When I tell a friend that I'm going off to meet Jean Paul Gaultier, he says, with what may or may not be postmodern irony: "That fat gay bloke? Has he done anything since the pointy bras?"
Personally, I blame Eurotrash. Channel 4's cult sleaze-fest began in 1993, and Gaultier - co-hosting with Antoine de Caunes - became, overnight, everyone's favourite French queen. The dizzy blond to Antoine's wily brunette, one's sense of him as a creator shrank with every naughty-but-nice gag (he didn't write the scripts, and later declared that he found many of them homophobic). This erstwhile enfant terrible was left looking simply... terrible.
Anyway, since retreating from that harsh spotlight, he's done fine. The stark black dress that Nicole Kidman wore to the Oscars; Madonna's clothes for her Drowned World tour; the perfume bottles shaped like a va-va-voom woman; the line in haute couture (now backed, in part, by Hermès), which ticks along very nicely. Don't get me wrong. I'm still fond of those conical boulder-holders, so famously showcased by Madonna. Like the Pompidou Centre, they showed how riotous life gets when internal contraptions are exposed. The fact remains, however, that Gaultier is more than the sum of a pop star's rude parts. And the Victoria & Albert Museum obviously agrees. At a series of shows at the museum on Friday (for which all the tickets have already gone), his oeuvre will be getting the full catwalk treatment. So there!
Gaultier - who turned 51 this April - opens the door of his hotel suite with a grin. Though his signature outfit is a stripy Breton T-shirt and kilt, today, he's more sombre, in a grey shirt and army trousers. But he is still bouncy as a ball - and the same goes for his syntax. He orders coffee for himself, herbal tea for me; when it arrives, I note, in a small-talky way, that coffee is unhealthy. "Bon! Maybe I need more energy!" A worried frown. "You think it is wrong energy?" Big smile. "So! I take some of your camomile!" And he pours himself a cup.
It's hard, in fact, to get a word in. Outside, it's raining, which prompts a diatribe against umbrellas. "I don't find it very masculine. Men with umbrellas, I don't find that attractive. It's quite stupid, really, but I have this stupid image, that the man has to be... the water on the face. Woman, too, can be sexy! Look at Bardot when she do And God Created Woman." He gulps with excitement. "She comes out from the water, she has the dress [he cups his chest suggestively] completely, like, plenty of water - she's all wet and she's great!"
But most people just look like drowned rats when they're wet. "Ah!" he agrees sadly, "in reality, yes. Even for BB. Now, more than ever." A sigh. "You 'eard what 'appened to 'er? She has a new book, and she says bad things about everybody. And now she has been destroyed on TV." He thinks this is very sad. "They say she is homophobic, because she doesn't like Gay Pride - she finds that ostentation is not good.
"Celebrity," he muses, "it is big danger, no? People get very frightened, very selfish. It is terrible for their children, for the people around them." He goes on to talk about Madonna, which is a coincidence, because an image of his old chum has just popped into my head. As far as he's concerned, though, these are dangers she has avoided. "I think Madonna, she is doing well with all that. She knows already the problems, so she can solve them."
I've always loved Madonna, I say, but she seems a perfect example of someone who is getting more conservative. And as for her taste in men - they're all so macho. Gaultier cocks his head and says, soothingly: "Maybe 'erself she is quite strong and clever, so she needs somebody who is not frightened by her, and is strong also, whom she can fight with. Not somebody who is sweet and say yes, yes, yes." Would he go shooting with Madonna and Guy? A gurgle of amusement. "I don't know how to shoot. Or even to play pool! I don't know the macho type of sport so... I cannot do that."
Gaultier can philosophise like this from almost any standpoint, and, being eager to please, is more than happy to take on the views of the last person he had lunch with. Frankly, given that many of his friends and idols seem to be drifting towards the right, I'm worried. I say that I think he's going to become a mad right-winger.
"I hope no!" he squeals. "I am so frightened about it, that's why I speak about it!" He shifts around in his seat. "You think I'm going to marry a mad Catholic person! Or become a Muslim!" Well, Madonna converted to Judaism... "No, she did not!" he says, suddenly absolutely serious. "That is rumour. I think she is studying cabbala, but only studying. You know what? She did show in Paris, and somebody shouted, 'Religion is love!'. And she say, 'No! Religion is everything, but it's not love. It is the contrary. It is not permissive.' And she says this of all the religions. I think she is looking for spiritual things, but she has not converted."
Gaultier pours himself a cup of coffee, and I get a bit more time to study him. From some angles, he looks like the angelic dancer Michael Clark. From others, the satanic Simon Le Bon. Head on, he's got the muscular puckishness of Picasso, and is truly lovely.
Gaultier isn't so sure. "My body..." he murmurs, "I think it is getting a little fatter!" He strokes his tummy fondly. "A leetle, a leetle, there. So I have to eat not as much as I love. I should eat all the time, if I was allowed." Another greedy sip of coffee. "Of course, I see a lot of beautiful girls and beautiful boys, so I can see the difference. I am not as good as this one... or as young as that one. And, because I have been on the TV, people have reactions to me. They say, 'Oh, he change! Oh, he's fatter!'. So, of course, it makes you more... self-conscious."
What bit of his body does he like best? "Truly, some people tell me that I have nice hands." I ask him to let me see; his fingers are indeed long and elegant. In fact, they're so bony and tasteful, they look like they belong to someone else. Well, they're quite nice, I say. "They are not so special," he agrees. "Me, I don't find nice my hands. In my adolescence, people see my hands and say, 'gay hands!', 'homosexual hands!', so I don't like them so much. But always women tell me I have beautiful hands. Men don't say that."
Back in 1990, Gaultier's boyfriend and collaborator, Francis Menuge, died of Aids. The pair had been together for years, and Gaultier was, understandably, devastated. Since then, there has been no mention of a significant other. Perhaps it's time there was. I ask Gaultier if he falls in love with people easily, and, for the first time in the interview, he seems lost for words. After an age, he says: "You want truly in love, or...?" He pulls a naughty face, as if to say that the other thing can be quite fun, too. Truly in love, I say, firmly. "Oh," he says. "Truly in love? No!"
So, is he in love with anybody right now? "No!" Well, I say, tentatively, I think it's time. "I think it's truly time!" he yelps back. "I think truly I deserve it, to fall in love, to be in love. But no... It's many years that I am not in love, it's sad." He's grinning like a madman. "I hope, during this year, at the end of the year, to be like married!"
Is it that he has very high standards? He hums and hahs, then says, "I think, to be honest, at one moment I was thinking, 'Oh, I will never find love', and then I find! And I have relationship with someone for 15 years. But after that, I felt in love one or two times. Two times, let's say. Allez! - three times. But it didn't go on, it didn't work, because, because, because..."
He looks up, as if trying to decide whether to tell me to mind my own business. "Many times I could be in love with somebody that didn't care absolutely about me. So I say no! Because I stop when I see there is no hope." A little pause. "Maybe sometimes there could be hope, but I didn't wait for it..." A big sigh. "I do that because I know that I could be destroyed. Maybe I feel not secure.
"And now, I'm older, I'm too stuck in my ways." He pulls a crabby face and adopts a whine: "'I don't want that, or that, na na na'." Suddenly, he shakes his head. "But maybe it's the contrary. Maybe it's because I am not in love that I am like that. When you are in love, foof!, you don't care." He has another thought. "That's why Brigitte Bardot is like this, because she's not really in love. I hope not to become Brigitte Bardot." He giggles. "JPG becomes BB."
At this point, the phone rings. The photographer has arrived, and I realise with horror that I still haven't asked Gaultier anything about fashion. We run through the stuff that he'll be showing at the V&A: his first pantaloon skirt, the backless T-shirts for men (that really caught on, didn't it...)
And the sarong made famous by David Beckham? Oh yes, that'll be there, too, even though that was one trend that even Beckham couldn't kick-start. "It's a big shame," muses Gaultier. "Fashion for men, at the end of the Eighties it was going up, up, up; more interesting. Then, at the start of the Nineties, pfft! More conservative."
He's doing a show in June for Johnny Hallyday's 60th-birthday party. "So, I propose him to wear, with the trousers and waistcoat, a kilt. But he refuse! I say, 'You can take it off. It's only an accessory.' But no..." Gaultier shakes his head. "The image of the macho!"
He's impressed by Beckham's continued taste for gender-bending ("He looks good, no? Pas mal!"), and is also excited by the popularity of The Matrix films, being especially taken with the long, full-skirted frock-coat worn by Keanu Reeves. "Maybe things go more interesting again!" He also fills me in on his new projects, which are, typically, poles apart. He'll do the Hermès collection from March of next year. He's also working on the costumes for two characters in Pedro Almodovar's film, Bad Education. "They're two transsexuals. So!"
We're done. Gaultier, ever polite, shakes my hand and says, "I'm sorry. I'm saying goodbye now because I have to change. I'm going on Steve Norton's show." (I assume that this is some obscure fashion event; it's only later that I realise he means Graham.) On my way out, I pass his bedroom. There are suitcases lying around, and, in the middle of the bed, a little teddy bear.
Ten years down the line, here's a nightmare scenario. Gaultier - known for nothing more than pointy bras and camp jokes - is sharing his bed with a stuffed toy; and Madonna is a mascot for the Tories. Or what about this: Gaultier enters a glorious, shocking, old age - loved, and in love...
I suppose that Madonna could turn into the next BB. But JPG? Seems to me he's cut from an altogether different, finer cloth. If anything, he'll improve with age.
Fashion in Motion: Jean Paul Gaultier is at the V&A on 30 May (020-7942 2211)Reuse content