Known in the fashion world as the enfant terrible, Jean Paul Gaultier maintains his exuberantly youthful attitude after nearly 40 years as an haute couture designer. It's apparent in his abundant enthusiasm for telling stories -- particularly about growing up with his grandmother -- as well as his consistent chuckle and his stride, which is occasionally punctuated with little skips.
The couturier, in San Francisco for the unveiling of his retrospective exhibition at the de Young Museum, earned the nickname in his school days. Always an outcast because he didn't play football, he recounts getting his knuckles smacked by a teacher for sketching a Foiles Bergère girl during class. The teacher safety-pinned the sketch to the back of his shirt and made him parade around the classroom with it, hoping to humiliate him. Instead, the sketch won him acceptance among the other boys, who asked him to draw similar pictures for them to keep. This formative experience led the French bad-boy to realize that his drawing was "like a passport" that would open doors for him throughout his life.
"It gave me some kind of strongness in myself," Gaultier said. "Through my sketch, I could do whatever I wanted."
This irreverent sense of freedom-through-fashion characterizes his work. By age 24, Gaultier had designed and produced his first collection -- without any formal training. Over the course of his career, he designed Madonna's iconic cone bra (the first version of which he fashioned on his teddy bear as young boy), designed costumes for The Fifth Element and Pedro Almodóvar's Kika, and introduced skirts and kilts into men's fashion. He also rattled conventional style by selecting nonprofessional models to perform in his runway shows. These unconventional beauties often had tattoos, piercings, and fuller figures than the models who had presented haute couture.
Despite his reputation for innovating bleeding-edge designs, Gaultier revisits classic items such as the corset. His infatuation with lingerie began with his grandmother, a nurse and Tarot reader, when he discovered one of her corsets -- "salmon satin," he recalls. Its function was cinching the waist, she explained, and she even revealed that she drank vinegar to cause contractions in her stomach, thus allowing for the tightest lacing.
"I didn't try, but I think now, with the years, I need it," he jokes. (He turns 60 this April).
The de Young's retrospective features 140 of his most distinctive designs on mannequins that sustain his culturally inclusive aesthetic. Faces are projected onto many of the mannequins' heads. They move as they chatter, sing, and laugh. Gaultier explains the slightly creepy heads as a feminist statement.
"The models are speaking because there is always that attitude about women which is very misogynistic, that a woman has to be beautiful and to shut up," he says "It's a scandal, because it's the contrary; sometimes it's the men who should be told, 'Stop to speak.' ... The clothes are supposed to speak instead of me."
We spoke with Jean Paul Gaultier and his frequent muse and model Dita Von Teese about couture, gender, tattoos, and vintage shopping.
What attracts you to classic pieces like the trench coat and the corset?
Jean Paul Gaultier: I think because it permits me to play with masculinity and femininity. Because the pieces that are also for men, you know?
In your new Diet Coke campaign, you're the "serial designer" --
JPG: [in a mock-sinister voice] I am the serial designer!
Is that similar to your process in real life?
JPG: No. [laughs] No, I am not serial at all. Not even a serial killer! [laughs]
You've dressed so many famous women. Are there any women who you want to dress?
JPG: You know, to be honest, it has always been the desire of the others that make me want, you know? They give me my desire, too. So I mean like, somebody's desire for their clothes to be designed by me, I will be pleased to dress her or him.
Will you dress me? [I had to ask!]
JPG: Why not! [laughs] That's a good answer. Anyway, you have a nice skirt.
Thank you! So you're really interested in tattoo culture.
Do you have any tattoos?
JPG: Yes, I have two. In reality, I have three. There, there. [points to each shoulder] Very symmetric. I have three. At the beginning, I had one, but it was very badly done, so I cover it, you know? One is a bull, because I am a Taurus. You know? I am like... [he mimes horns coming out of his forehead with his fingers] ... I have one from Marquises, so very ethnic. I love tattoos. I made a collection in '92 because I love it; I was so inspired by it. You can express a lot of things with your skin and what you put on it.
What do you carry around with you daily, in your pockets?
JPG: I have boring things. I have my diary. I have my key. I have a little money. That's all.