Since the 1970s, the French designer Jean Paul Gaultier has been shaking up the world of fashion with clothes that often pull clever twists on our received ideas about gender, sexuality and identity. He put men in skirts, a legendary cone bra on Madonna and sold fragrances to both men and women that have become international bestsellers. During the past year, exhibitions of his designs have been very popular throughout museums over North America. The iconic designer, who has come to symbolize so much of what's daring, sexy and innovative about France, took a few minutes to chat with us about his love of sailors, why he's always appreciated diversity on his runways, and when he plans to slow down.
You just launched a film campaign, "On the Docks", for your bestselling men's fragrance, “Le Male”, and women's fragrance, “Classique”. The film features a romance on the docks between a man and a woman. Why the docks imagery? What does that evoke for you?
Sailors definitely are a part of the "universe" of my fragrance, Le Male. It's natural that this campaign takes place on a boat. Querelle de Brest, the novel by Jean Genet, remains one of my references. My first men's collection, "The Object of Man," presented shirtless sailors. It's true that, for me, the sailor is an image which evokes strong masculinity. As for the film, I wanted to continue the romance of two "lovers", Le Male and Classique. Throughout the ad campaigns for these fragrances, they've met, fallen in love, separated. And now they reunite around the theme of desire, which is stronger than everything.
In the 90s, you launched a runway show using only black models. What do you think of the ongoing controversy about the lack of models of color in high fashion? Would you like to see more black and non-white models on the catwalks?
I've always wanted to show not just beauty, but different kinds of beauty. Since the very beginning of my career, I've sought models who have personality and force and I've never limited myself based on the color of their skin.
The current exhibition of your designs in North America has been a definite success. It’s arriving at the Brooklyn Museum in October. Have you ever been to Brooklyn? Which parts? How would you describe Brooklyn style? Is there a Parisian equivalent?
I love Brooklyn and I love New York. Brooklyn's where the spirit of New York, the "melting pot", is most present today. I'd describe Brooklyn style as eclectic and inventive. It reminds me of 70s London. It's unique!
Are you flattered that Beth Ditto, lead singer of the punk-dance band “Gossip”, and her wife both wore your clothes for your wedding?
I love Beth. I find her very beautiful, she carries her voluptuousness perfectly. She's got a huge talent, she's funny and intelligent. And yes, of course it was an honor for me to make her wedding dress.
Two years ago, in France, you had some very risqué ads for Coca-Cola, featuring nudity and you in drag. Do you think a campaign like that would work in the U.S., or are we still too puritanical? Has the U.S. changed at all?
I get the impression today that there are two United States--one very open and free and the other closed and puritanical.
How have you felt since 2011 when you left Hermès, where you were creative director in the 2000s? Do you miss that collaboration or do you feel liberated?
Just like a lot of love stories, this one had an end after seven years. I have excellent memories of my time there but I don't miss it.
Compared to the era when you started out, do you think the fashion industry today has lost its sense of fun and creativity? If you could change three things about the industry today, what would they be?
The influence of large corporate entities has changed the game, as has the arrival of "fast fashion". The only way to fight against the current economic crisis is with creativity!
You've become an icon, an ambassador of France and, in a certain sense, of being different. Do you hope to use your image to fight social causes dear to your heart?
First and foremost I'm a couturier, but of course I take part in the fight against AIDS. I'm also equally involved in Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s foundation (the former French first lady), which supports access to education for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are my personal causes.
At the age of 62, you still likely have a long life ahead of you. What do you want to do?
I still have my fashion house, where I'm preparing for my next runway show in just a few days. I suppose that I'm going to slow down one day. I just don't know when yet!