James Brown was famous for declaring “It’s a Man’s, Man’s World”—but Jean Paul Gaultier disagrees. The iconic French fashion designer has dedicated himself to proving the opposite is true: in his eyes, life is all about the ladies.
Gaultier has made it his mission in his nearly 40-year career to showcase the female form in all of its glory—shape and size regardless. He has flaunted convention by using rubber and PVC in haute couture, turned underwear into outerwear, and was instrumental not only in making Madonna into a sexual icon with the cone bras he created for her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, but for defining an era in the process. Through his clothing, he has proven that one can find beauty in the unexpected—if only they take a moment to look.
“I always wanted to show in my work that there is not one kind of beauty, but many kinds, and that we can find beauty where we least expect it,” the 62-year-old Frenchman says. He adds, “I have always thought that women are the stronger sex, and that they are smarter than men. The Gaultier woman is smart and seductive on her own terms.”
His last two collections are proof of this statement. Models went punk slash Gravity in “Rosbifs in Space,” his fall 2014 ready-to-wear collection, wearing high-tech fabrics, Scottish plaids, and Union Jack prints with non-traditional, unfeminine mohican hairdos. For fall 2014 couture, he paid homage to a non-Twilight-specific set with a look he refers to as “elegant vampire in a luxurious jogging suit.” This modern vamp wears blood red pony skin, black-and-white capes, and lamé pantsuits with her prerequisite golden fangs.
Gaultier’s muses are as diverse as his couture and as fascinating as he is himself (if you’ve seen the designer’s peroxide blond mane and know his penchant for kilts and all-encompassing love of Breton stripes, you know exactly what we mean). In the past, he has riffed upon the idea of unconventional beauty many times, using models who were full-figured, tattooed, pierced or—in many cases—not even women. Such was the case at his fall couture show, when he used first-time runway model Conchita Wurst—the bearded, cross-dressing winner of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest—to close the show in a black bridal gown and veil. Needless to say, this particular move made many, many headlines.
Gaultier had planned Wurst’s runway debut for some time, and couldn’t have been more pleased by the singer’s gender-bending catwalk strut. “I met Conchita two years ago; I had invited her to one of my shows. Ever since, I wanted to find a way to have her in one of my shows, and this was the perfect moment. I always say that beauty is difference, and Conchita has shown us all that she is unstoppable. She looks great in couture; she is a real couture woman; she is very feminine and very masculine at the same time,” he explains.
Gaultier’s range of muses has always been varied, from stunning supermodel Naomi Campbell to the fuller-figured American rock and post-punk singer Beth Ditto. “I was always inspired by women that I was surrounded by,” he says. “One of my first muses was Farida Khelfa, who was of Algerian origin. Edwige [Hedwig], the queen of punk, Frederique Lorca, and of course many British girls like Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Erin O’Connor [have also inspired me]. Beth Ditto is an inspiration—someone who feels good in her skin, and who is very talented. Rihanna has a very good sense of style. I love her; she is a fashion icon.” He adds, “I do not have one muse; I have many women who inspire me.”
The man who is consistently referred to as an enfant terrible used his own career as inspiration for a fabulous and ongoing collaboration with high-end French furniture retailer Roche Bobois (the only furniture company he has, in fact, ever worked with), which first came to fruition in 2010 for the brand’s 50th anniversary. His first pieces used his signatures, including the quintessentially French Breton stripe, hourglass silhouettes and indelible ink as well as dramatic, unexpected fabrics like black lace, and surprising touches like cheval mirrors on hand trucks.
“I was contacted by Roche Bobois on the eve of its 50th anniversary [in America],” Gaultier recalls. “I always like a challenge, and furniture was something that I had done only once before in the early ’90s [and I wanted to do it again]. So, we decided to re-edit a few of my vintage pieces. I re-dressed the Mah Jong sofa [a signature Roche Bobois piece] and designed some new furniture as well.”
Fashion to furniture was a natural evolution for the designer, who uses a similar architecture to create his clothing. In fact, the process was almost easier than designing couture.
“As I am a fashion designer I did what I know how to do best—I dressed the furniture like I dress people,” he explains. “I used my signatures: the navy stripe, the tattoo, the corsetry. Dressing furniture was a lot of fun as you don’t have to worry about pins, and [the furniture] cannot complain that it’s too hot, like models sometimes do.”
He continues, “Ben Hurand the leather chest of drawers are re-editions. In the early ’90s I collaborated with VIA and designed the Ben Hur chair and the chest of drawers made out of suitcases. I traveled a lot at the time—constantly going to Italy for fittings—and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a piece of furniture made out of suitcases, so that you’re—in a way—always packed?’ Making a chariot out of an armchair was maybe a bit of laziness—you can go around the house without getting up. The lamps are inspired by male and female busts with Breton stripes. They call to mind Le Male and The Classic, the two original Gaultier perfumes.”
His first collection—which featured the aforementioned Mah Jong, the Ben Hur chair and the leather chest of drawers made of suitcases—was so successful that the brand asked him to expand the collection this spring and again for fall; the new pieces are slated to hit stores this month. New items include the tartan Profile sofa and Ingrid chair upholstered in cotton velvet, and another version of the Mah Jong incorporating leather as well as a cotton and linen rock print.
At 62, Gaultier is clearly still evolving, still creating in so many different ways.Though he recently announced that he’ll be stopping his men’s and women’s ready-to-wear collections and accessories—his final collection will debut on Sept. 27 at Paris Fashion Week—he’ll continue to design, be it furniture, couture, or wardrobes for motion pictures and performances—and to dream of one day creating something for a music hall.
At the end of the day, Gaultier’s life is as rich as his career history, and as luxe as his clothing. “[My motto for life] is be true to yourself, and be passionate about what you do,” he declares, adding, “[The greatest luxury] is the fact that I live my dream, and that I still have passion for my job.”