'I'm not trying to be provocative'
John Paul Gaultier
John Paul Gaultier style: the infamous cone bra, for Madonna's Blond Ambition Tour
John Paul Gaultier style: La Vierge aux serpents with Kylie Minogue
Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier has questioned established conventions for almost 40 years. TONY CLAYTON-LEAspoke to him about his latest exhibition
You have worked with a multitude of people from the fashion, film and music world – from Pedro Almodovar to Madonna and Luc Besson – but you had to start somewhere, didn’t you?
First of all, I was fascinated by food, and after the pastries and the cookies came the television. I visited my grandmother quite often and although it was in the 1950s, she had a TV. And one of the first things I saw on TV was a programme about the Folies Bergère, and I could see the women wearing fishnets, corsets, straps. I enjoyed that very much, and I was inspired to draw that. So I was at school and drew the fishnets, but the teacher came behind me and saw what I was drawing and she was shocked.
She wanted to punish me, and she put the sketch on my back, humiliating me. I was not good at gym, or football, or sports. But I thought that the drawing, the sketching, was a possibility to open frontiers for me. I think from the age of 12 I knew that I wanted to be a designer. I was lucky because I knew what I wanted to – it was my obsession, my passion.
Were the early days as a designer difficult for you?
Well, yes, in the sense that no one was interested. I took off in places like England, Holland and Japan. France? Absolutely not!
The perception of haute couture is that the clothes are purely for the catwalk, and impractical for off-stage wear . . . For instance in 1985 you introduced man-skirts, then in 1990 you produced the infamous cone bra, for Madonna.
For a long time people thought my clothes could not be worn. It took years to make them understand that I also knew how to make real garments – things that people could actually wear.
So you’re not just an enfant terrible, then?No! That part of me has to do with the way I work, the way I have fun with what I’ve designed in my runway shows – that seems to confuse people. It really isn’t my aim to be provocative, I just try to reflect what I see and feel around me.
You take inspiration from various areas – world cultures, surrealism, punk rock and graffiti. What are the most important to you?
Women, men, androgyny – each of these are very important to me. It’s good to make fashion, but sometimes people forget I also make clothes . . . I love fashion, but I love it even better when my clothes are on people. Am I an artist? No, just someone who reflects society. It’s a good job and I love it.
You have in the past created both controversy and popularity by using unconventional models – old men, full-figured women, heavily tattooed and pierced people. What is the reasoning behind this?
All women have a masculine sensibility, and all men a feminine one. A masculine woman rarely causes a scandal, she is just considered a little bit odd. An effeminate man, on the other hand, is immediately singled out. Fashion is still full of outdated conventions and clichés that no longer fit the times. Our culture has always valued the masculine side of men more than a certain femininity or sensitivity. That’s why I like reversing the roles and breaking the established conventions.
What does this latest exhibition of your work mean to you?
In 1976, when I put on my first runway show I didn’t have a franc to my name, and not even a reputation. People, manufacturers – they had no faith in me. The exhibition – which I prefer to term a contemporary installation – tells me it is perhaps better to have faith in yourself, slowly and surely you will prove your worth.
As you get older, has the passion for your work diminished or has it got stronger?
I don’t like to be repetitious, but I think all designers are, to a degree, beset by their obsessions. For instance, I am obsessed by certain things such as masculinity, femininity, marine, the sea, sailors. And – from my grandmother – corsets. Actually, as I say that now I think I need to wear corsets because these days I cannot close my jacket!
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier – From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, Kunsthal, Rotterdam, runs until May 12th. kunsthal.nl