge scandal, lost his position at Dior and was found guilty this autumn of making anti-semitic remarks, and the French designer sighs. He is not a close friend of Galliano, but is clearly pained by his fellow designer's plight.

"I know John a little and I must say that what he does for his work shows he is not a racist," Gaultier suggests. "It [the scandal] is something that happened and is beyond him. It's maybe because of drugs, because of alcohol, all that mixed together. I think it's also all the stress, that is enormous, about the importance of the collection... he didn't think about what he said."

The anti-semitic remarks that Galliano made were, Gaultier suggests, uttered as a defence mechanism when the designer felt himself being pushed into a corner. "When you see the video, you can see it is someone teasing him... John is very talented. He has done some beautiful things for Dior. I think it is completely sad that he doesn't have his own label anymore. I think it's bad. There are some people who say and do terrible things and they are not even punished for it." He adds that he "loves" Galliano's work and hopes fervently that the British designer will again have the chance to "make beautiful clothes that have enchanted so many people."

This may be the digital era, but Gaultier still has a relish for old-fashion media and for the "real". He would never countenance launching one of his own collections online first. He likes to go to the theatre ("it's good to smell also the sweat of the actor," he says, making an exaggerated sniffing noise) and would far rather see a movie in a cinema than on a laptop.

Film is a means of escape for him on both a personal and a professional level. Just as he likes to lose himself watching a movie, he relishes it when directors like Besson and Almodóvar recruit him to work with them. "It's like going into another story. When I do my collection, it is in a way my own story. But when I work for them, it's a little of my savoir faire, let's say, going into their story," he says of how he mutes his own creative personality in order to do the best work he can for his collaborators.

On The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar was present at all the costume fittings. He accepted most of Gaultier's suggestions. "I made a lot of propositions. He took away some that were very spectacular – a little too Grand Guignol, a little too theatrical," the designer recalls. "It is always interesting to see him [Almodóvar] working because he is so precise – so definite in what he wants."

Gaultier finished a seven-year stint as creative director at Hermès last year. He is now back on his own. To many, he seems a figure from another era: a trailblazer in the 1980s and 1990s who had the chutzpah to put men in skirts (remember, for example, David Beckham in his sarong). He can't hide his dismay at a present-day fashion industry every bit as conservative in its attitude to gender as the one he was trying to shake up at the beginning of his career.

"When I did the skirt, it was more like a symbol of equality for fashion for men and women... also, [to show that] men can be seductive and also men can be 'male objects'. It was not to scandalise or whatever," Gaultier says. Gaultier's mission was always to underline that you could be masculine but show feelings too: "show your sensitive and fragile part."

The French designer is a firm admirer of British humour and British irony. "It's rough and dignified at the same time. I love it," he enthuses. Gaultier likes British movies, too (citing My Beautiful Laundrette, Beautiful Thing and The King's Speech as favourites). As for the way the Brits dress, he manages to summon up some enthusiasm about that as well. "I love their eccentricity, which I regret is not as much as in the 80s. In the 80s, it was more strong."

Ask him about his current projects and he talks of "maybe making some project about cinema." He is quick, though, to scotch any idea that he has a hankering to direct films himself. "Not at all – I am not that stupid! I know what I am able and not able to do. Fashion? OK. Fashion... clothes in theatre, in an opera, in a concert – all that I love. To make a movie myself... no!"

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