Jean Paul Gaultier: 'I like to show that there is no frontier between good taste and bad taste'

For 30 years Jean Paul Gaultier has wowed the world of fashion with his outrageous designs for everything from pointy bras to skirts for men. Iain R Webb meets the bawdy couturier to discuss the serious business of making fashion fun. Portrait by Roberto Frankenberg
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The Independent Online

Before unveiling his new collection for spring/summer 2007 during Paris Fashion Week last month, the charismatic French designer Jean Paul Gaultier celebrated 30 years in business by presenting a whistle-stop tour through his sartorial greatest hits: the pointy bra worn by Madonna, the skirt for men that caused a furore in 1985, the tin-can jewellery from his early James Bond collection (one of his favourites) and a haute couture concoction made of ostrich feathers and denim.

The retrospective began with a black leather jacket, tulle ballerina skirt and trainers ensemble from his very first show. In 1976 this look helped earn him the title of L'enfant terrible, tapping as it did into the prevailing punk attitude that was sweeping the streets.

"Of course I am influenced by the street," he told me when we first met in the early 1980s, "but it's about movies, music, everything. I take in all these images, mix them up and then the ideas come out."

Three decades on and Gaultier is now an international fashion icon whose influence has reached beyond the catwalk. His trademark peroxide blond crop (recently traded for a more dignified shade of silver-fox) and risqué striped Breton T-shirt and mini-kilt is as familiar to viewers of Eurotrash, the late-night sex'n'sniggers show that he co-presented in the 1990s with Antoine de Caunes, as with front-row fashionistas. His designs have been seen by cinemagoers in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and, of course, pop fans: everybody knows it was Gaultier who put Madonna in that corset. He even recorded a rap-song, "Ow To Do Zat".

Gaultier's irreverent approach to fashion has been truly ground-breaking. Each collection has boldly tinkered with cultural iconography and sexual taboos to create extraordinary new wardrobe possibilities.

"I like to show that there is no frontier between good taste and bad taste," he says after his latest show.

More than that, Gaultier explores the forbidden and celebrates the bizarre. He has enlisted snowy haired senior citizens to model on his catwalk along with the short, tall, fat and skinny. He adores the idiosyncratic looks of British beauties (perhaps a payback for having been fêted by the British before his fellow countrymen) such as Amanda Cazalet, the striking red heads Eugenie Vincent and Karen Elson, the androgynous Martine Houghton, who modelled in his women's and menswear shows, Jade Parfitt, who is often cast as Gaultier's bride, and, of course, Erin O'Connor.

"It's more about their character. I am frightened by uniformity. If I choose Erin [O'Connor], I want her to be Erin," he says.

Today, it is Hollywood's A-listers who choose to wear Gaultier. His celebrity fans include Madonna, Janet Jackson, Nicole Kidman, Cher, Cate Blanchett and Catherine Deneuve.

"The best compliment is that the clothes can be worn," he says, before taking the conversation off at a tangent (something he does a lot), at a machine-gun pace. Rat-a-tat-tat!

"Now you see an actress and you know that sometimes they are paid to wear the clothes. When I started, actresses asked to borrow one outfit for one night or sometimes they were buying. Now, it's not just that they borrow, you have to send, you have to offer and after they don't give back, and sometimes they didn't even wear it, even when you did something special for them. They are the only people that have the occasion to wear an expensive dress, need it and have the money to pay for it; but they don't pay."

Despite his global superstar status, Gaultier is reassuringly realistic.

"A dress may be spectacular and original and creative but you have to find the balance. We are not doing sculpture or something you put on your wall."

Gaultier's real art is his eclectic imagination, which has juxtaposed Mad Max with Marie Antoinette, can-can dancers with saucy sailors, Dada and Surrealist art with travel brochure shots of Africa, India, Mongolia, South America, Russia and beyond.

"I think it's good because everybody travels, everybody mixes now, from different countries, from different religions," he says. "Even now men can marry together."

Within his collections Gaultier has blurred the sexes and played with proportion, turning fashion upside down and inside out, quite literally when he deconstructed the jacket to reveal the hidden beauty of the workmanship within. Another was cut away to its bare bone construction - a theme he returned to in his latest couture show, presenting a little black dress with a plunge neckline featuring a "spine" made from tiny organza frills. Gaultier launched his own couture line, Gaultier Paris, in 1997 after being passed over for the top job at Christian Dior.

"But I should have so loved to do it, so instead of buying an apartment I do a couture collection," he laughs. "I sell two dresses the first time, one to Nicole Kidman, and one thing for a woman that just wanted to marry."

Gaultier has created his own fashion vocabulary, which has been slavishly copied and still continues to inspire.

"To have been copied has always been a good compliment," he says. "The moment you are not copied I think, 'Ah, maybe I am wrong'."

Yet Gaultier has made a virtue of getting it wrong. Growing up in the suburbs of Paris he was fascinated by society's outcasts. "I was more attracted by the bad boys and bad girls than the good ones," he admits. He liked their trashy lizard jackets that were the opposite of good taste. Starting his career in the rarified world of haute couture working for designers such as Pierre Cardin and Jean Patou only confirmed his non-conformist beliefs.

"It was," he says, "really conservative and there were these old vendeuses always saying, 'Oh, that is so chic, so chic', and it was always the cliché of chic, the cliché that because it's expensive, it's beautiful. I didn't like that, so I was quite rebellious. I say, 'No, there is so much more to beauty'."

"I always want to show that men are a little more fragile and women can be very strong, like Margaret Thatcher," he laughs again.

Gaultier does seem drawn to strong women, be it Joan of Arc, Frida Kahlo (who have both inspired collections) or Madonna.

"I have been educated by women," he says, "at school and by my grandmother, who was a very strong character. My mother also. I think in reality women are stronger than men.

"I remember as a child I didn't play with other children. I had nothing in common with them, I preferred to speak with adults and when I was not speaking with adults I was speaking with girls because I find them more interesting."

It is only fitting, then, that Gaultier should team up with one of pop's most powerful female stars, Madonna. For her Blond Ambition tour Gaultier laced her into that infamous corset, and the pair have collaborated once again for her recent Confessions concerts.

"It's like a new adventure each time," he says. "She has her story and you go into it. It's like working with another maison couture, but in her way. She is so professional but now it's bigger, you need a lot more clothes and there is less time, so this was harder. It's a lot of work, a lot of dancers, a lot of everything."

And does working with such a daring artist give the designer more creative freedom to express himself?

"Depends, depends," he says thoughtfully. "It is and it's not. For the equestrian part of the show I was 100 per cent free, so I did exactly what I wanted, but for the disco [section], she was more specific. For some parts she is very, very specific and at this moment, I don't think she needs me. You know, when she's so specific, it could be frustrating because it's like, 'That, in those colours, and that ...'"

The costumes were none the less remarkable, not least his S&M version of traditional riding gear - a mix of sheer black chiffon and strict horse harnesses. A perfect fit now he moonlights as creative director at Hermès, the luxury label whose heritage is saddlery and leathergoods - his debut show in 2004 was presented in a riding stables, the audience seated on bales of straw.

Working between the two roles is a challenge, but the Hermès job seems tailor-made. When the label's previous creative director Martin Margiela (a one-time assistant of Gaultier) exited the job, Gaultier was asked by the house's then-CEO, Jean- Louis Dumas, to offer suggestions for a new designer.

"So I phoned him and said, 'I have found someone but I don't know if you will be happy with my suggestion. It's me!'" says Gaultier.

Even though he is now one of the world's most celebrated designers, Gaultier shies away from the flashy lifestyle some might expect.

"Like some we know," he giggles. "I come from the suburbs. I am living my dream everyday, so what more should I dream of? I am lucky because I live in a pleasant little house in Paris, with a little garden. It's beautiful. I can travel as much as I want. I like my work. I am doing fashion as I was always dreaming to do fashion."

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