Jean Paul Gaultier on Menswear, Madonna and Doing Things Differently

When Jean Paul Gaultier walked onstage at the Barbican Centre in London last week, to talk with renowned fashion journalist Suzy Menkes, the concert hall was filled with instant applause. He is not a designer that people feel non-committal about: Gaultier’s flirtation with boundaries and refusal to conform have won him the most ardent fan base. Nautical stripes and peroxide hair, two of his most recognisable signatures, were scattered throughout the audience as he sat down to discuss the art centre’s latest exhibition, which is all about him.

From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the catwalk will be on display until late August and is the first major retrospective on the couturier. And in person he is as charismatic as you could hope for, accompanying personal stories and anecdotes with liberal hand gestures and jokes. At the first mention of his famous conical bras, designed for Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition world tour, he immediately launches into the story of how he fashioned something similar for his teddy bear when he was a young boy.

The roving exhibition has already hit New York, San Francisco and Madrid. But the Parisian designer revealed that he has always felt a special resonance with London, so its stay at the Barbican seems particularly appropriate. “For me, people were expressing themselves more, they were true with character” Gaultier explained, remembering a 1974 trip to Kings Road, where he saw The Rocky Horror Show. “In London, I find a lot of open-minded and different types of people,” he went on, finding the city a natural fit for his love of diversity and difference.

So when he saw Madonna for the first time, performing Holiday on Top of the Pops, he remembers thinking “oh, she must be English.” Her outfit, with a fishnet top that exposed her bra was “exactly in my spirit…the way she used masculinity and femininity was exactly like me.” And the conical bras and corsets that he designed for her 1990 performances are still an iconic moment in fashion history, more than 20 years later. But, Gaultier joked with Menkes last week, they were actually a variation of the lingerie he had designed for a catwalk show five years earlier. So perhaps Madonna was lagging slightly behind him.

Modern Pop Icons

Modern pop icons don’t seem to draw quite as much affection. Gaultier wouldn’t compare Lady Gaga and Madonna, like so many have, because while the latter inspired a generation of Material Girls who all wanted to dress like her, Gaga is more about eccentricity than style. She “plays with the clothes, and I love that” he enthused, but no-one tries to emulate her so it’s an entirely different scenario. On Miley Cyrus, he would “remark only that there is something with the Disney girl, no? That they all become like sexual advertisements…”

Interview With Jean Paul Gaultier

But, of course, one of the defining qualities of Jean Paul Gaultier’s work is its play on sexuality and gender. “We are all part of femininity or masculinity,” he said at the Barbican, as he explained his work within womenswear. And his message for men is a continuation of that theme. From his very first forays into menswear he rebelled against the tough, John Wayne archetypes and instead presented a man that was “masculine, but at the same time more ambiguous, and will use his power of seduction.” There is, Menkes suggested, a feeling in his work that “men also, are interested in sexual perversity and are prepared to push themselves forward in that direction.” It’s an idea that might not feel revolutionary now, but Gaultier was one of the first designers to add it to the 80s agenda.

“Of course it has not been easy,” he admitted. “But for me, it has been better, because I know that with nothing I can do something.” That “something” has covered everything from haute couture to bestselling perfume, and even a stint as a TV presenter. He has been both creative director at Hermès and the enfant terrible of his own, boundary-pushing fashion house. Creativity has always been, for him, “a question of surviving, of doing things that I love. I didn’t think about doing something else.” And his Breton-striped fans, who have been flocking to the exhibition since it arrived in London earlier this month, are proof that his conviction was well-placed.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is at the Barbican Centre until 25 August 2014. Written by the team at Farfetch

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