Fashion enthusiasts strolling down Toronto's Yorkville Avenue in September were gobsmacked to see legendary designer Jean Paul Gaultier casually dining on the patio of the Hazelton Hotel's One Restaurant. Once known as the 'enfant terrible' of fashion, Gaultier was in town to speak at Toronto Fashion Week, and rather than briefly popping in and out of the city, he made it his business to see the sights and take in a runway presentation or two.
Since launching his first ready-to-wear collection in 1976, Gaultier has wowed and provoked the international style crowd with his razor-sharp tailoring and avant-garde, gender-bending notions. As the man who put men in skirts and Madonna in a conical bra, Gaultier has always delighted in challenging our ideas of sexuality and propriety. I caught up with the 65-year-old icon when he was in Toronto to talk about his affection for Canadians, his early beginnings as an outsider, and how he manages to keep in touch with his inner child.
I know you've had a love affair with Canada for a long time. You've spent a lot of time in Montreal and even debuted your exhibition there in 2011. Why Canada?
First I should say the French Canadian people are French...but they are also not French. They are nicer, compared to the Parisians, which are, let's say, not so nice. We belong to the same family, and I think it's the same with the Anglo-Canadians. They are very nice too, and compared to Americans, they're more friendly. I don't know why that is. Maybe because many are immigrants and so they keep some of the old traditions. They're spirited and very lively. The world is becoming more aggressive now, but Canadians aren't that agressive. They have a real joie de vivre.
When I sit with you, when I talk to you, I feel excited and curious. How do you retain these childlike qualities?
Well, if I really think about it, I think that I was a boring child, because I was always surrounded by adults. But I did love the company of adults, and was always listening to what they were saying. I wasn't like the other children, playing football and doing things like that. I was alone, so I was always sketching and taking care of my teddy bear, and dressing it up, and putting a little cone bra on it...doing those kinds of stupid things.
In the early days of your career, you were known as the bad boy of fashion. Do you miss the days of being that rebellious?
How can I be that enfant terrible anymore because I am old now! I'm the old enfant terrible or the old bad boy of French fashion, maybe. No, I think there are other ones now. But it's good to still be yourself. When I was that enfant terrible, I was myself. I was not playing. I was very sincere. So I think the thing is to be sincere with what you do. Maybe that's why I stopped doing the prêt-à-porter: Because I didn't want to lie. When you say I still have the energy of a child, it's because I'm doing what I love. My work addiction is connected with playing games like a child, so it's great to be doing what you dreamed of doing as a child. And I'm still doing it!
You decided a few seasons ago that you weren't going to do ready-to-wear anymore and just going to produce couture collections. Was that a decision that you made for your spirit?
Honestly yes, I did it for me. I was producing my clothes in Italy, and taking a plane there three or four times a month. And some days it was raining, and I was always rushing and there were always plane delays. And then I'd have to produce the collection and think about how many oufits I had to do. Sixty-five different outfits! There was no time to work on other collections and I found myself saying, "You know, I don't want to go to Italy anymore!" I love Italy…but lately, the minute I'd arrive in Italy, I would start feeling stress. So I said, "It's too much!"
Was it that you were uninspired?
No, it was something else. I've always done my collection very freely. I've always done what I was thinking and was true to myself and I was the one that always decided what I was doing. It wasn't a question of power. It was a question of happiness. And my inner child, like you said, had to be honest."
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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