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Jean Paul Gaultier: ‘Freedom is the first lesson I learned from fashion’

By Florence Julienne


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People |Interview

Jean Paul Gaultier, opening of the 'Cinémode' exhibition SCAD Lacoste Credits: F. Julienne

As the Spanish Puig Group, owner of the Jean Paul Gaultier brand, transforms into a public company, the now-retired designer continues to make a name for himself. Invited to show his work at the ‘Cinémode’ exhibition at the Scad Lacoste campus in the US, Gaultier gave FashionUnited and the students a lesson in freedom. Here are some selected excerpts from the conversation.

You mentioned that freedom was your first lesson in fashion. What is it like for you today?

I sold my company to the Puig Group. Now I'm retired, independent and developing other projects. This is the case for the world tour of my ‘Fashion Freak Show’, a show originally staged at the Folies Bergères, and for the ‘Cinémode’ exhibition, in collaboration with La Cinémathèque française, which is presented at Scad Lacoste until 30 September.

At the moment, I'm working for a Belgian company. I'm producing the art direction for an animated film. I get involved in projects that amuse me, because that's always been fun for me. Even if it's real work, it was my childhood dream, so I carry on creatively.

Who gave you a taste for freedom in fashion?

Pierre Cardin – when I had my first professional experience. He had a flair for theatrical shows, even if he had to remain realistic.

Before you met Pierre Cardin, what was your first taste of fashion?

When I was 13, I watched the film ‘Falbalas’, about a fashion designer and the preparations for a fashion show. I didn't go to school, but that film was my school. If there hadn't been a fashion show at the end, maybe I wouldn't have gone into this profession. My first model was my teddy bear, to which I put a cone bra, the same as the one I later designed for Madonna. And just like the one I made for her free mega-concert on Copacabana beach [held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, ed.], to close her world tour [on 4 May, ed.].

Do you think that young designers enjoy the same entrepreneurial freedom as they did in your day, when fashion was not dependent on groups?

You need freedom. When I started out, there were no groups, but you still had to have money. I did it without money. When I was young, I wanted to break the rules. For me, it was normal to want to change the codes. Fashion is all about change: a new way of walking, posing, presenting and so on. Someone who is determined, if they have talent, will find the resources to exist. Perhaps on social networks, even if there is a lot of competition.

When you have no money and you don't belong to a group, you have to invent with nothing. It's excellent for creativity. And then, perhaps, the money will follow. The best advice I can give young people is to trust themselves and do what they want to do. The only important thing is to be passionate and determined. If you don't believe in yourself, nobody can do it for you.

When I made provocative outfits, I didn't do them to shock. It was just a personal vision that corresponded, for example, to an avant-garde socio-cultural group moving in a different direction from the norm. Provocation must correspond to a movement of thought.

What about your relationship with femininity in the #MeToo era?

I've always been shocked by the concept of the "woman as object". That's why I surrounded myself with strong women. Even if they didn't show it openly, they were free. When I made men's collections, I wanted to show "male objects" to compensate fairly. I also chose androgynous people, to show all forms of beauty.

How will new technologies, and in particular artificial intelligence (AI), shake up fashion and perhaps constrain human intelligence?

What can I say? I don't belong to this world any more since I gave up fashion. For me, intelligence was above all my own, which is not artificial (laughs). New technologies go hand in hand with the evolution of the world. If I were 15 years younger, I'd approach things differently. But I'm curious to see how young designers will appropriate them.

How do you keep up to date with everything that's new? Are you a consumer of social networks?

Not at all, I don't even know how to use them. I don't go on YouTube. I'm from the 'Children of TV' generation. I'm just very well surrounded and I'm informed when I think a subject is important. As far as I'm concerned, I don't want to get caught up in the vertigo that comes with being able to see so much, because you can get caught up in it. I prefer to keep my distance.

What do you think of the diktats of fashion trends?

I've never liked trends. Rather than following them, it's better to be honest with yourself. If you follow trends, you don't express yourself and you're not free.

Are you free to choose the people who design the Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture collections from now on?

I choose the designers who create the Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture collections. When I decided to give up fashion, I asked myself what could come after. I thought it would be interesting to see how the younger generation would take up my legacy. I respect their work and don't interfere. For example, Haider Ackermann [for Haute Couture SS23, ed.] didn't do Gaultier, but his interpretation was magnificent. Similarly, Simone Rocha's Haute Couture SS25 collection brought a romanticism that wasn't really present in my approach to fashion. I loved it.

This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.FR. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.

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