I've met many designers over the past 25 years, but the most impishly charming has to be Jean Paul Gaultier, the onetime "enfant terrible" of fashion. The irreverent French couturier who put men in skirts, Madonna in conical bras and Dita Von Teese in corsets presented his first ready-to-wear collection back in 1976. Today, Gaultier remains in touch with his inner child, making him one of the most playful and imaginative creative minds now working. That's what inspired Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts, to invite the designer to stage a look back at his multifaceted 35-year career.
The exhibition, dubbed The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, will run from June 17 to Oct. 2, and is the world's first Gaultier retrospective. It will eventually travel to Dallas and San Francisco. Gaultier, Quebec theatre director Denis Marleau (who's designing the mannequins and staging for the multimedia show) and curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot will explore various aspects in the designer's work, from multigender motifs to his breathtaking haute couture. I recently chatted with Gaultier in Montreal, with which he has had a long-time love affair. We talked about communication, memories and his greatest mentor.
Jeanne Beker: How does it feel for you to be sifting over so many memories from the past?
Jean Paul Gaultier: It's quite emotional because some of the things that we've been coming across I had forgotten about. We've gone through so much - there are many things that will be shown at the exhibit. Some things strike me instantly and I go, "Oh yes!" It's like what happens with a certain perfume or a particular song, you know - one song that makes you think, "Oh yes, I was with that person doing that or that." It's a lot of my love that I've been seeing because all these things are truly my life. It's very emotional and I love the process.
JB: What made you decide to do this exhibit?
JPG: I was honoured that there was even a proposition like that, especially after [Yves]Saint Laurent's beautiful exhibition [at the MMFA in 2008] But, mostly, it's because I met the team and the idea was to present a new experience in some way. After all, it's a creation, you know what I mean? It's not like we're just showing my different collections of the past. The idea here is to create something meaningful - to represent my reality, to celebrate the mix of ideas, sexuality, all those themes that I've used over the years. This is a way of making my world more clear, more obvious, easier to speak about and more understandable. Also, the opportunity to work with Denis Marleau is fabulous. I love his work. This is something I dreamed of and, when I saw him, I was in shock. So I am very lucky.
JB: With your shows you take us on these voyages. And it's a wonderful symbiotic relationship that you have with the people that appreciate you. It's so inspiring. I've just written a book, and you're in it. And one of the things I say about you is that you're so generous. You really talk to people. I see you for hours sometimes after you've staged a show, being so kind, and talking to everyone. Why is that?
JPG: Well honestly, I am very emotional, and I feel when people have good energy, I feel it and I want to answer them. In general, I feel that people like me. Or maybe sometimes it could be a mistake, but I don't feel it, so it doesn't matter! I am very lucky because I am doing the work that I dreamed of doing as a child. So after every show, it's like, "Aha! It's a party! We've put on a good party!" I see all my friends, and I love talking with them and getting their reaction. I feel energized. And when I feel that good energy coming back at me, I really want to speak at that point and communicate. In reality, maybe making clothes is my way of communicating. Maybe it's because I was always so shy when I was a child.
JB: Another legendary French designer who had a retrospective exhibit here in Montreal was Pierre Cardin. That was back in 1989 and I covered it for FashionTelevision. I recently had the opportunity to interview Cardin, who's still kicking at 88, again. You worked as his assistant early in your career. What did you learn from him?
JPG: Mr. Cardin hired me the day of my 18th birthday, the 24th of April, 1970. I just sent him sketches - and he took me without me having gone to school, only because he saw my sketches and he liked them. "Okay, you go and work," he said. What can I say about somebody with such an open mind? He didn't even ask for a reference. He liked my sketches, so he hired me. That's somebody very free, very incredible.
Afterward, I went to another old house of couture, Jean Patou, and I saw the difference. Cardin was certainly not like that old house. He was energetic, always about change. He was very controlling and very creative and a very good cutter ... super-professional, very ahead of his time. He was very revolutionary and frightened of nothing ... He also signed all the cheques. He did it all - he was the talent and the money man. What can you say? And still, he has a very elegant manner and a great mind … He was the first one to do a lot of things. I only have love and admiration for him.
Jeanne Beker is the host of FashionTelevision. This interview has been edited and condensed.